Sunday, November 4, 2018

The Unspoken Truth Behind Teacher Trauma by Misty Doy

“In the spirit of full disclosure, I want to state out of the gate that I am currently on leave from my position as a veteran school teacher. There are myriad reasons for my (hopefully) brief respite, but I have to admit—I’m tired. In 1989, I was an eager college graduate, convinced I was about to set the world on fire. I quickly discovered that I was filled to the brim with educational pedagogy but with zero resources or training to deal with the unique needs of our urban teen population. Now, I’m a teacher with too many years, too much common sense for many of today’s initiatives, and far too many losses. This morning, our district linked an article that discusses the author’s belief that teachers suffer from “vicarious trauma”—a response to dealing with the experiences, suffering and losses experienced by our students. Unfortunately, this is something my colleagues and I have known for many, many years.

I lost my first student to violence in my fourth year of teaching. Today, those are pretty good odds, as many lose those first kids in their first months in the classroom. His name was Brian, and he was a silly, immature kid who charmed most of those he met. He could write up a storm, disrupt an entire classroom, and just when I thought he wasn’t paying attention, he would say something so incredibly insightful that it would leave me at a loss for words. I had both he and his brother in that class, and together they were a force to be reckoned with. On Friday, Brian was journaling about a great party he was looking forward to attending. On Monday, he was dead—shot by one of those party goers. I remember going into work and wondering what I was going to say to my students, especially those in his class. All my planning, however, dissolved when his brother came into that class, on time, and took his seat. He had nowhere else to mourn.

That day, something in me was ignited at the same time that something died. My desire to save every other student I ever had contact with raged in a blazing inferno of anger. On the other hand, my belief that I could save them all perished. Brian was dead. Life moves on. My heart was broken.

That single experience was, unfortunately, not unique and has played itself out over and over and over again in a dizzying spiral of funerals. Listen to what I’m telling you. IT NEVER STOPS. Since that first murder of a child to whom I had sworn to teach to the best of my ability, I have lost no less than two dozen students—and those are just the kids I had in my own classes. Yes, it’s been an almost thirty year career, but just as no mother should have to bury a child, nor should his teachers. No, we didn’t raise them, but for a relatively brief moment in time, we became their counselors, confidantes, care givers and, yes, instructors. Our trauma, with each death, with each loss, is compounded.

One would think that the murder of the children to whom we grow close would be enough to dictate a traumatic response. I mean, how much more should one have to endure beyond the loss of life of those who are to us so precious? Oh, but there is so, so much more. In my career, and I am certainly not unique, the trauma folds in upon itself, building and morphing and finding cracks and crevices through which to seep in and attack any sense of calm.

I have watched entire buildings shut down, locked down from the inside out, as we waited for the all clear, never sure then (pre-active shooter drills) whether we were sheltering in place because of a very real or perceived threat. For those minutes, that seemed sometimes like hours, we would sit in darkened classrooms, praying for our doors to remain closed, for our safety to remain in tact. Add a few ounces to the trauma trough.

I have been in the midst of whole-school fights, where city police, with their crowd control dogs, were called in to restore law and order. Imagine six hundred marginalized, disenfranchised students, with no perception of what a future looks like, now angry. It’s a frightening scene, and while disturbing at its core, it can’t contend with the feeling of isolation when a classroom fight breaks out, one kid throws a chair and it’s suddenly an all out war—with me, their trusted classroom teacher, as the only present “general”. When the adrenaline wears off and the crowds disperse, that teacher is left to contend with those students who remain behind when security removes the instigators. There are, after all, lessons to be taught. A few more sloshing gallons of trauma.

I’ve been in administrative meetings with parents when they appear, reeking of weed and liquor, insisting we are at fault for their children’s non compliance. I’ve watched these same parents crawl over desks to attack administrators with whom they disagreed, and I’ve watched these brave administrators stand their ground and silently pray for understanding. I’ve also seen parents with tears and frustration, begging for help to save their children from the violence in their families, streets and neighborhoods. Each of those mentioned had their own chalices of trauma, quickly filling and threatening to overflow in a cascade of unpredictability.

Add to the scenarios above those of students who are in school with ankle bracelets, serving out their time for lesser offenses; a student sitting on death row who writes to a former principal; a student sneaking a handgun in to school and carrying it surreptitiously to our classes; a student severing an artery after punching through a glass door, the blood spray creating dizzying patterns down three flights of stairs; students dying due to suicide, vehicle accidents, drowning... My cup runneth over.

We can’t just hope that we will somehow stumble onto the answers that will suddenly transform our kids or our schools. What we can do, however, is show our teachers that we care enough to nurture them and help them to process the trauma. I had a very wise principal who once scheduled a workshop for her teachers on the assumption that we were all victims, of some extent, of PTSD as a result of our shared experiences that year. Those outside guffawed and thought it wasted academic time. To this day, it remains the single most beneficial in-service I have ever attended. I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t expected to face the traumas as an isolated teacher, but instead became a part of a team of supportive individuals, from trauma counselors to colleagues. When that principal left, so did those supports.

This isn’t a typical call to action. This is a direct request—teacher preparatory colleges and courses, raise your game. Give incoming new recruits to education a glimpse of the future. Teach them that it won’t all be about grammar and Shakespeare and standardized testing. Give them tools to help them cope. Make psychological testing a prerequisite for certification. Show them the statistics, provide the empirical evidence, then follow them as they embark upon that so important first year. Call me—I will even write the curriculum.”

about the Author: Misty Doy holds a BS in Secondary English, MS Instructional Technology, and MS K-12 Administration and is a 29 year veteran of Pittsburgh Public Schools.

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