This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
First-grade teacher Katie Sia, fresh out of the Drexel University School of Education, was baffled.
One of her students at Russell Byers Charter School was frequently lashing out at fellow students who brushed against him, even accidentally.
“He thought they were coming for him,” she said. “It scared me, safety-wise.”
Sensing that there might be something in the student’s background triggering the behavior, she teamed up with the school’s counselors and brought in the boy’s parents.
Together they got to the root of the problem: The parents were separated, the child lived with his mother, and he craved adult male attention.
So Sia began contacting the boy’s father throughout the day, sometimes having the boy speak with him. Males on the Byers staff were careful to praise him. And the boy became less aggressive physically.
Just a few years ago, Sia and other young teachers like her might have treated the situation as simply a discipline problem. But an emphasis on making teachers aware of the impact of trauma on students is helping them deal with problems like that of Sia’s student and, in some cases, far more serious ones.
Barriers to learning
The mantra of trauma-informed education is not “what’s wrong with you?” but “what happened to you?” It emphasizes social and emotional components of learning, and barriers to learning – not just content.
In theory, the philosophy has nothing to do with the type of school in which it’s employed. But few doubt that behavioral health challenges are more likely in high-poverty areas like Philadelphia.
And although the philosophy goes back to the 1980s, it has started making its way into teacher-education curricula only in recent years.
“It’s hard to change the curriculum in higher education,” says Jeanne Felter, director of the master’s degree program in community and trauma counseling at Thomas Jefferson University. “There hasn’t been enough motivation at the upper levels.”
“We have to rebuild teacher ed,” says Kate Kinney Grossman, who heads the University of Pennsylvania’s teacher education program.
M.J. DeCarlo, an associate professor at Drexel and one of Sia’s instructors, says that, when she designed the course on trauma-informed education two years ago, “trauma wasn’t as much of a buzzword as it is now.”
“We’re starting to understand realities in kids’ lives that were invisible to us,” she says. “These kids’ lives are much more complicated than we realize.”
And the fact that Philadelphia is the poorest large city in the United States makes young lives even more complicated.
“How do you, as a teacher, support students who may not have had breakfast or dinner the day before?” asks Kristina Najera, assistant dean at the Temple University College of Education.
Along with Jean Boyer, an associate professor and a psychologist by training, Najera is revising Temple’s curriculum to incorporate more material on social and emotional learning into the school’s teacher education courses.
Faculty at Drexel and Penn have also moved in recent years to broaden their offerings in these areas.
At Drexel, professor Dominic Gullo has developed a unit on “Turnaround Teachers” that looks at factors such as poverty, trauma, and ADHD that affect a child’s ability to learn.
At Penn, Caroline Watts, director of school and community engagement at the Graduate School of Education, has designed a “Teaching Diverse Learners” course that encourages “classroom communities where all children feel comfortable and accepted.”
“All the teachers coming to us are interested in working in an urban context,” says Kinney Grossman. “They come because they’re thinking of the whole student,” not just teaching a subject.
Student teachers spend much of the summer before their first field assignments immersing themselves in the neighborhoods where they will be teaching.
Penn emphasizes cross-disciplinary work in which teachers, counselors, psychologists and nurses work together and learn about each others’ roles.
And Drexel’s DeCarlo says this may be a necessity rather than a luxury. Given Philadelphia’s budget difficulties, she tells her student teachers to be prepared to deal with classroom challenges without immediate help from other professionals.
What teachers learn
“While you’re teaching, you’re also learning from your students,” says Marsha Richardson, a clinical psychologist who teaches at Penn’s Graduate School of Education.
Few young teachers at Penn and elsewhere would disagree.
Although students coming to Philadelphia may be seeking an urban setting, they often come from a very different background themselves and must work to adjust.
Cheyenne Brown, who grew up on Long Island, N.Y., and is now a student teacher at Albert M. Greenfield School in Center City, has dealt with students who are tougher in some ways than those she went to school with, and more fragile in other ways.
One of her first lessons was that “if they’re disruptive, it’s not personal to you. [New] teachers have to learn that.”
She also recalls a near-meltdown of her class when her 3rd-graders were having trouble mastering long division.
“We had children freaking out,” she says. “We had three kids crying. We had to take a step back and talk about why it was OK to not understand things right away.”
‘Complicated, rich life’
Kristian Ogungbemi grew up in suburban Cincinnati, the child of two civil engineers who sought out the best suburban district they could find for her – “Olympic-sized pool, every elective you could imagine.”
Now, as a graduate student at Penn and a student teacher at Kensington Health Sciences Academy, she sees that her 12th-grade advanced government and civics class might include students facing “dysfunctional situations at home, the electric being turned off, lots of different guardians who are not their parents.”
One student has no internet, no computer, and no library within walking distance.
“It hurts,” she says. “You want to make it better for them.”
But she adds that “the students are surprisingly resilient.”
Maddie Luebbert, a recent Penn grad at Kensington, agrees. While many students face serious challenges, “you can’t think all of our kids are messed up,” she says. “Each child has a complicated, rich life we need to consider.”
She says she is “100 percent a different kind of teacher” than she would have been without the trauma-informed courses at Penn.
Luebbert graduated from John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School in Philadelphia. She grew up in the Fairmount section of the city, but has moved to Kensington and become part of the school’s neighborhood.
Like Ogungbemi’s suburban Cincinnati public school, Hallahan offered a far different experience from an inner-city public school that may require a different teaching style, with more flexible rules.
Ogungbemi cites a question that one of her professors says it’s important for teachers to ask themselves before establishing a classroom rule:
“Is it about control or is it about learning?”
“I have a lot less concern [now] about [students] wearing hats or walking around” in class, she says. “I teach people, not just content.”
Luebbert says teaching in an urban district “requires a special mix of self-awareness, awareness of the student, and almost freakish calmness.”
But she’s happy where she is.
“I’ll stay as long as they’ll have me,” she says. “I feel like I hit the lottery.”