ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — The Minnesota Educator Academy is wrapping up in St. Paul Thursday, but this year’s MEA is different from past years because only union members are allowed to attend.

The changes are due to educators no longer being required to join the teacher’s union. Because of that, Education Minnesota decided it would be for union members only. The conference was also cut from two days to one.

“We just decided it’s time to focus on the people who are paying for the conference and making sure they become the best educators they can be,” said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota. “That’s what the conference is about.”

The conference this year had a strong focus on mental health.

Corey Bulman is a former Teacher of the Year for Minnesota. The Mound Westonka English Teacher spoke on an MEA panel.

“Issues of mental health, issues of identity have always been issues that kids have dealt with, but social media has changed the game,” Bulman said. “So much of it is so public now.”

The main session was in part helping educators learn how they can help students leverage their phones, apps and social media into positive self-image.

It’s a lesson Northwestern College senior and student teacher Rayla Wilson is eager to learn

“It’s definitely a part of most kids’ lives and it’s starting younger and younger,” Wilson said.

The 21-year-old says her 3rd graders are using apps she didn’t know existed.

“When students do talk about it, what are ways that we can safely use it and working on making students aware,” Wilson said.

Awareness, these teachers say, is key to knowing what’s going in students’ heads and in their hands.

“Too often people get afraid of what that space looks like,” Bulman said. “But if that’s where kids are, if that’s where they are living, let’s help them to figure out how they can use that in a really positive way. It’s not going away.”

More mental health support is coming to Minnesota schools. The Department of Human Services announced a $33 million grant that will allow them to bring mental health services to half of Minnesota schools.

Susan-Elizabeth Littlefield