We Must Have Training to Address the Trauma Our Students Bring to School
By Austin Hawk
Screaming, shrieking, and begging were not the sounds I expected to hear while reading a story to my class. I was teaching in San Antonio, in one of the poorest zip codes in Texas, and Lily, a third grader new to our school, was continually challenging my knowledge and skills as an educator. She had experienced trauma before entering my classroom, and I lacked the necessary knowledge and skills to help her.
My school served students from Haven for Hope, an organization whose mission is to provide care and support to those affected by homelessness in Bexar County. Many students supported and housed by Haven for Hope came through my classroom and Lily was one of them. On her first day, I heard Lily from a distance pleading for her mom not to leave. She had previously been put into the foster system and was now terrified to go to school. Lily was scared that if her mom left, she would not see her again. This stress made Lily’s coming to school and leaving her mom agonizing each day.
The need for school-based mental health services to ensure our students are safe and ready to learn has become even more evident in recent years, following major events like Hurricane Harvey and the tragedy in Santa Fe. Teach Plus Texas Fellows, a cohort of teacher leaders from across the state of Texas who advocate on education policy issues, conducted a statewide survey of teachers to identify the level of need for mental health awareness in schools. The Fellows asked teachers in schools that spanned the socioeconomic spectrum if they had students in their classes who experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs.) Ninety-one percent of teachers said yes, they had students in their classes who had experienced these types of trauma.
Over time, Lily became more comfortable in my classroom; however, I quickly exhausted the skills I had to support her beyond academics. Lily also missed many days of school because she did not want to leave her mother. She needed additional coping strategies and techniques that I was unable to provide due to a lack of training. The school counselor did everything he could to help me while also supporting 600 other elementary school students, completing administrative duties, and leading state programs such as STAAR testing. In the end, we failed Lily by not being able to provide her with the best resources to be a successful student. She came to my classroom below grade level and finished the year in a similar situation. Lily needed to make significant academic growth quickly and unfortunately, that did not happen. As a result, she continued to fall further behind her peers.
This year, Governor Abbott signed into law HB 18, the legislation that provides multiple pathways for all stakeholders in schools to increase awareness about mental health and trauma-informed instruction. As teachers, we must continue to lead and encourage our schools and districts to take advantage of this legislation.
With the passage of HB 18, there are new opportunities to partner with mental health professionals outside of the educational system, and we must advocate for our school leaders to access this resource. In addition, access to professional development opportunities related to mental health, trauma-informed instruction, and suicide prevention now must be available at the district and state level. School districts across Texas should be reaching out to experts to share their knowledge with a variety of school personnel; in my own districts, I recently watched experts present on ACEs and trauma. In addition, school districts should make online learning options available to meet the diverse needs of their employees. As teachers, we must advocate for opportunities to learn about these crucial topics. If districts throughout the state of Texas engage in this work, our state can become a model that will encourage other states to better support their students who have experienced trauma.
Every student deserves a safe and healthy school that includes teachers, administrators, and other school personnel who are prepared and trained to meet their needs. Lily, and many other students like her, will greatly benefit from current and future educators engaging in professional development related to mental health, trauma, and suicide. Their future depends on it.
Austin Hawk is a founding teacher of the Steele Montessori Academy, where he teaches lower elementary and a Teach Plus Texas Policy Fellowship alum.