Blog Post by PTAC Member Christian Wrabley
Think of the last time you got hurt. Pause and think about that before reading on…
Did you think of a physical injury or an emotional injury? We tend to experience psychological injuries far more frequently than we do physical injuries, yet they don’t first come to mind. Failure, rejection, loneliness, anxiety…discrimination, death, and other traumas.
These injuries are damaging and can get worse if we ignore them. They can be treated, but we usually don’t prioritize treatment for emotional injuries.
Oh, you’re feeling depressed? You’ve probably had people tell you, “Just shake it off; it's all in your head.” Can you imagine saying that to someone with a broken leg? “Just shake it off; it’s all in your leg.”
Last school year, I spoke at two different events and shared stories of the mental health “baggage” that too many young people carry with them into the classroom each day: obsessively high academic expectations, social media drama, demanding hours and pressure of sports and clubs, hunger, lack of sleep and security, etc. These conditions can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, loneliness, and low self-esteem.
If I were to give that speech again now, I’d have to add the following: a global pandemic, five months of social distancing, a skyrocketing unemployment rate, racism and discrimination at deadly levels, and lots of deaths without opportunities for comfort and closure.
To say that our students may return to school in the fall with new levels of trauma could be a dangerous understatement. Our kids are incredibly resilient, but I think many will bring more trauma-shock with them in the fall than ever before. To this end, the Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee, in it's recommendations for the 2020-2021 school year, has made a point of saying that education must focus on the holistic wellbeing of children to ensure our students are mentally, emotionally, physically, and academically healthy.
Kids may be feeling angry, lonely, depressed, hungry, or scared. These conditions may not show up on an X-ray, but they show up when we pay closer attention to the full well-being of our students. These are social-emotional wounds that need to be rehabilitated.
A May 2018 study by the global health services organization, Cigna, found that chronic loneliness poses as significant a risk as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity. Cigarettes come with a warning and regulations. Loneliness does not.
When kids return to school in the fall, they will have been isolated from classmates for five months.
Teachers and schools have to be part of the rehabilitation. The school is not separate from students’ day-to-day lives. Too often it’s treated that way. There was a time when people seemed to think kids went to school to learn content, practice it, and be evaluated on it.
I think since school closures, people have realized that schools also serve as places for nourishment, play, exercise, socializing, competition, shelter, and performance. Wellness is essential for personal development, even more so than math, science, curriculum, and content. And, before we are “teachers of math” or “teachers of science,” we must be teachers of kids. The kids must always come first.
During Coronavirus closures, about 27% of students in urban schools became “truant,” according to an EdWeek Research Center Survey conducted in April. And in districts with more than 75% low-income students, 32% of students essentially disappeared.
At a district with over 30% transient student population, students are regularly moving in and out of the district. Typically, a student does not get dropped from our rosters and system until they are officially enrolled at a new district, to prevent students from “falling through the cracks.” This means that sometimes students’ names stay on the attendance roster for months even though they no longer live within our district boundaries. (We then know they have not yet enrolled in a new school.)
This also means that, when schools are not “open,” students are continuing to move (maybe even more frequently now) but they are not being registered by the school within their new home district.
During these devastating economic times, more families are also newly becoming homeless. To compound tracking issues, these families may be hesitant to contact authorities to ask for help or communicate their situation due to concerns of losing their children to Child Protective Services.
When a child builds strong relationships with people at school, they create a positive association with school, in general. Knowing that school is a place that can provide help, we keep those doors of communication open and students are more likely to stay in touch.
Schools provide students with the encouragement to engage confidently, the resources to gain wide knowledge, the incentives to work hard and apply themselves with intention, and the programs to spark incentive.
But if a child comes to school not having had a meal the night before, how can we expect her to schedule SATs and create a preparation plan to succeed? How can we expect students to think about their dreams and aspirations for what they want to do when they’re adults if they’re not confident they care to live beyond this month?
Some areas have seen a 400% increase in suicide prevention hotline contacts since the beginning of this pandemic. Teachers can implement Pinterest-worthy lesson plans and maximize instructional time by teaching “bell-to-bell” but the trauma of suicidal thoughts will surely inhibit any new learning.
Kids need opportunities for unstructured play and physical education. It is in these spaces that students learn to comprehend their own development and growth, and how to take on the world.
Kids need opportunities to play instruments and perform on stage with their peers. The greatest contributions will come when students learn to use school for their own advantages and apply their knowledge to authentic experiences.
Kids need time and space to draw and paint and create art. Art and imagination support every dimension of child development.
The best remedy for loneliness is face-to-face connection with others. These are non-negotiables when we return to our learning spaces.
I’m confident every school will have a Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) plan in place this fall. But if those plans don’t include opportunities to play, sing, dance, scream, collaborate, and socialize, they are not SEL at all.
This pandemic has devastated businesses, revenue, retirement plans, and more. Budgets will be squeezed as we prepare to give our kids the best we’ve got next year. It is imperative that our schools focus on the holistic well-being of children to ensure our students are mentally, emotionally, physically, and academically healthy.
