Once again, the nation has called upon its K-12 educators to withstand unimaginable tragedy, and to carry our children to emotional safety. And despite a wrenching, nonstop barrage of pain—a pandemic, a racial reckoning, and multiple mass shootings—that’s what they are doing.
All over the country, teachers and cafeteria workers, principals and district administrators are reporting for work. They’re parking in their usual spots, walking into their classrooms and offices, and looking after the children. They’re preparing lesson plans and meals, fine-tuning end-of-year schedules. They’re passing out hugs and smiles, even as they stifle their own sobs and horror over two mass shootings: one at a Texas elementary school and another at a Buffalo, N.Y., grocery store, in a span of 10 days.
How do they get through it? How much more can they stand?
“We can’t fail. We don’t have a choice,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. “As teachers, we have to get up every single day and help our kids find hope and opportunity and solace and justice. That’s our job.”
It’s not that they aren’t angry. They are. The need for better working conditions in schools is more acute than ever. It’s not that they don’t crave policy change: They, too, want safer schools. But they put politics and policy aside and come to work each day, to sustain those who depend on them. Educators and trauma experts say this choice can be a form of healing in itself.
Frank DeAngelis, who was the principal of Columbine High School in Colorado on April 20, 1999, when two teenage gunmen killed 12 students and a teacher, and wounded 21 others, now leads a support network for about 30 principals who have experienced violence in their schools. It can be tough to return to the building, he said, but doing the positive work of rebuilding a school community can be an important form of sustenance for educators and the children in their care.
“If I couldn’t go back into that school to help students, staff and parents heal, I’d have been a mess,” DeAngelis said.
But to support others, educators need to find some stability themselves. For DeAngelis, it was leaning heavily on his psychotherapist, and recognizing that his recovery would be “a marathon, not a sprint,” he said. He dispatches this advice to principals in his network.
From his therapist, DeAngelis learned to replace, in his mind’s eye, bloody images of his lost students with positive moments from their lives: the girl who leaped high for the volleyball spike, the boy who always high-fived him in the hall. That helped hope win the fight with fear each time DeAngelis entered the building, he said.
He also learned to use a touchstone to calm himself when events triggered his memories of the shooting. Tuesday, as news of the Robb Elementary School killings broke, and he felt a creeping panic, DeAngelis touched the two medals he wears on a chain around his neck—a crucifix and a Blessed Virgin Mary—took deep breaths, and reminded himself: This isn’t April 20, 1999. This is May 24, 2022.
Coping with ‘trauma load’
Trauma experts have a name for the pileup of grief, loss, anger, fear, and anxiety that’s marked the last few years: trauma load. Each layer makes it tougher to cope with the next one. Are we nearing the point where it’s just all too much?
“I don’t think we have an option to say you’re tired, fed up, quitting,” said Daniel J. Mosley, a Seattle-based psychologist who has helped manage the mental-health responses to wildfires, floods, school shootings, and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as a volunteer for the American Red Cross.
“We are asking so much of our educational system,” including asking teachers to shoulder “an extraordinary burden,” Mosley said, even as adults in schools—and everywhere else—might well question whether they have the capacity any longer to handle the daunting issues imposed on them.
But “somehow, we have to figure out how to keep coping with this, and build improved support structures, rules, and regulations that make these kinds of [tragedies] less likely,” he said.
As teachers, we have to get up every single day and help our kids find hope and opportunity and solace and justice. That’s our job.
Charles Figley, a trauma expert at Tulane University, said that psychological distress is so pervasive right now, swirling in and around us like oxygen, that it’s created a sense of unreality.
“We are literally swimming in an era of uncertainty,” he said. “There is a moment for all of us in which we hold our breath and look around and ask, ‘Are we in another place?’ It’s almost like the twilight zone. We’re catapulted to another place and we’re not sure how to operate. We have to keep taking in more, and more, and more.”
Schools are places of connection
On that shaky ground, the role that schools play in the lives of both children and adults is huge, Figley said. However imperfect our schools might be, they are still typically places of connection and exploration, safety and recognition, and those experiences can prove pivotal in withstanding trauma, he said.
“Schools are a place where we gather, where we celebrate, learn to trust, bear witness to one another’s lives,” Figley said. “They’re places we see each other at our best and at our worst. Sometimes even when we don’t know it, they’re a haven.”
Weingarten, the union president, said she will “never accept that there is a breaking point” of trauma in schools. With their community-building power, schools “are the antidote to all of this trauma,” she said.
There is still much to be done to create all the supports that teachers need, she said, but in the meantime, the relationships forged in schools are a key source of power in coping with trauma.
Long-term support and solutions are elusive
Keeping educators and policymakers focused on long-term support and solutions will be challenging, said Susan Silk, a Detroit-based psychologist who’s helped train counselors to respond to school shootings, hurricanes, and airplane accidents.
“We have good skills for responding to the impact of trauma,” she said. “We know how to help people deal with their immediate fears. We have coping strategies.
“The piece that’s really challenging is, what are psychologists going to be doing in a month, when this isn’t in the headlines anymore? How are we going to help parents and students then? Those surviving children may not be bandaged, but they are casualties every bit as much as the children in caskets.”
A fearful reality complicates the long-term picture, too: There are too few trained mental-health practitioners to support the millions who need healing, Silk said.
How, then, to cling to optimism when the trauma is so profound and solutions elusive? That, Weingarten said, depends on what we do.
“How we’ll look back on this moment depends on whether we solved this,” she said. “When will we make people more important than guns and power? When will enough be enough in this country? That story isn’t written yet.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 01, 2022 edition of Education Week as How Much Trauma Can Our Schools Withstand?