Teacher Trauma: Another Reason to Wear Red for Ed

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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8 Replies to “Teacher Trauma: Another Reason to Wear Red for Ed”

  1. Wow! Sending my prayers for your physical and mental health. I taught many years ago when the numbers of kids having traumatic issues was much lower. I cannot imagine trying to teach in one of today’s classrooms. I cannot imagine being on alert for a (potential) active shooter situation. In addition to appealing to lawmakers, I believe prayers, many and consistently, should be the first line of defense. Too bad climate change is the only change that seems to get real attention.

    1. Dare we examine *why the rate of student trauma was much lower when you taught long ago?? I’m willing to bet that your career didn’t venture long into the days of NCLB and similarly harmful policies…

  2. I support teachers! Go Red for Ed! If you don’t agree, spend a week in a classsroom.

  3. I believe school nurses and school counsellors go through the same trauma, maybe even worse in some instances.

  4. Dare we examine *why the rate of student trauma was much lower when Paula taught long ago?? I’m willing to bet that her career didn’t venture long, if at all, into the days of NCLB and similarly harmful policies…

  5. I don’t dispute the legitimacy of any of the claims made here…I was incredibly disappointed, though, to find that Phipps failed entirely to address the primary source of the sharp increase in student trauma over the past 10 years. Seems like complete avoidance of the elephant in the room, no? Because if education policy is capable of such detrimental effects on teachers – grown adults with fully developed brains – what do we think it’s doing to the kids?? Short of identifying active shooter drills as a source of trauma perpetrated against students, culpability by the system of exactly the TRAUMA that Phipps descibes himself as being traumatized BY is entirely avoided. Are we so incredibly dense that we fail to recognize education policy as the source of student trauma? Or are our financial interests just so paramount that we refuse to take a stand??

  6. Shane thank you for opening up & being vulnerable about your experience. I am one of the teachers that has left the classroom because of the trauma I experienced not only in my classroom, but also from a terrible administrator & from parents. My teaching niche was the high poverty, trauma student. I spent all 12 of my teaching years in that environment & found it very fulfilling.
    On 10/1/17 I lost my son to suicide. I returned to an administrator that was so abusive to his staff that 80% of the teachers left the building in the 2 years he was the principal. Even under poor management I stayed. The event that changed everything was last year when I was in a conference with a student, the assistant principal & the student’s mother. As the conference progressed & the student was being held accountable for their grade the mother became so angry she said “Ms. Hobbs you turn kids away from education and you’re the reason your son killed himself” She said that in front of an administrator & her daughter! I was speechless. I was stunned that a person would even say that to me let alone a parent of one of my students. It was at that point I decided I needed to step out of the classroom & access my future as a teacher.
    You’re right it’s not just about pay. Teachers are overwhelmed, not supported & penalized for things that are out of their control. I do hope to return to the classroom. I love being a teacher. When I started teaching I had great administrators, difficult but good kids & parents that were supportive. I remember those days. But I also know that since leaving the classroom my anxiety has subsided & I can breath again.
    Thank you for speaking out about the burden on educators today.

  7. Thank you so much for your courage in opening this issue to discussion. I have long-believed that mental health services should be provided to teachers for the trauma they experience through their students. My own mental health has suffered from absorbing the trauma of my students, and this, along with a nightmare year, almost drove me out of education as well. I am glad I am still here because I adore my students!

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