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Duluth school social worker a fierce advocate for youth

Tracy Litman talks about her path to this work, her School Social Worker of the Year award and her admiration for Tina Turner.

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Tracy Litman, right, and special education teacher Stephanine Jasperson-Aagenes talk about students in a leadership group in Litman’s Ordean East Middle School office Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021. Litman recently received the 2021 Minnesota School Social Worker of the Year Award. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Tracy Litman wouldn’t want any other job. As the social worker at Ordean East Middle School in Duluth, her days are focused on working with youth. “We do all we can to support kids emotionally and socially,” she said.

Youth spend the second-greatest amount of time in school, and everything going on at home, in-person and online follows them into the classroom. Litman shares coping skills and insights that help students get back to learning.

She builds relationships, and she conducts one-on-one and group sessions, as well as behavioral assessments and mental health screenings. From there, she develops concrete plans for student success.

There are no barriers to services, and a student doesn’t need a diagnosis to see her.

“Our goal is always what’s best for the kids,” she said.

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Litman shared about her path to this work, on-the-job victories, her School Social Worker of the Year award and her admiration for Tina Turner.

Note: This Q&A was edited for space.

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Tracy Litman talks about one of the hiking track maps she’s posted around Ordean East Middle School on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021. “Moving helps emotions,” she said. “Put motion to your emotion.” Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Q: What drew you to social work? Providing care to youth?

A: I worked in group homes with students and families with cognitive and physical disabilities. I loved the approach of teaming with a family for the best interest of their child. I was in awe of the courage these people displayed, often in bodies that couldn’t move independently.

I met my chosen son, Donald, there when I was 19 and he was 9. His parents told me in a letter they were giving up custody. I couldn't imagine Donald being left adrift in a world in which he could not see or speak for himself. Without hesitation — or telling my then-boyfriend, now-husband Joe — I became his full legal guardian.

Donald taught me and my family to be grateful for a body and mind that worked freely. I was steadfast in my protection of him and believed that everyone should have someone stand by them.

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Tracy Litman

When an opportunity at Nettleton Magnet School (in Duluth, now closed) opened for a school social worker, I applied in 1990, and I never looked back.

The ability to meet a child where they were, in the moment they need it, has a powerful impact. To teach skills and insights to a child, who, despite being hungry, tired and at times feeling emotionally broken, was a journey I wanted to take. A journey the skilled social workers across this district take and face daily.

Families and schools work through concerns and issues that are not easy. Together, we have to listen and appreciate differences of opinions. (Reflect on how hard it can be in your home at times to come to a resolution, then come to a 1,100-student middle school.)

This can be a journey, but well worth it, for the sake of any child/youth.

For youth to have a school social worker in the community to directly discuss and model that “You could be greater than anything you faced with the right help” seems like a no-brainer.

I wanted to be a school social worker — a teacher of a different sort, a person who helped fill in the gaps.

Q: Describe common questions or struggles you see in your work with students.

A: Class sizes grow in numbers, and teachers are asked to teach and deal with an increasing amount of student needs regarding their emotions that manifest in the classroom.

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During adolescence, youth have one foot in childhood and one foot in adolescents, a tricky space to exist for youth trying out independence in a new way and as their parent’s set new boundaries.

Being a teen is different today due to (knowledge) available in their hands. Children and teens have access to anything they or their peers want to see online, yet, they don't have coping skills or life experience to deal with everything they’re exposed to.

Technology can negatively impact a student’s ability to focus as well as their self-esteem.

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A blast of negative online words/posts can spin a student into a world of turmoil, leading to a potential retraumatizing experience by repeatedly looking at the post or nasty text.
Many suffer alone in fear that if they tell someone, they risk losing the device that’s causing them pain.

This technology can be a lifeline to their peers and a destroyer of self-esteem, all in one. The time spent away from education due to this emotional distress is alarming and requires a powerful parents/schools partnership.

As a school social worker, I see the loss of hope in youth when they don't see an escape from the pain caused by a post, or receive a threat of revealing a secret or pictures taken unknown to them by a peer from a party or at school.

The value of our children has to be greater than the worry of the emotion we may receive from them as we set boundaries meant to keep them safe emotionally and physically. That's our role as parents and educators. Boundaries are the biggest “I love you” we can give our children.

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A list of “Litmani-sms” hangs on a bookcase in Tracy Litman’s office. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Q: Common victories?

A: Every human wants to be happy — happy for themselves, their family, where they work and where their children go to school.

There is no perfect place, but when people come together with willingness, we can focus on what’s best for a child, and the lifelong benefits are endless.

One of my favorite quotes, by Maya Angelou: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Q: What are Duluth’s most pressing issues regarding care for children in our schools?

A: About 50.8 million students go to public schools in the U.S. — as does the reality of what’s happening at home. A child’s economic status, a parent of cancer, a father who died in a car accident, divorce, homelessness, poverty, a parent in jail.

There’s also a number of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs): addiction, domestic violence, racism, anxiety, depression, emotional behavioral disorders, trauma, cyberbullying, bullying around gender identification or entitlement.

All these realities impact a child's ability to learn, and kids can't learn if they can't cope.

We need the appropriate number of licensed school social workers to support students of all abilities — as well as counselors, nurses, speech pathologists and psychologists in our buildings (especially those without other sources of funding) and many other professionals across this district to meet the ever-increasing demands of our community.

We are an ever-changing system, charged with the educational and emotional/social development of our young. This is an epic challenge for teachers to meet the needs of a varied population of learners.

The world speaks to the increasing need for mental health support. Like many, I ask, how long will we say it is important versus showing it’s important — especially in the past two years.

