Dear Trauma-Informed Teacher,
You gave me a voice without knowing that voice would soon come back and penetrate the depths of your soul.
As you read my letter below, I know my words will be triggering for you at times, but please know, I too have a little knowledge about that subject as you will soon find out.
At times you may even want to discard or rationalize your behavior, but please hear me out. My intent is not to tear you down; rather, become allies in this sea of change of hope for my connected kin.
So, when you feel the urge to silence or discount my words or even worse, exhibit your unknowing position of privileged by turning off my realities that are broadcasted nightly on the news, I would suggest to you that you rest in curiosity and return with a renewal mindset of hope.
This is my story:
You may not have remembered me by name but I was that student that sat in the back of your 4th hour English Literature class by the windows. I came to school every day with the same Oklahoma City Thunder hoodie pulled over my head. On my good days when teachers allowed, I made myself invisible by pulling my hoodie strings so tight that only a fraction of my face was exposed. I've convinced my friends along the way that I was a huge Russell Westbrook fan which granted me a social pass to wear this same hoodie every single day.
However, truth be told, the real reason I wore that OKC hoodie was to hide from my realities. You see, during periods of my K-12 education, I've lived off of the streets. What you need to know is that on many days what I was wearing was the only clothing I had at that time. We got lucky for most of that time on the streets because my mother found a job cleaning rooms at the hospital. She would sneak us in so we could shower and clean our clothes in one of the vacant rooms that she was assigned to clean. I can still feel, what seemed like forever, that hot water trickling down my face.
So, that hoodie was my way not only to conceal my pain but it also allowed me not to be on a heightened state of alert 24/7 to defend my poverty. I learned to be very creative along the way and quite a storyteller. I didn't mean to deceive anyone, it was the only way I knew to cope and to protect my younger siblings of which were in my care, from being taken away from me. You see many people come and go in our house. The only consistency we have is the love of one another.
I know that many of you attempted to make calls home to what were long expired temporary phone numbers to my mother. I can also remember the puzzled looks you all gave me when I couldn't even tell you what number to call. By the way, you and the Principal telling me that day how you both could still recite your childhood phone number certainly didn't help to ease any of my pain. It's funny how those little snide comments that seem so innocent to most people, can get lodged into your brain.
Here are a few others for your consideration:
Usually at the beginning of the school year teachers ask students to write about their experiences over the summer break. I know that sounds like a noble and worthy assignment in helping YOU to better understand and build relationships with your students. But, for me, these activities actually re-trigger some of my most painful memories.
You see, school has been my only safe zone in many ways. This is also one of the many reasons why I'm not eager to show up on those first few days back after long breaks. I could give you a long list of other reasons for my poor attendance, but I've learned speaking truth comes with painful consequences.
And please don't think for a second that my mother doesn't value school when she doesn't show up for conferences or return your phone calls. You see for us, survival is a daily battle and school represents our only refuge where my mother doesn't have to worry about our safety. So, next time you begin to think to yourself or verbalized your opinions to anyone in earshot of how hard could it be for a parent to return your phone calls, please take all of this into consideration.
In terms of using our authentic voices through our writing: I wished I could have. I did enjoy listening to your trips to Gulf Shores and the wedding you attended in Mexico over the Christmas break. At times, I even imagined what it would be like to be your son.
I must also warn you as we approach what for me is that dreaded count-down to summer vacation that so many teachers display on their walls.
These will be periods of much unrest for me. For most students you serve, summer represents a welcomed break. For me, it will be quite a different story. Each day that is removed on your "Countdown to Summer Break" is one day closer to my hell. I would encourage you to re-think these practices and yield to empathy.
If you like to know more about my world, all you have to do is watch the first 7 minutes of the nightly news. However, I wouldn't judge any of you if you long abandoned the news with Netflix. Watching the same violence being reported out nightly on the news can take its toll. I only wished I had the privilege to do the same! You see over the Thanksgiving holiday, the news reports from my neighborhood in North St. Louis were anything but thanksgivings.
I tell you all of this to help you understand my behaviors. I'm most at risk that period right after state testing (usually around late April/early May) until the last day of school. With high stakes testing over and the release of all of that testing tension that seems to be present amongst teachers, my behaviors tend to be least tolerated. I find out-of-school suspensions come at a rapid pace.
I probably can recite better than you how those teacher/principal conferences get played out: "I've done everything this year to help him to be successful, but he hasn't changed one ounce! I'm done! He needs to spend a few days at home! Let his mother put up with his behaviors! I thought using the End of the Year Party (or fill in the blank) would have been a good enough incentive for him to behave, etc."
I certainly don't blame you for these reactions. I can't imagine anyone else having to live inside my brain. Just know that school represents my only structured and safe place right now in my life.
So, as we get closer to those last weeks before break, please understand my threshold of tolerance will also be greatly diminished. But, please don't give up on me or kick me out! That reaction would be what I normally expect from adults in my world. You also need to know that after 8 months in your loving care any feelings of abandonment or betrayal will be devastating to me if not re-traumatizing.
I'm happy that teachers are finally connecting my behaviors as my primary communication tool. It will also be very important for me that you re-visit those educational neuroscience professional development sessions from earlier in the Fall. You see the dysfunctional behaviors that I exhibit are a result of years of dendrites firing and wiring together from my dysfunctional world. That neuroplasticity that we learned, well it will take some time for me to re-wire my brain to a place where I can learn to trust you or any adult care-giver.
I'm happy that you are learning this year to become trauma-informed or sensitive. Maybe that is even why you never required me to take my hoodie off of my head. You knew that was a coping or sensory mechanism that I have been using all of this time before research backed up my natural feelings. Who of thought I was a neuroscientist too!
But, I have to tell you of the time earlier this year, when a teacher kicked me out for not removing it. She indicated I was being defiant and disrespectful! But here is the biggest kicker: When I went down to the "cool down room," guess what my special education teacher told me to do? You guessed it! Sit in a bean bag chair with a weighted blanket! My only wish here is that all teachers could get on-board instead of those snide comments of "let me guess, you have been traumatized so you can do whatever you want."
Now, I'm not the one with the educational degree, but what you all are learning and labeling as self-regulation, I've learned a few tricks or "coping skills" as you call them along the way. Ironically, no one ever asked me why I did what I did. I'm not sure if I would have been honest if asked, as most adults in my life have not shown to be trustworthy, but none the less, no one asked. All I remembered was "what's wrong with you?"
One last statement I want you to know before I end this letter and by no means is this blaming you.
I'm not stupid!
You see, back in 3rd grade I was diagnosed with ADD and placed into a resource room setting and given an IEP. Throughout my education, that diagnosis has followed me. I also realized very early on that my expectations were quite different from the other kids.
But, my world all changed last year when you brought in those folks that spoke to us about toxic stress and trauma. More importantly, how these all impact learning.
They called it educational neuroscience.
But for me, it helped me connect the dots to my life! Truly empowering! It not only proved to me that I wasn't stupid, but it gave me hope with a prescription for change! If I would have been screened for ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) you would have found me to be in the high risk bracket! I know now that my inattentiveness shown in the classroom was actually manifested from my body's natural response to my toxic stress in the form of disassociation.
Feel free to pass this letter on to your colleagues. As for me, when teachers begin to discuss grit and resilience, I smile and politely respond with, "I think I've got this one. Would you like to hear my story?"
Editor's Note: The above letter was a reflection from the authors true experiences as an educator, written in a third person trauma-informed lens. That Principal described above that proudly stated to that 4th grader what his childhood phone number was just happened to be me, the guy pictured below. I can't go back and erase that experience for that child. But, I can make it my mission to bring awareness to other educators so we can better respond to the needs today's students.
Dr. Jim Walters, was an early trauma-informed school adopter in the St. Louis region post-Ferguson. Through his consulting company; traumainformedlearning.com, he now assists schools in their quest to build healthier and more resilient communities through a trauma-informed lens.