Thursday, January 4, 2018

Traumatized In My Trauma by Patte Carter-Hevia

A lifetime ago, I taught adults who worked in a factory, of sorts, that provided jobs for physically and/or developmentally challenged individuals. For three hours a day, I conducted six thirty-minute classes. I read stories (or we read them together). We played time bingo. We worked with play money. My students were adults who were functioning at anywhere from a first to third grade level. Nice people. Just low.
One particular student was autistic. Non-verbal. He was a big man. His handshake was to touch thumbs with you. If you were lucky, you could get your thumb out of the way before he bent it back to your arm. If you weren’t, OUCH.
He wore steel-toed work boots. I took one kick in the leg and learned to stay out of kicking range. Everyone who supervised him or worked with him had to learn the hard way.
One particular day, I was sitting across the table from him in class and we were working on a simple addition worksheet. Suddenly he grabbed my arm and ground his pencil into my forearm. I couldn’t pull away. I could only watch in pain as whatever it was that had him agitated drained out of his expression. Then he ran out of the room. I ended up at urgent care as a safety precaution. Fortunately, my tetanus shot was up to date.
I don’t pretend to know everything, but I understand some things about autism. I knew then and know now that this man couldn’t express frustration or aggravation or agitation the same way that most verbal people could. Yes, he injured me. Yes, I survived. The consequence for him? Well, there was a plan in place that could get a star for good behavior on the work floor and in his two classes. Three stars in a day earned him a prize (usually a snack). After he ground the pencil in my arm and ran out, he came back in about two minutes later and wanted a star for good behavior.
No star that day. That was it. Move on. Learn to keep my arm out of grabbing range.
I tell that story for a reason. Fast forward to the 2017-2018 school year. The new buzz-phrase where I work is “trauma-informed school.” Teachers are supposed to understand that students who have been traumatized tend to act out. They may realize that they have been traumatized and are acting out because of it. They may not.
We are told that these kids don’t need suspensions for their behavior. We are told that these kids don’t need punishments or even consequences for their behavior. We are told that they need understanding and compassion. We are told that helping traumatized students is resource intensive and that we may not see the results of using those resources for years if at all.
I understand. I know my students and their stories. I know who is homeless. I know who spends more time running the streets than at home. I know who has been locked up. I know who has a probation officer. I know who lives with Grandma and/or Grandpa because Dad is out of the picture and Mom is struggling somehow. I know who is regularly exposed to illegal substances and even legal ones. I know who parents younger siblings and who is often parented by an older sibling or two.
Just like every teacher I know, I make it my business to know my students because they matter.
We are told to see kids through lenses of the influence of trauma and to understand them.
So I put on my “glasses” and look. I also do research on my own. I read a lot about what to try, but there is very little that addresses consequences and responsibility.
And I worry.
I worry because what I don’t find in my reading and research is how to help these kids in present as they spiral out of control behaviorally. Instead, I read about what doesn’t work and I read about the time and expense it takes to help these kids.
I understand that kids who are suspended from school often don’t get much out of it. They may have little to no supervision. They watch television. They play video games. They return to school to repeat the behavior that got them suspended. Or they do something worse.
So what do we do? What do we really want? Kids in school and learning and behaving appropriately? What works?
My school has been trying to answer this question for years. In no particular order (because I don’t remember the exact order):
- We had an in-school suspension room. The principal and assistant principals took turns during the day staffing the room. Students worked. Students who were suspended from the room to home had to come back and do their time in the room before going back to regular class. Eventually the union became involved and stated that the administrators were taking a job that should belong to a certified teacher
- We staffed the room with a certified teacher. The district then decided that a teacher in charge of the room didn’t have enough students in the room for it to be cost effective. Why was a teacher in charge of a room with a usually small number of students (twenty or fewer) while other teachers were in classroom with upwards of thirty students)?
- The district decided that in-school suspension was punitive. With the focus in PBIS (which is now referred to as CRPBIS), an in-school suspension room was not appropriate. It had to go.
- We instituted a responsible thinking room. Teachers could send students there for a cool down or a time out. Students who had misbehaved had to fill out a paper about what had happened. Students then went back to class to sit in a designated area either in the classroom or just outside the door and wait to speak to the classroom teacher to negotiate a way back in the class. That didn’t last long because the person who was in charge of the room developed health issues.
