I’m a Trauma Survivor; I Know What it Takes to Teach Students Like Me
By Candace Hines
When I was in elementary school, I was often bullied because of my brown skin. I dreaded going to lunch and would return to class with unfocused red eyes. I longed for a teacher who looked like me and understood what I was going through but there was no positive Black role model in my school. My teachers were there for me academically; however, emotionally and socially, they did not know how to support me or encourage me. When I returned to class, I was often comforted with the phrase, “Remember, sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you.”
The Greek origin of the word trauma literally means wound and being a Black teacher allows me to see my students as they are. I connect with them and interpret the cultural differences. When a Black child enters my classroom, I make a conscious effort to remember that along with the academic knowledge, they might also be bringing their wounds. My job is to educate them while providing a safe environment that is sensitive to their experiences. Carmen is a bright, energetic six-year-old, who loves to dance and enjoys learning, but also has her own set of traumatic circumstances that accompany her to school each day. The day after she witnessed her father beat a friend with a tire iron, Carmen walked in late, hung up her backpack, and began to work as if nothing happened. Then at a small group table she blurted out that her mother had attempted to stab her and her siblings. She shared this while we worked on double digit addition, without blinking an eye or shedding a tear. Immediately after, three other students raised their hand and shared equally emotionally-horrifying stories.
It was in that moment that I realized how comfortable my students were in my classroom. I became more intentional about asking, “What happened to you, and how can I help?” My trauma-informed resources, such as their journals, are kept in a “Cool Down Cove” where my students can freely access them. The cove contains emotional release cards to encourage students to express their feelings, a mirror aiding in positive self-affirmation, and bubbles for deep breathing, along with stress balls and fidgets which act as a physical sensory relief. This positive reflection area allows my students to not only process their struggles in a healthy way, but to stay in the classroom and not miss out on learning.
I wanted to be better equipped to teach students in traumatic situations because I’m a trauma survivor myself. Growing up, I was subjected to many years of physical and emotional abuse. Like Carmen, I was eager to attend school where I got to escape my reality and be a “normal kid.” When the bruises got too bad for me to attend class, I pretended to play school with my stuffed animals. My childhood experiences have helped me to develop a stronger awareness of how students mask traumatic experiences and struggle daily to fit in. I know that we need to help a child remain in the classroom while we work with them in their pain. We need to give teachers the tools to better understand their students and to meet their needs.
We need to provide teachers with intense trauma training and trauma-informed professional learning experiences that educate them on how to respond when students are self-harming, become violent, or physically act out. Teachers should learn how to properly identify triggers and have tangible resources that can be quickly and easily implemented. Educators who work with trauma should continuously meet to analyze student and teacher practice.
Like myself, many of my students have grown up in poverty and have had very few positive role models to cultivate change and break the cycle. I know what it is like to frequently experience traumatic events and thrive despite my circumstances. As an African American woman and educator, I want my students to be inspired to be the best version of themselves that they can be. I use each day to instill excellence in them and I set the learning standards high, making sure that my students know I am here to give them everything they need to be successful. I teach my students that even though bad things happen to them, their education is a valuable tool to overcome their obstacles. I urge other teachers to use trauma-responsive practices in their classroom, so all of their students can succeed against the odds.
Candace Hines is a kindergarten teacher in Memphis and a former professional development facilitator with Teach Plus Teacher-Led Professional Network.