Real Teacher Care Could Transform CPS

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About the author: Katie Fisher is a Policy & Advocacy Fellow at Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights.  She has been working as a 4th grade bilingual teacher in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago for the past three years.

One morning in my 4th grade Chicago Public School classroom, I scolded a student who refused to pick up his pencil during a test.  For the rest of the morning, he put his head on his desk and refused to look at me. What I didn’t realize was that his dad had been arrested the night before.

His behavior should have clued me in, but I only felt harried and frustrated that day. That week, I was busy worrying about another student whose sister had reported sexual abuse in their home. I still needed to finish the 96 grades I was expected to give each of my 30 students each quarter, and I was scrambling to buy classroom materials from Amazon because my school would not provide paper to its teachers. 

Looking back, this is not how I wish I had responded.  I came to help, but instead I made my student’s already traumatic day worse.  I responded poorly to my students’ needs because of ‘compassion fatigue.’  Overwhelmed by work and stress, I had exhausted my resources for being patient and caring that week.

This is an all-too-common problem in teaching, an occupation where high daily stress is chronic.  In Chicago, the problem is acute.  CPS teachers are tasked with managing the real-life impacts behind our familiar statistics: 754 people murdered in 2016 and 4,338 people shot, the worst violence in nearly twenty years.  Students carry this trauma and stress to school, and in response, teachers must assume the role of educator, social worker, counselor, parent, and nurse.  Over time, this takes its toll.

High teacher stress creates significant problems for our schools.  For instance, the UChicago Consortium on School Research found that about 100 Chicago schools, most of which serve predominately low-income Black students, suffer from chronically high teacher turnover rates.  Even when teachers stay at their schools, their stress can impact their students.  Stressed teachers ultimately create classrooms in which students achieve less.  There can even be physiological impacts on students.  One study showed that students with burnt out teachers had higher levels of cortisol, the primary stress hormone, in the mornings.  It is a vicious cycle: our students are traumatized from their exposure to violence, causing teachers to adopt that stress, which in turn creates lower student achievement and higher stress.

How do we break this cycle?  It is time to acknowledge that teachers in urban schools are required to deal with a unique level of stress and that school districts have a responsibility to their students to address teachers’ mental wellbeing. 

There are models for how to do this effectively and at low cost.  In Baltimore, a kindergarten teacher, Danna Thomas, started Happy Teacher Revolution, a network of teachers leading peer support groups that strive to find a balance between excellent teaching and personal sustainability.  CPS already has an Office of Social-Emotional Learning that helps students develop social-emotional skills.  Given the clear link between teachers’ and students’ social-emotional wellbeing, the Office should house an initiative that supports teachers in developing their own social-emotional abilities.  One teacher at each school could train to lead a monthly or weekly support group for educators working in difficult, under-resourced classrooms.  Teachers could share their highs and lows, process the trauma they have experienced or witnessed in their students, and intentionally learn stress-reduction and social-emotional skills. 

It may seem to some that adding yet another activity to a teacher’s workload would be more burdensome than helpful. Yet from my own experience, I know that my teaching improved significantly when I began to invest in my mental health through therapy. However, I am among a small minority of teachers who have the time and resources to seek therapy outside of school.  This is why schools should be responsible for creating a space, ideally during a time in the school day already designated for staff or grade-level meetings, devoted solely to checking in with teachers’ mental wellbeing. Ultimately, the opportunity to work through trauma and to learn coping skills will save time and energy for teachers. 

This is a simple and practical idea that could transform our schools.  As a teacher, I barely have time to go to the bathroom, let alone process the stress and trauma that I see my students go through daily.  The frantic pace of the school day often leaves me without the capacity to serve my students with the compassion and care they deserve and need in order to achieve academic success.  If our schools can give teachers the space and skills to deal with the stressful and traumatic experiences they experience on the job, we will benefit and so will our students.