- We had a Peace Center staffed with someone trained in, among other things, conflict resolution. Students could go there on their own or could be referred to go there to deal with personal problems or conflicts. Administration eventually eliminated the Center.
- We have used programs such as restorative justice. I translated at a restorative justice session. The students involved in the session continued to have behavior problems throughout the remainder of the school year and into the future. With my own experience with restorative justice, when the student who sprayed pepper spray returned to my class, the restorative justice session consisted of a behavior specialist and a school safety officer coming to my room. The behavior specialist talked about why students shouldn’t have pepper spray at school. One student stated that I was stupid and that I didn’t know what pepper spray was. The behavior specialist stated that teachers needed to be trained on how to respond and help students who were sprayed with pepper spray. That was it.
- We have had a particular speaker come to give a presentation during professional development. Each time he has told us about the youth facility where he works, how tough the crowd there is, how he is trying to implement trauma-influenced procedures, how and why punishments don’t work with this crowd, how students are under the influence of gangs and how young they are when they are initiated. We have been subjected to the same presentation three times now. Funny thing is we knew all of this before he even started his presentation the FIRST time.
Years of trying something new. Years of training. Years of being told what we already know. Years of being told, “You can’t do that” when something was working.
Years of watching students become more aggressive and angrier and bolder in their inappropriate behavior.
Instead of taking a look at what works and doing it, we keep throwing money at the next big, best thing to come along. Instead of addressing the issue by administering consequences and creating more structure, we say “oh that’s not nice so don’t do it again” and send students right back to the scene of the crime to do it all over again. Or worse.
In just this school year alone, I have been shoved by the same student twice in two separate fights as he was trying to get at the student with whom he was fighting. I have been pushed by another student who decided I wasn’t getting out of his way fast enough. I have had a classroom door slammed at me twice. The first time I didn’t see it coming and the knob jammed into my side. The second time I did see it coming and was able to deflect it. I have been hit more times than I can count as students have decided that they want to pound on each other. The same girl has trashed my room twice now because she didn’t get her way. Her language as she throws things in my direction and dumps desks and chairs is laced with profanity. I am now subjected to verbal abuse on an almost daily basis.
Send the kid out, I am told. The student refuses to move. Call the office and no one responds. Let someone know that you are tired of being called a “fat ass f*cking b*tch” for asking a student to stop talking so that class can continue and you get a response of something like, “you called me for this?”
I teach middle school. Regular education students.
One teacher left the school because, as she stated, she didn’t feel safe.
Oh, how I understand she feels. I don’t feel safe either. For the first time in my over thirty-year career in education, I don’t feel safe.
The teacher who left was informed that she knew what she had signed on for when she took the job.
Really? No teacher signs on to be a physical and/or verbal punching bag for students. No one.
Kids know that nothing will happen and they laugh. They know that no one will respond if the teacher calls the office. They know that no one will answer the phone if the teacher calls home. They know that there will be no consequence for their behavior.
I know why kids do what they do. I understand it. I just don’t excuse it. I don’t think that’s what is best for our kids now and in the future.
I also see their expressions as they are pounding each other or throwing things. The rage or agitation or frustration drains out. Usually. I saw that expression as Frank ground his pencil into my arm.
Why are we afraid to do something? Trauma is not a new phenomenon. I experienced trauma growing up. Everyone has. Some more than others. I wasn’t allowed to misbehave though. Trauma did not excuse it. It just wasn’t allowed.
Do I think that trauma exists in the lives of our students? I’m sure it does. Should we allow that to excuse their behavior? I don’t think so. I think by doing that we are setting students up for a life where they expect to be excused for their inappropriate behavior.
We are told to remove the triggers that may cause outbursts. How do we do that when something as innocuous as “Please take your seat” can set off a profanity-laced tirade with a student throwing a desk or worse? Or we change the student’s schedule instead of addressing the inappropriate behavior. Unfortunately, home situations aren’t going to change. Frustrations aren’t going to go away. Difficult circumstances, trouble with friends, disagreements are not going to magically disappear. Not only are we not teaching students how to deal with what might be bothering them, we are not teaching them that there are limits. Certainly they may need understanding and compassion, but I believe they also need instruction, structure, and consequences for their actions.
Do I have all the answers? Admittedly, no.
I just know that what we’re doing isn’t working and we need to change what we’re doing before we lose this generation of students.
And before we lose more teachers.

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