Friday, October 31, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Phila. teachers need support

"My students weren’t able to make progress this year. I did them an injustice. The School District did them an injustice. They did not get the education they should have." - Maria Ciancetta  (MATTHEW HALL / Staff Photographer)<br />
"My students weren’t able to make progress this year. I did them an injustice. The School District did them an injustice. They did not get the education they should have." - Maria Ciancetta (MATTHEW HALL / Staff Photographer)

As a schoolteacher who left the Philadelphia School District in frustration, I understand the concerns raised by former teacher Maria Ciancetta in a recent Inquirer article by Kristen A. Graham. Like Ciancetta, I tried my best to stay but was overwhelmed by some of the same challenges.

After I left the School District, I earned my master's degree in counseling. I provide family-based counseling and have done work with children in the School District who have been affected by violence. In my spare time, I also lead workshops for teachers in stress management and social-emotional skills.

Here's one truth I've learned from all this: We will continue to hemorrhage teachers unless we address the reality of what is happening in our schools. We can avoid this only if we pay attention to who is teaching and who is learning.

Let me be more specific. My experiences as a counselor, and as someone who believes in principals, teachers, and students, tell me that when we take care of teachers, we take care of students. How do we do this? It seems that there are three issues to examine.

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  • First, we know from research that teachers' mastery of social-emotional skills, including empathy, reflective listening, and self-awareness, dictates not only how stressed they feel, but how effective they will be as teachers.

    Our teachers lack training in connecting with their students interpersonally. Some teachers naturally possess social-emotional skills, and others have different strengths and weaknesses, but all can improve these skills with practice. In fact, guidance counselors, who are schooled in these skills, enjoy a certain popularity with students largely because they have been trained to know how to connect. (Students feel they are being listened to, so they can tolerate feedback about their behavior; think connection before correction.) In a school district in which there is often an additional socio-economic, racial divide between teachers and students, there is even more of a reason to give our teachers tools to bridge this gap.

    Second, teachers need to be trained in how trauma and adverse childhood experiences, such as incarceration, poverty, or the loss of a parent, affect how children function in the classroom.

    They must understand not only the biological and psychological effects of trauma on the brain, but also the degree to which children are bringing family, neighborhood, and personal stressors into the classroom.

    When I was teaching, I often was called upon to comfort and console a child who came to school in tears because a father, brother, friend, cousin, or neighbor had been shot on the street. Still, I was often unaware of the depth of the effect the children's home lives had on their behavior. Because guidance counselors are in short supply, or are swimming in paperwork, children often have no place in school where they can process their feelings of fear, loss, anger, confusion, and grief. As a result, the trauma of neighborhood violence, abuse, and poverty goes untreated and can show up as "bad" behavior. We need to help teachers understand that behavior in the classroom can sometimes be given a more accurate diagnosis based on what is happening outside school.

    Third, School District teachers, especially the new ones, require training in stress management because it is an inseparable part of the job.

    As the famous Haim Ginott poem says, it is the teacher's mood that "creates the daily weather." Every inner-city teacher I know can tell horror stories about the School District and the injustices that it can exact upon students and teachers. Our teachers are under a crushing amount of stress during the workday, and this takes its toll on the classroom environment.

    Many institutions (hospitals, government agencies, even the Navy SEALs) provide training in stress relief to promote resilience and prevent burnout. Mindfulness is one effective technique.

    Let's work on providing people with the training they need so they can do the job they signed up for back when they were starry-eyed new teachers. When we address these challenges with courage and honesty, we can provide schools with the best teachers - the ones who believe in the potential of students.


    Joanna Schwartz is a former Philadelphia schoolteacher.

    Joanna Schwartz
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