Dealing with Trauma

Year: 1

I would find out later that, during the week Angel ran out of my classroom, he had been taken away from his father by Child Protective Services (CPS). At that time, he was moved in with an aunt. Throughout the year, he would be pushed from his father’s house to his aunt’s house to his brother’s house to a series of group homes, all within the nine months of that school year. I would learn that he was taken away from his father because there was evidence of sexual abuse. I still do not know if his father was the abuser or if it simply happened in his father’s house. He was put into his aunt’s house, but due to an incident unknown to me, he had to leave that house within a month or so. What I do know is this: Angel was taken away from his dad because he was abused, and his dad may or may not have been the one to abuse him; he moved from place to place at least four times within a school year, living in constant upheaval while dealing with PTSD basically on his own. And, at the end of the school year, after a few papers were signed and a few procedural processes completed, Angel moved back in with his father. I could do nothing but watch as Angel went through this painful year, hoping that my classroom would give him some sort of safety.

As teachers, we sometimes become witnesses to terrible events. It is painful because we of course care about our students. It is painful because we can do little to nothing in many cases. Unfortunately, it is also painful because we are often underprepared for dealing with trauma in our students.

Angel was one of the worst instances of trauma I saw in my students during my first year, but he was by no means the only student. I was not prepared for the amount of trauma for which I would become a witness; that was surely one reason why August and September were so emotionally exhausting. Students would tell me story after story within the first few months, as they got to know me and grew to trust me. One student’s mom had stage-three cancer. Another student’s father abused her mother and killed himself when she was a baby. Yet another mom, as she told me on the phone during a call home, also had cancer. It seemed increasingly that every student I had experienced some sort of severe pain in their lives: after September, the best I hoped for in my students was that they were poor, and at least, hopefully, not abused or neglected or under severe stress from a parent dealing with a disease.

Now, I will say that I worked in one of the poorest areas of my city during my first year of teaching. Not all teachers witness this much trauma in their students. But I am willing to guess that there are also many teachers who have seen far worse than me.

In Arizona, teachers are taught how to report abuse and threats to their students. It’s referred to as a mandatory report. Teachers are taught, basically, that if a student tells them about an instance of abuse (or serious self-harm), they are legally obligated to report that to the police. Aside from the details of the mandatory reporting procedures, teachers are taught very little else. Nobody teaches us how to process trauma in our students. There is not a class on how it may affect us emotionally, mentally, or psychologically. Few people warn us that at two in the morning, we’ll wake up thinking about the student who may be experiencing abuse while we lay in our safe beds, and few warn us that we may feel guilty sitting at our desks in the evening stress-drinking wine, aware that some of our students don’t have dinner tonight. It is a painful, painful learning curve to become a witness to abuse and trauma. And teachers are not prepared for it. At least, I wasn’t.

I cannot say what the average experience is as it relates to teachers witnessing trauma among their students. I can’t compare my experiences to that of a teacher in Nevada, or New York, or a teacher in a charter school or private school. I can say that all teachers see at least one student go through something terrible, because the odds are far against not seeing that; when you have over 100 students a year, you’re going to meet one student who has felt serious pain. 

My experiences are obviously anecdotal, at least so far with my career: I have only taught at one public school and can only relay my friends’ and colleagues’ experiences in different schools, having not taught at those types of schools myself. Not all teachers will be a witness to as much trauma as I have been, and some will be a witness to more than me. It is important to remember this part of teaching, though: it will impact teachers in a powerful way, and it is one of the most difficult parts of the job. 

All students’ names have been changed for privacy. 

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