Winston Churchill said, “If you are going through hell, keep going.”
This should be the battle cry for all educators this school year. For a few, it might be that terrible or surprisingly even more dreadful. The British wartime leader likely would have found COVID-19 to be a formidable opponent because it does to students what war does to soldiers.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been on the radar of psychologists for decades. Men and women returning from war-torn regions who have encountered horrible scenes may languish for months or even years, battling through debilitating thoughts, feelings or dreams about the event. Experiencing the loss of a friend or loved one, witnessing violence and seeing people endure hardship all can lead to PTSD.
Austin Beutner, superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District, America’s second-largest, said in an interview with Lester Holt on NBC Nightly News that trauma was the most important issue people were not discussing in the debate over school openings. Trauma is going to be an issue for adults and children alike.
Michigan Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist revealed in a recent press conference that 23 people he knows have died after contracting COVID-19. No one knows if his situation is extreme because the research has not yet been done. Possibly, there might be a teacher, a principal or other school employee who has suffered through the same level of tragedy.
The problem is, PTSD increases the fight or flight response. It makes people anxious and irritable, and leads to disturbing dreams. These are not the characteristics for a successful educator. Getting the help may prove difficult because of the stigma.
Growing up in a household with a mother who suffered from mental health issues taught me more than I ever wanted to know. The Black community seems to misunderstand mental health worse than mainstream America does. Imagine what this school year will hold for over 130,000 K-12 schools across America, with some adults suffering from trauma. This is only one half of the hell.
My first teaching job was in 2008 at a K-8 charter school on the west side of Detroit in the Herman Garden’s neighborhood. It was one of the poorest parts of one of the poorest cities in the country, and the students were tough. I joined the staff the third week into the school year and was the third teacher for that eighth grade English class. One of my female students had a terrible attitude, and we clashed like oil and water. She was very disrespectful and would occasionally cuss at me under her breathe. On one occasion, she stormed out of class and bumped into me on her way out, which was the final straw. I went to my boss and proclaimed that it was either her or me. Someone had to leave.
The assistant principal and school psychologist pulled me into a private room and shared with me the girl’s story. She was the primary caregiver for her brother, who had special needs. When she wasn’t taking care of him, she was working, which they suspected was engaging in sexual activity with men for money to satisfy her mother’s destructive drug habit. That was my first experience with childhood trauma, although not my last. While it is an extreme case, it’s also thought-provoking and relevant during these uncertain times because it was an adverse childhood experience.
An adverse childhood experience (ACE) is the medical terminology for a traumatic event before age 18, such as the death of a loved one, hospitalization of a family member, financial hardship, food insecurity, housing insecurity, witnessing or experiencing violence and other such events that lead to PTSD. African-American Detroiter Gilchrist gives us an idea about what’s possibly coming for some of the educators this school year. The question is, how many ACEs have children compiled since leaving school in March? Initial research has revealed that COVID-19 has cut across both racial lines and class lines. The impoverished, Blacks and other people of color have suffered the worst, and it’s safe to assume that children from those demographics have compiled the most ACEs. In fact, there may be students who rival Gilchrist’s 23 deceased friends, associates and loved ones. Think about that: a child with 23 ACEs. With the CDC reporting more than 180,000 at the onset of September, there’s no doubt about COVID-19’s extensive reach, touching every corner of the country and the children within it.
Previously insulated populations of children may contain high numbers of ACEs as a result of racial unrest, protests, unemployment and the financial crisis associated with the shutting down of the economy to flatten the COVID-19 curve. This unquestionably will lead to an unprecedented challenge for educators because a traumatized person has difficulty learning and behaving. We truly must hope for the best but prepare for the worst.
But there’s good news. Social and emotional learning (SEL) with trauma-informed practices can help educators. While teacher preparation programs around the country do not typically provide SEL training to their future teachers, organizations such as the Collaboration for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) based in Chicago, Illinois fills that gap.
CASEL teaches about the five core competencies of SEL: self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. There are many examples of schools decreasing suspensions, expulsions and office referrals by improving behavior, and I’ve witnessed those firsthand. But the bottom line tells the real story: SEL is a lever for equity and excellence that improves academic outcomes for students.
Trauma-informed practices focus on SEL. It requires educators to work on building strong relationships with students, creating a safe learning environment and adapting the physical space of schools to address the emotional needs of students. The additional benefit is that educators must internalize SEL and trauma-informed practices before they can use them with students, which is much needed because adults also need the help now more than ever.
When the opioid crisis fanned out across America, drug abuse lost its stigma to some extent. Hopefully, the widespread impact of COVID-19 from the suburbs to the urban centers and to the rural plains will change the outlook on mental health in all communities. If we have to go through hell, at least we can be better equipped and can do so together.