September 25, 2023


Unlimited Technology

Our students are experiencing trauma. We teachers need training to help them cope.

A few weeks ago, a colleague of mine stepped into our suburban high school’s library, sat down and took a deep breath before slumping her shoulders and opening up her laptop. I could tell that something was bothering her. I know the look of helplessness mixed with defeat all too well.

Eighteen years ago, when I was a teacher at Corliss High School on Chicago’s South Side, I had that same look as I stood in the hallway after interacting with one of my students. I had been a teacher for five months, and that student had lost her mother and siblings to violence over Christmas break.

When she returned to school, I didn’t know what to say. I stepped outside of the classroom to talk to her, nervous about saying the right thing. I was choked up thinking about her tragedy.

But my student stopped me in my tracks. “Ms. Caneva, here is my essay.” She handed me a typed, lengthy essay about The Canterbury Tales and walked into class. I stood there speechless and amazed at this student who had been through so much yet still wrote her paper.

Years later, we reconnected, and she revealed that a counselor and one other teacher were the only ones at school to help her deal with her trauma. She knew more could have been done.

Fast forward to my colleague now: When I asked how she was doing, she welcomed the interruption, readily talking about a student in her class.

“My student is worried about her family members. She’s Ukrainian,” my colleague said, right after the Russian army invaded Ukraine. When her student voiced her concern, she added, “I just didn’t know what to say.”

I told her it was OK not to know what to say and briefly shared my experiences with students on the South Side who’d lost family members and even the grief I felt when I had lost students. I wasn’t ready to help them or myself cope with trauma. Though each instance has helped me to deal better with these situations, teachers should not have to rely just on experience to guide the way.

In all of my years as an educator, I’ve never attended a meeting or professional development session on how to help students cope with trauma. My bet is that teachers in most districts in our country have not either.

Think about the last couple of years: Mentally and emotionally, we’ve been ravaged as a society. We’ve faced worldwide sickness, intensifying racial tension due to police brutality toward people of color, gun violence in some of our most safest places — our schools and churches — and a war launched by Russia just months after the war in Afghanistan ended.

Many of us watch this news unfolding on the convenience of our phones, any time we want. Doom-scrolling, as it’s called, takes a hefty mental toll on us.

Our children and young adults are not oblivious to these events. Some, like the two students mentioned earlier, experience it directly; they are a part of traumatic events. Others are deeply impacted by witnessing and watching the events, and/or by the environment these events have created. Researchers from the University of Calgary conducted studies globally during the COVID-19 pandemic and found that anxiety and depression doubled compared with before the pandemic.

As adults, we are often told kids are resilient. But we can’t ignore their trauma and just move on to the next part of the curriculum. Coping with students’ trauma should be a top priority in our professional development, taking precedence over workshops on the latest tech tool, standardized test scores or grading practices.

Teachers need tools beyond writing a pass for a student to a counselor’s office. Our students see their teachers every day, the effects of trauma often first present themselves in the classroom, and school counselors are already burdened with high caseloads.

Now is the perfect time to provide trauma training to teachers. Our students need and deserve it.

Gina Caneva is the library media specialist for East Leyden High School in Franklin Park. She taught in CPS for 15 years and is Nationally Board Certified. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva

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