Much of the burden and responsibility has been placed on young people to change, rather than the system. “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” (Alexander den Heijer)
Please don’t cut the programs that make our kids feel alive and valued most - the arts, humanities, physical education, and electives.
Let us recognize that librarians, band directors, school nurses, and guidance counselors are essential school employees.
If we deprive our kids of important developmental opportunities, it will eventually have ruinous social costs. Can we really look them in the eye and tell them they’re not worth the investment?
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER ALEXANDER SLAUGHTER
My journey did not begin as an anti-racist. As a child of a Black father and White mother, I began life with the colorblind mentality. I was led to believe by various authority figures that the United States had solved any forms of racism back in the 1960s with Dr. King. The lessons that I was taught year after year from my Catholic K-8 education was that he did it pretty easily: get a whole bunch of people together, say a profound speech, and *poof* there goes racism! We solved it! Yay!
I, therefore, didn’t catch all of the microaggressions that stung me and my Black classmates, whom I didn’t meet until high school. People often praised me for things I had considered common like holding the door for someone. They also said things like, “You’re not even Black” or “You’re one of the good ones.”
By the time I got to college, I got to hear a gut-wrenching defense of the N-word as someone used to tell me, “If you’re Black and I don’t like you, then you are a (insert N-word here), so don’t get on my bad side.” I didn’t understand that I had the power within me to say no to the obviously misguided, uneducated, and racist peers that I had grown up alongside.
My first teaching assignment placed me at a school with a 96% Black population in the heart of Pittsburgh. We also had a large Black teaching force that was much higher than the national and state average. Unfortunately, my years of colorblind education had not prepared me for how to work with my students. I often thought and said things like: “What does race matter? It’s what’s on the inside that counts.”
Here is the problem with that previous statement: no one waits for you to show what’s on the inside before making judgments about you and what you look like on the outside. I realized in my first full year teaching that my students faced a lot of racial adversity. Pittsburgh, like many other places in America, provides ample opportunity for Black students to find structural barriers because of their race.
It wasn’t long before I also felt the hurt and oppression that my students were feeling. My students, all below the age of 14, were coming in feeling the threat of the police, not because they did anything wrong but because their neighborhood was labeled as a place to watch. Students had to hear their neighborhood on the news as a place that was broken and helpless. Students also shared situations in which some of my teaching colleagues carried some of their implicit biases into the classroom and had unknowingly negatively impacted students and caused trauma.
I began to connect that I had been the victim of racist acts my whole life. I had faced the same experiences that my students had faced. My childhood neighborhood had a high Black population but was in no way high crime. This was the profiling I had faced. My glass ceiling had shattered. What was I going to do?
It took 24 years of my life before I realized that race is a defining feature of who we are. Race is a social structure that was created in order to “other” people. When we address race we are using it as a way to separate people by skin shade. Racism is a way to demean and belittle people who are not White. I say this because people who are White are the majority and therefore in a space to oppress others whose views may not be the same. Since race and racism are human-made inventions, we have the power to unmake it and disrupt systems of oppression. So this is my plea to you: begin to reflect and educate yourself on race and systems of oppression.
This work is not just to benefit Black students but also to open and engage dialogue with White students. I have transitioned to a new school where a White middle school student proudly asked, “Why don’t we get to have White history month?” I wanted to get upset. I felt like this was an attack on all of the hard work of many Black Americans who we don’t acknowledge but one time a year. Our curriculums aren’t mentioning major accomplishments of people of color and I felt like Black History Month is the only time that we celebrate anyone who is Black.
I was angry, but instead of responding with anger we had a dialogue regarding all of the White authors, musicians, TV stars, Presidents, and scientists that she knew. When I asked her to name Black people who were represented in the same categories, her answers were limited. I informed her that representation matters and we will continue to educate.
She deserved to have educators who are intelligent on race and oppression and are willing to educate her instead of dismissing her.
Often we look at race as a red button issue, but why? Race is one of the first things we see about a person whether we appreciate it or not. Often, many students tend to stay in their homogenous groups based on race. These students are staying there because they are comfortable in that grouping. I challenge that if we hope to make students that are knowledgeable, compassionate, and critical thinking then we have to teach them about the complexities of more than just one race or culture. We have to go deeper into representation and help students see the value and importance in everyone, especially diverse groups of people.
We need to begin to educate ourselves so that we are equipped to transform the lives of all students. I have spent many summers devouring books, articles, and videos regarding race in the hope to equip myself with enough knowledge and passion to educate not just my students but also any human around me, especially when those pesky microaggressions emerge. The journey begins with reflection and continues with transformation.
This journey is tough, and not everyone is always ready to listen, but we owe it to ourselves to be informed and continue to have dialogue. The work in this is a marathon, not a sprint, and just when you think you’ve learned enough - push yourself to learn more. The path is hard, but as our country has shown, progress and equality are even harder to attain without any effort.
Now is the time to begin the journey so we can follow through with the promise of “liberty and justice for all.”
Some of my favorite books to begin the work:
Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee