School started last week, and I should be starting my 24th year of teaching English to high school students. However, there is a new teacher in my classroom and I won’t be going back. In October of last year, I visited the ER with a blood pressure of 210. I had both a mental and physical breakdown. Along with stress-induced ailments like Hashimoto’s Autoimmune Disorder, Fibromyalgia, and Cervical Spinal Stenosis, the doctors diagnosed me with PTSD. I could understand the physical diagnoses, but the PTSD diagnosis seemed over-dramatic to me. I was skeptical.
One day, though, I googled “teacher PTSD” and I realized that not only is it a real thing, it is absolutely rampant, especially in teachers serving in high-need/at-risk settings.
I’ve been thinking a lot since my diagnosis about what exactly caused my trauma and I’ve come to this conclusion: As a teacher, I know how to fix this, but no one is listening.
All the acronyms in the world will not fix this. (I’m looking at you PBIS, GLCEs, and MCLs.) In fact, in many cases, these one-size-fits-all-approaches harm kids more than help them, especially our kids of color. If you want to ‘fix’ the public school system and create a model that is engaging and successful, it comes down to five simple things: get there early, create a healthy environment, lower class size, hire support staff, and demand equity.
If your school does these five things (with fidelity) your child is receiving a quality education. If not…
Get There Early
According to a recent article from NPR, one in three children are not reading at grade level by the time they reach 4th grade. Couple that with the knowledge that reading levels correlate to everything from future income, to the possibility of graduation, to the chance of incarceration, and it is clear we have a serious problem. If a child does not receive early intervention, their chance of succeeding is slim.
Now, I know that sounds harsh. I know as a teacher I am supposed to say, Have a growth mindset and you can do anything! Or, All you need is some grit and you will succeed! But this thinking is flawed. It simply is not true. Early intervention (whether that be via an invested and capable parent or guardian, via a preschool program, or via some other method) means the difference between success or failure for a vast majority of kids.
In fact, the Harvard Graduate School of Education tells us that, “For every 10 children in the United States, six have access to some early education. Only 2 of those 6 are in a setting of quality.” So, we have 4 out of 10 students who have had no early childhood intervention. And only 2 out of 10 kids are receiving the quality skills they need to succeed. As teachers, we know that childhood readiness programs are the number one indicator of future success. We know that once a child begins school it is often too late to make up for these substantial gaps in early resources and tools for success.
Yet we continue to roll the boulder up the hill, our administrators at our backs throwing out buzz phrases like data-driven and best-practices as we struggle.
No wonder we are traumatized. We know the boulder is going to roll back down the hill. We know the buzzwords won’t stop the rock-slide. We know how to fix this.
We’d like to hope that all children are being read to from a young age, that all children are taught how to communicate responsibly, how to interact with their peers, how to cooperate. But, all one has to do is walk into any classroom to see that this is not the case. Many of us have fooled ourselves into thinking, “Well, as long as my kid was raised well, it doesn’t much affect me.” But, as I will touch on shortly, it affects you and your child much more than you may realize.
Early childhood intervention programs, available to all children (regardless of income or race) will result in more than raised reading scores. It will decrease the massive achievement gap between children of color and white students. It will decrease the number of young adults funneling into the school to prison pipeline, and it will dramatically increase students’ scores on mandated tests, that all-important metric of success for administrators.
Create the Environment
Once early childhood interventions are in place, your school district can focus on creating an environment conducive to learning. If your school does not have a healthy environment, learning cannot occur. If students do not feel safe and welcomed, they do not feel they can take chances and risks. And both of those things are necessary for growth and learning. (Likewise, teachers need to feel the same comfort level to take risks and grow as educators. And those new teacher evaluations? They absolutely destroy the desire for risk-taking and creativity.)
Administrators know that many students do not see school as a welcoming place. And they are trying to do something about it. In fact, several districts in Michigan have a program called Capturing Kids’ Hearts for this very reason. The premise is a good one: you can’t teach kids until you capture their hearts. Flip Flippen, the man who designed the program, sends out ambassadors at the start of the year to train staff in concepts and procedures. Sharing good news, shaking hands, building class contracts, are all part of this program. Likewise, in my district, a cohort of teachers design an entire week of scripted lesson plans for all staff to administer to their new freshmen classes, lessons that promote perseverance, integrity, and adaptability.
These programs are all good things and certainly worth a try, but there is a problem with relying on these programs in isolation. And that is exactly what most districts do. Administrators throw out one-size-fits-all, pre-packaged lessons without taking the time to address some of the real concerns and roadblocks that teachers face. Roadblocks that no amount of heart-capturing or perseverance-training is going to remove.
Now, I know that sounds negative, and like I am attacking these programs. I am not. We can all agree that getting to know students is a good thing. Introducing them to the concepts of grit, perseverance, and respect is a good thing. Going into the school year with a goal of capturing hearts is a good thing.
But where teachers like myself face disconnect is in the complete denial of real and highly disruptive roadblocks that diminish the power of these good things. We are expected to ignore these roadblocks and push on. Keep rolling that boulder. Even when we can see that that boulder is about to crush us.
Not to mention the elephant in the room: not all teachers are there to capture hearts. We have to be honest. We all know the teacher who is downright mean, or racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or angry all the time, or lazy, or inept. Maybe if we care so much about kids, we should surround them with adults that already know the concept of capturing hearts. This might save all of us some valuable time. (But, I digress. This is a conversation for another blog post. And for the teachers’ union, should they ever dare to address it.)
Everyone can agree that the educational environment must be welcoming and conducive to learning. So, if it isn’t a prescriptive program, what is the answer?
It’s simple. Ask any teacher.
Reduce Classroom Size
If you truly want children to naturally feel welcomed and cared for, you must lower class size. Districts spend thousands of dollars before the start of the school year bringing in speakers who talk about how to motivate kids. Yet, on Monday morning, when you show up all eager and ready to apply what you learned in teacher training, you are met with 32 kids crammed into a space that was built to hold 25.
The classroom is hot, not every student has a chair, and you can’t get down the rows without tripping over their bullet-proof backpacks. The chances of every kid having a voice in your social contract just flew out the window along with your stapler. (That happens, by the way, staplers are tossed out windows.)
The best thing a school can do to make kids feel seen, heard, and cared for? Put fewer of them in each class.
In my last month of teaching, I was given several classes of 32 kids. It was obvious that they were all tracked (which is a nice way of saying segregated) into one environment. If you walked down the hall to the advanced classes, you were met with a sea of white and Asian faces. My classes contained almost all kids of color. (A fairly common practice, by the way, that I will touch on in a bit.)
The kids in my class were all different. Some shy, some loud, some poverty-stricken, some affluent, some confident, some terrified. They all had a story to share, but I could not hear it over the chaos caused by overcrowding. Kids were sitting on my countertop because there were not enough desks, spilling out into the hall because it was too loud to concentrate, and pushed up against my teaching station because there was nowhere else to put them.
That same month, I was lucky enough to have one hour that consisted of only 25 kids. With them, my lessons always went smoothly. I learned their names quickly and we bonded easily. But, in the class of 32, my lesson always fell apart. Each day, we were able to get through only half of what my smaller class was able to accomplish.
Learning, quality learning, did not occur.
You might be thinking, well, my child is all set. They had early childhood interventions. They will know how to advocate for themselves.
But, those other kids? The ones who never had early childhood interventions? They are right there in the middle of it all. So, your child might be all set, but he or she is surrounded by kids who were not given the same tools. If you are lucky enough that your child is in a class of 25, rest assured that the teacher most likely can handle that discrepancy. It is not easy, but they can. In a class of 32? It becomes overwhelmingly difficult.
Those kids without interventions? They don’t do well with overcrowding. They have more outbursts. They are more vocal in their frustrations. They demand more time and attention from the teacher. What do you think happens to your child while the over-stressed teacher is trying to manage 32 frustrated, overwhelmed, uncomfortable kids?
All of those early childhood interventions you spent so much time on are for naught if the teacher cannot catch their breath long enough to reach your child.
It is such a simple concept, but until parents demand that their child is not placed in a classroom over 25 students, it will never change. Teachers have been saying it for decades, but no one is listening. If districts truly wanted to improve relationships and test-scores (I wonder which is more important) they would lower class sizes.
Hire Support Staff
While we lower the number of students in the classroom, we should also be increasing the number of adults.
During my tenure as a teacher, I was briefly afforded an amazing interventionist. (It was pure luck to find someone so well-suited for the job, especially because it paid about as much as a gig at a grocery store.) But in those few years, I saw what teaching could truly be. He helped me with the outbursts, with the kids that came in crying, or angry, or distracted. The kids who were off their meds, or the kids who came in late because they were having a meltdown. He helped me with answering the phone (which rang constantly) no matter the time of day. He helped me break the class into smaller, more manageable groups, repeat the instructions, calm outbursts, separate students, repeat the instructions again, and diffuse arguments. He helped me take attendance, fill out bathroom passes, collect homework, supervise mandated testing, and explain missing work to chronically absent or suspended students.
And I could teach. Like, really teach.
Each high school classroom should have at least one interventionist. Middle schools should probably have two. Elementary, three. Do that, and you will see an immense improvement in test scores.
Oh, and hire more people of color in all roles within the building. Teachers, even now in 2019, are overwhelmingly white. Representation matters.
On top of interventionists, there should be an absolute battalion of guidance counselors, therapists, psychologists, and nurses
When I walked away from teaching last October, we had no nurse. And we had two guidance counselors expected to serve 850+ freshmen on top of spending the vast majority of their time scheduling classes, rearranging lunch schedules, and preparing for state-mandated testing.
Kids were lost, they needed help, and there was nothing, absolutely nothing I could do for them.
This is the trauma part.
When you see the need, you want to help by throwing out a lifeline, but someone else has your hands tied tightly behind your back. All you can do is watch as your students cry out for help. And their cries for help come in many forms: lashing out, falling asleep, inappropriate language, disrespect, drinking, taking drugs. And the more horrific forms? Self-harm, physical assaults, rape, suicide, and mass shootings.
Want to lower disturbing incidents in your school? Hire more support staff.
That brings me to my last point: Equity. We all know there are schools that have all 4 of the criteria I just discussed above. You can usually find those schools in affluent (read all-white) districts. But, what those schools are lacking is equity. And until parents, all parents, demand that the education their son or daughter receives is the same education received by the child in the next town or street over, we will never reach the success we need to reach as a society.
You may be thinking, who is going to pay for all of this?
And guess what? You are going to pay for it either way. You can pay in the form of taxes for welfare recipients, the unemployed, and the incarcerated. Or, you can pay for it in the form of education.
And guess what else? That money paid to ensure all children receive early childhood interventions? One might argue we as a society owe that service to some of the families benefiting from it. (If you are not sure what I am hinting at, I challenge you to read The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Or, if you would rather, watch the video of Mr. Coates testifying before congress.)
Because friends, all you have to do is look at any school in the American school system and you will see that segregation is still alive and well, no matter how diverse the district claims to be. My district, for example, boasts 65+ different languages represented in its student body. This is indeed impressive and gives our school an edge over other districts.
But one notices, when walking through the halls, that some classrooms look like a meeting of the UN, while other classrooms are overwhelmingly white. Why is this? The achievement gap. How do we erase it? Early childhood intervention for all children starting at age 3.
It is not only in the students that we see a lack of equity, however. When walking through those halls, one needs to be aware of what teachers are being assigned to which students. The students who are lagging behind and considered at-risk for failure, what type of teachers are they afforded? If things are working equitably, the best teachers in the district should be assigned to the most under-achieving students.
I will say that one more time: If things are working equitably, the best teachers in the district should be assigned to the most under-achieving students.
But, they should also be given extra support and planning to balance out the immense toll that teaching non-traditional kids can take on one’s body and mind. And those teachers in high-risk districts? A pay raise is due.
Too often we see that our highest-rated and best teachers are allocated to the advanced kids. I will leave it to you to figure out who is placed with the lowest-achieving students.
I have always said that if teachers (especially teachers in at-risk, high needs settings) wore go-pro helmets every day to work, that society would offer them much more respect and assistance.
I challenge you to visit your child’s classroom from time to time to see what an absolute orchestra of beauty out of chaos a teacher conducts every single day. And when you are done with that visit, and if they will allow it, stop by the inner-city school down the road and see those teachers doing the same thing but with way more challenges in front of them. Consider the toll this job takes on the professionals who show up each day to roll that boulder up the hill.
Because, in the end, they cannot imagine doing anything else. They have dedicated their lives to your children. They will keep pushing, even in the face of immense criticism, unreasonable evaluations, band aid-programs, and disrespect.
Perhaps, one day, instead of yelling out Perseverance! at their backs, society will stop, allow them a respite, show them gratitude.
And maybe, just maybe, they will listen.