My daughter, Candace, taught 5th then 3rd grade at an inner city Baltimore elementary school through Teach For America. It was trial by fire her first year, as this was a struggling school and many students had a trauma history. It is Teach For America’s mission to place teachers in the most needy schools.
Candace was very enthusiastic, but didn’t know much about trauma and its effects, other than what she intuitively felt - which was impressively a lot. So it was very timely that I was involved with Peace4Tarpon’s initiative to bring trauma awareness and resiliency to the City of Tarpon Springs about the same time.
I learned quite a bit in a short period and shared what I learned. The most important was that children in her classroom were not waking up and deciding to have behavior problems. Many of the students were living in single parent households or without any parent, but other relatives. A few were without a home and many suffered abuse or neglect. Because of that, students used inappropriate coping behaviors to make it through their days. I reassured her that nothing was personal - even if it was pointed right at her, which so many times it was. The behavior was always, always a reflection of what the child was going through. I shared the ACEs Study and the neuroscience with her. We spoke of Energy Medicine and building resiliency, theirs and hers.
Equipped with her new knowledge, Candace found the strength to keep walking into that classroom and she and the children improved through her perseverance and new resilience. She was able to diffuse behavior problems. She could even see when problems were just beginning to build with her new knowledge and expanding experience. Students began trusting her, they felt safe, attitudes changed and learning began to take place. I don’t know how any of our teachers function without this trauma informed knowledge - these wonderful tools. I don’t know how students can learn without a trauma informed teacher and classroom.
One example of something so small having such a large impact comes from a bright third grader who was without a home. He and his mother lived in a shelter, but if they didn’t arrive at the shelter early at night they would have to stay at a friend’s house, so he was never sure where he was sleeping. He experienced problems with mood, self-control and following directions. He spent more time in the office than he did in the classroom. Candace noticed that he liked to fold paper, so she would give him all the leftover copies and handouts for his folding. She took notice of the interests of her students, which can create an open door.
I had been buying used books at the thrift stores for her students and shipping them to her classroom where the children could pick a book to keep for themselves – for some it was their very first book to call their own. I remembered the boy and the folding paper, so I looked for an origami book and found the perfect one. When the books arrived, she gave the boy the origami book. That book was never out of his reach. It went everywhere with him from that day - and he didn’t have very many possessions - but this one was prized. He taught himself the instructions (anyone who has ever tried origami knows that this is not a simple art form - the directions are tough) and made the amazing creations from the book. Suddenly the other students were taking notice, and my daughter found him teaching the other children how to make an origami-jumping frog. A teacher who notices her students’ interests - one special book - so simple. He was suddenly calmer - he was much more social, happy and spending more time in the classroom.
I still buy books at the thrift store - but now I am sending them to Harlem where my daughter moved and is teaching fourth grade students. Lucky them. Now she’s teaching me things. I also buy books for Tarpon Springs students - there’s nothing like having your very own book! Something so small.
Written By: Mary Sharrow, Peace4Tarpon Board Member