I’ve been writing my butt off trying to steer the coverage of the Red for Ed movement away from the topic of teacher pay. I’ve said over and over that teacher pay, while a real problem (especially for younger teachers), is not the main focus–it’s merely a symptom of a much more serious disease. I want to shine a spotlight on another symptom of that disease. It’s not an easy one to talk or write about because to do so is to admit that we are not always strong. But I believe it is a crucial piece of the puzzle. It adds greatly to the growing teacher shortage crisis and we might as well face it. I’m going to be very honest in this piece about some deeply personal things. I want you to know that on Tuesday, Nov. 19th, if you see me outside the Indiana Statehouse wearing red, my story and many thousands of stories similar to mine are a big part of what that red symbolizes.
One of the biggest areas of research and professional development in education right now is the effect of trauma on students. Many school districts, mine included, have large and growing numbers of trauma-affected students. Many students walk around in a fog of war almost as if they suffered from battle related PTSD. Some of our kids–far too many–have home lives that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.
Trauma is one of the leading causes of bad behaviors in schools. The slightest little thing, which might go completely unnoticed by others, can trigger children suffering from the effects of trauma, causing their bodies go into involuntary self-defense mode, often referred to as fight, flight, or freeze response.
Teachers are being trained in recognizing and responding to the trauma-induced behaviors of students and that’s a good thing. However, teachers are humans who are every bit as susceptible to the effects of trauma as anyone. Some teachers enter the profession carrying the baggage of trauma from their own backgrounds while others become the victims of trauma as a result of their jobs. Trauma begets trauma, and it has had a negative impact on the mental health of millions of teachers across the country — including yours truly. Last year was the roughest of my career. The increased stresses of the job, brought on by the last decade of hostile education reform, had already been weighing heavily on myself and most every other teacher I know. Then, I was dealt a hand that nearly did me in. I had so many trauma-affected students last year that I became overwhelmed. I began to suffer trauma of my own in a big way. One class in particular was completely full of kids who were daily powder kegs waiting for a spark. Individually, I loved those kids. In a group dynamic, they were often simply impossible to deal with. That class began to dominate my every waking thought as I tried every trick I knew and then started inventing new tricks. Sometimes something would work reasonably well for a day or two, but nothing lasted long. I began to lose sleep. I’d wake up in cold sweats at 2 and 3 in the morning with those kids on my mind. Often times, I’d just go ahead and go into work and spend 3 or 4 hours completely alone in a huge building trying to find a miracle. It wore me to a frazzle and one day, it broke me. I pulled myself out of the classroom for 3 days. I went to the doctor, was placed on two anti-depressants, and began to see a therapist. Thankfully, this was right before Christmas Break, so I had about 15 days to allow the meds to start working and to spend time relaxing with family. Thank God, the meds worked wonders and I was able to keep from taking the actions of my poor trauma-affected students personally. That’s hard to do when you work so hard to find ways to get through to them and they continually throw it back in your face. But it’s not about me, it’s about them. I never got that class to become great students, but the second semester was spent building better relationships with them. I told them every day that I loved them all–and I really did, they were lovable kids who needed loving in a critical way–and they showed me they loved me. We got through the year together…somehow. I think they taught me more than I taught them. They taught me a lot about myself. They taught me to truly understand that everyone is fighting a battle we can’t see so, in the end, you can’t go wrong with love and kindness. But it’s still so hard because, in the end, I’m held accountable for those kids’ standardized test scores. Year after year, that stress builds up and it forms the scars of trauma. I was very close to quitting the profession at one very low point last year. Very close. That’s how bad it got. I was lucky to get through it. I’m going to have more tough years, they are all tough these days, but I got through the darkest days of my life to come out on the other side and remain in the profession I still love. Many teachers don’t make it out. There but for the grace of God go I.
In recent polling, more than 60 percent of teachers indicated that their mental health has suffered because of the stress of their jobs. This is causing teachers to leave the profession in record numbers. And, for those sticking it out, a growing number are seeking professional help to cope with their mental health problems. As of 2017, more than 10 percent of teachers across the nation reported being prescribed antidepressants. That number is growing rapidly.
And as I said, dealing with a lot of trauma-effected students isn’t the only thing causing teachers so much stress. High-stakes standardized testing has had a devastating effect upon many teachers — particularly those in high-poverty, high-trauma districts. Due to the unfair way schools are evaluated based upon standardized test results, schools with the highest levels of poverty and trauma are far more likely to be labeled as “failing” than schools in more affluent areas. That failing label is so misleading; it comes with a terrible stigma and it adds to the poverty problem as money is funneled away from those schools in favor of affluent schools or private schools. As a result teachers in high-poverty/trauma schools often go year after year without a pay raise. That will add a boatload of stress and trauma.
We also live in an age where active shooting drills are a monthly reality. We practice running from the building and hiding behind things that can stop a bullet. During an active shooting drill in Monticello, Indiana, in January, two elementary school teachers were told by police to kneel in front of a wall where they were shot, execution style, with plastic bullets. Can you imagine the fear and trauma that would cause? I always tell my kids that they can count on me to jump in front of a shooter to take a bullet for them. I mean that sincerely, but the fact that I have to say it speaks volumes about the amount of trauma that swirls around public education in these troubled times.
I want to close this piece in an unusual way. Last year, just before my trauma broke me, during one of those many sleepless nights, I got out of bed and wrote a poem about the collateral trauma I was getting from my students’ trauma. I ended up setting it to music and recording it as a song. It was written with my students in mind but now when I think of it, it seems like it could have been written to our state legislators. I’m going to reprint the lyrics and then embed the video of the song. Thank you for hearing my confession.
Heart Still Bleeds
I wonder if you even know
You’ve put strange notions in my head
Your apathy seems still to grow
Empathy’s been left for dead
It didn’t always feel like this
There was a time once filled with hope
But now my heart’s clinched like a fist
And joy hangs pendant from its rope
I wonder if you even know
I’m tossing restlessly in bed
All those jagged knives you throw
Keep twisting nightly in my head
I wonder if you’d even care
If you knew the pain you cause
If you could see the scars I bear
Would it even give you pause?
But I won’t give up on you
And I’ll keep on sowing seeds
It’s what I’m called to do
As this teacher’s heart still bleeds
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