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We Need to Help Teachers Now

Updated: Nov 25, 2020



Photo by Paul Duddy

We Need to Help Teachers Now

Here’s why. Teachers are emotional/mental health first responders. Every adult can identify at least one teacher who helped them to feel seen and understood every day. A teacher who, particularly on those days when anxiety or trauma might have blocked the way, cleared some of the static and enabled joy and hope to grow and learning to happen. A teacher who made you feel you were ok. You belonged.

The US and Territories rely on teachers to be “first reporters” of signs of abuse, bullying, harassment, depression, and suicidal ideation. Parents rely on teachers to observe and share understandings about a child’s well-being based on “how they are behaving in school.” We can design better for this.

Pediatricians and mental health professionals tell us that the anxiety and depression epidemic underway before COVID-19 has skyrocketed since its beginning. Parents are pleading and protesting: We need to “get the kids back to school.” Young people need not only to be around their peers to learn well and BE well, they need trusted adults other than their parents to teach them and to help them integrate the trauma in their lives. We can design better for this.

Since 2017, I have been working in what might be called “extreme education,” listening to and supporting hundreds of teachers in disaster-affected areas. Let me be clear. Teachers love teaching. For many, it is a calling. They wake up every day eager to see “their kids.” They find joy in “kid energy.” They are passionate and knowledgeable about youth development and are experts in creating learning experiences that make a difference. They come at their work from a place of love. In disaster-affected areas, teachers try desperately to find and connect with their charges.

Elementary school educators in Montecito, CA told me that one of the most difficult things about the devastating fires and especially the murderous landslide of early 2018 was that “we went to the place where helicopters were taking first responders in to town. We said, ‘the kids and their families need us right now and there’s no other way to get to them.’ We were told that, since we are not first responders, there was nothing they could do. That was traumatizing.”

Many teachers in Puerto Rico have been providing supplementary food for their students since Maria. Since COVID-19 closed the schools last spring, they are worried that their students might not have enough to eat. Now PR teachers are mourning the fact that attendance numbers in virtual school hover around 50% or less. “We do not even know where our kids are, much less how they are doing. Are they alive? When they DO sign in, there is no camera OR voice going on. We teach into a void.” Due to the ongoing earthquakes, many of their school buildings are not usable…so what will “return to normal” look like for them?

Teachers everywhere are grieving the loss of connectedness. How do you build that empowering sense of community and belonging through a screen? From behind a mask and plexiglass? Remarkably, through their own trauma and exhaustion, teachers are finding creative ways forward.


Here is what policy and decision makers need to do now, and going forward, to support them so that they can continue to be the best that they can be for our kids and our future:


1. Take care of teachers’ trauma.

2. Provide them with tools.

3. Prioritize access and equity.


1. Take care of teachers’ trauma. First responders get trauma care. It is understood that they will not only experience the direct, primary trauma because of their own experience with the disaster or emergency, but that they will experience secondary trauma because of the helping work they do. For teachers, it is the same. Even desperately wanting to be helpful to their students and their families and being prevented by realities of their own family life or lack of access is traumatic. There is a lot of talk about “self-care” in the teacher-verse right now—“You can’t keep giving from an empty bowl,” is one phrase that teachers don’t need to hear again. One teacher friend said, “I get that self-care is important, and believe me I do it. But it is starting to sound like an admonition. If you are feeling trauma, it is your fault and it is on you to take care of that so that you can do your job.” If we want teachers to be able to respond to our children in the midst of this disaster, we have to take care of them like we do first responders. They ARE.


2. Provide them with tools. Teachers need at-will access to restorative and trauma best practices training. For free. Part of the toolset should include community connectedness. Teachers need the support of other teachers as much as other first responders need others who do the same work. Resilience is relational. As a next step, teams of parents and teachers could do this together. Connecticut (there are many examples nationwide) teamed up with a foundation and Yale to provide teachers with a free 10-session asynchronous course on emotional intelligence. They will be able to work together to build new tools into their everyday lessons.


3. Prioritize access and equity. Can you imagine a fire house without ladders and hoses? Or neighborhoods without hydrants? There are thousands of teachers without adequate internet connectivity, and tens of thousands of students with the same problem. And even if the data plans that can handle school can be managed, not every home is school-ready. With COVID-19, there is also the safety issue. Even if there is a face-to-face option, many students with special needs or health issues (or same in their families) or living with elderly grandparents, will still need to stay home until there is widespread vaccination.

Hospital and health care workers should clearly be first in line for vaccination, but teachers should be right in there along with other first responders.

We are justifiably concerned about the potential for overwhelming our health care system. The same is true of education. More and more frequently, school administrators cannot find qualified staff. No substitute teachers are available. I recently spoke with a former colleague who was not only teaching her own bi-furcated classes that day, but covering the classes of TWO of her colleagues who had to quarantine because of exposure to a COVID-positive student. When you ask teachers how they are doing, their responses mirror other COVID-emergency workers—we are exhausted and overwhelmed.


Our society, our economy, our communities and our kids need their teachers to be healthy and able to keep school going, and that will falter unless teachers get the help they need.

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