(Editor’s note: Chalkbeat Detroit and Crain’s Detroit Business, as part of a collaboration on teacher tenure and retirement issues, set out to hear what it’s like to teach today and how Michigan leaders can make the profession more attractive. Here is one response.)
Since being inspired by my first-grade teacher, I have always wanted to follow in her footsteps. It’s one reason I became a teacher 28 years ago.
Since then, I’ve worked hard with students to overcome tough situations, first in Kalamazoo and then my hometown of Romulus. This year’s challenges are unlike any other, but all of us in education are pushing through because of our commitment to our students.
But we can’t do it alone. Young people today are dealing with a host of issues, especially those who have special needs or who come from home environments facing poverty and inequity. This pandemic has made many of those issues even worse.
Educators often feel like we’re on an island, addressing not only the academic but the social and emotional needs of students. The whole child matters, which is why we need greater support for educators to address the needs of students beyond the academics, especially when it comes to dealing with trauma.
This past year has been traumatic – for students, parents and educators alike. Loved ones succumbing to COVID-19. Jobs and homes lost. Expanding poverty and hunger. Whether students are in-person or remote learning, that trauma has an impact on their ability to learn.
Within the school setting, teachers need more and better training for how to address these issues. While simply listening and caring go a long way, there are best practices for how to deal with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that educators can learn. From food and housing insecurity, to health issues, to experiencing violence in their community or home, students carry their experiences with them into the classroom – and educators must find ways to meet students’ basic human needs before we can help them find academic success.
A few years ago, I had a student who witnessed his brother attempt suicide multiple times. In order to teach him reading and math, I had to understand his trauma and how it could stand in the way of his studies. I had to meet him and his family where they were – which was not a focus on school but often about survival and safety.
We need to surround these students and their families with the supports they need – from counselors to social workers to nurses and beyond. Teachers can’t address all the social-emotional needs of students alone.
Parents need more tools as well to help be engaged partners in their child’s education.
During remote learning in the fall, I noticed a silver lining – some parents benefitted from seeing firsthand their child’s reading struggles. I was able to see growth in some students whose parents started working with them once they realized, “Whoa, my daughter can’t read like I thought she could.” But it’s a mistake to assume every parent is well equipped to provide that help – just ask any parent who’s struggled to help with math homework during the pandemic.
Finally, we must remember that educators are people too. Especially right now, we’re burnt out and tired after a year of reinventing how we educate kids. With in-person third graders, it’s incredibly hard to have them in a school setting where they can’t do many of the things that we all take for granted – group work, sharing materials, cooperative learning.
My kids understand that they have to wear a mask, but they still want to do what they’ve always done in school. I have to say, “No, you can’t do that. You can’t share your markers. No, you can’t sit together and color.”
It impacts my ability to help deal with student emotional needs as well. Recently, when a young girl shared a sad story about her puppy, my immediate human and educator instinct was to put my arm around the child, but I had to catch myself and remember I can’t. I can’t hug.
It breaks my heart. Every traumatic event my students experience does. With the pandemic, I walk and pray and write to help process that grief. But teachers and other dedicated educators need more tools, more training and more time to process our emotions, so we can better help our students do the same.
Tavia Redmond is a 28-year veteran third grade teacher in Romulus.