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From left, Ried Litman, 10, Peter Kvale, 12, Jack Litman, 12, and Tracy Litman walk the Woodland School hiking trail Sept. 6, 2006, looking for trash while cleaning the trail for dedication ceremonies. Tracy Litman is the recipient of the 2021 Minnesota School Social Worker of the Year Award from the Minnesota School Social Workers Association. “I wouldn’t pick another job," she said. Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

Q: You were behind the 2006 creation of a hiking trail outside Woodland Middle School. Tell us about your relationship to the outdoors as a child, and now.

A: This was born out of the need I saw for youth who have never experienced any kind of nature and the peace and discovery it can bring. It also combined my belief of “putting motion to emotion” for better mental health.
I grew up behind Spring Hill Dairy on Jean Duluth Road. It was beautiful land that became my safe space — brook trout fishing with my brother, Ted, or riding Shetland ponies through the woods. I loved nature and the peace it brought me, and I wanted to share a bit of that feeling with others.

I was grateful for the teachers, my sons and the volunteers, like Rick’s Tree Service who helped bring the vision to life. To watch a child turn a rock over for the first time and see a bug staring back or a deer look them squarely in the face, was simply awesome.

Q: Congratulations on being named 2021 Minnesota School Social Worker of the Year. What advice do you have for others interested in this work?

A: I am humbled. (I did the ugly Oprah cry when I received the call.) I feel great pride in bringing a light to the profession I so deeply believe in. To all those who taught me to be a social worker: Peg Mold, Jim Pierre and the late Dave Heib; to the social workers across the district, I am grateful to learn from and work with you daily. My principal Gina Kleive for her nomination of me and her unrelenting advocacy in getting students what they need in order to learn.

My advice? Hold on and be open to understanding how much you don’t know — and how much you need to learn from the people you work alongside.

Be open about human nature and the impact one’s environment has on the human spirit. Regardless of one’s book knowledge (which is invaluable in terms of best practice), there’s a learning curve to integrating what you think you know with the realities of people's diverse daily lives.

Be intentful in what you do daily, be humble, be grateful, listen without rebuttal … but in tandem, be able to “say out loud” on behalf of children, what most people are only willing to think, in a situation or meeting, when it comes to the safety and advocacy of youth in your care.

Get comfortable with the uncomfortable, and learn to listen with intent, as every story is different, even if, at first, it sounds familiar.

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A pile of wood blocks, each with a feeling or emotion written on it, sits on a table in Tracy Litman’s office. She’ll often have a student pick one up and describe how they feel about what’s written on it. “It’s a great way to get students to open up,” she said. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Q: How do you relax?

A: I work out with music that makes me feel empowered.

As I run, weightlift or walk, the thoughts of the day or week play out, and I challenge myself to feel stronger than the words I heard or incidents I dealt with.

Being at, or just thinking about, our family cabin on Lake Elsie, which I affectionately refer to as “Heaven.” To be there with my friend-family and my family: my husband, Joe; my sons, Jack and Reid; my bonus daughter, Lexi, who’s the mother of my greatest joy; my grandson, Jayce.

I love to read, be with my girlfriends who are filled with wicked wisdom and humor.

Walking in the neighborhood with my dog, Tilly, and talking with the neighbors as I go.

Ushering through my front door at the end of the day always makes me feel a sense of peace.

Q: What are you reading, listening to and watching?

A: I am a nonfiction reader. I enjoy anything related to the field of mental health and human relationships. (This, along with a big, fat fashion magazine.)

My nightstand looks like a return drop-off at the library: “10 Principles for Doing Effective Couples Therapy” by Julie Gottman and John Gottman; “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.; “Crucial Conversations” by Kerry Patterson and Joseph Grenny.

I’m watching “My Unorthodox Life”; “Love on the Spectrum''; “Shark Tank”; Brené Brown’s TED Talk on the power of vulnerability.

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Tracy Litman gestures to the corner of her office where she meets one-on-one with students, with her and the students sitting on identical padded chairs, Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021. She meets with groups at the table in the background. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Q: You can (safely) dine with three people, alive or dead. Who are they and why?

A: My mother, affectionately known as M.G. M.G., is a strong Italian woman, who is nearly 91. She has more courage than anyone I have ever met. Her wisdom to not allow my siblings and I to settle for less than we are capable, despite what was occurring in our life at the time, was a lifeline for those who recognized it. I appreciate the choices I have today, which she did not have in her generation.

Tina Turner for her resilience and ability to go from surviving to thriving. I resonate with the story of her early life and what it took to hold on to her dream and make it a reality.

I remember watching her life story, “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” in the theater. The scene where, after being beaten by her husband for years, she finally hits back. The audience in the theater erupted with cheer.

I did not. Instead, I cried that she had to protect herself and children in that manner. I would love to simply hold her hand, listen and learn from her story.

Lisa J. Ling, a journalist and TV reporter, for her willingness to discuss topics long before the world was ready to. She is an amazingly intelligent person, and I would love to meet and listen to her life experiences.

Melinda Lavine is an award-winning, multidisciplinary journalist with 16 years professional experience. She joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2014, and today, she writes about the heartbeat of our community: the people.

Melinda grew up in central North Dakota, a first-generation American and the daughter of a military dad.

She earned bachelors degrees in English and Communications from the University of North Dakota in 2006, and started her career at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald that summer. She helped launch the Herald's features section, as the editor, before moving north to do the same at the DNT.

Contact her: 218-723-5346, mlavine@duluthnews.com.
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