Need for trauma-sensitive schools

I sometimes feel like I am on the front lines all by myself, defending my students from further trauma at the hands of the school system. No! I said recently when my Department Chair asked when I “wanted” to give my students the mid-year MAP-R test. I had to convince her that it was optional, really. I didn’t want this test because, even though the data is mostly useful, ESOL teachers have been testing just about every period, every day since January 6th. ( We test four areas of language proficiency: Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing – we don’t know how the scores are calculated and we don’t even get them back until June AND to make matters worse, we have to test 60 students who are no longer getting ESOL services). The testing windows closes at the end of the week. What this means for people on the outside is that I, personally, have watched students take a test for more than 35 hours in the past six weeks. This does not include a week when we had no school because of snow. I have five colleagues who have each performed a similar number of proctoring hours. We cannot get back the 200+ hours of missed instructional time. These are the students who most need consistent and appropriate instruction in order to succeed in an English speaking world.

This excellent interview in Education Week Teacher doesn’t even mention testing; I just had to air that complaint and get it out of my system. In the interview, author Susan E. Craig mentions that adverse childhood experiences can impair a child’s cognitive abilities. She says that teachers and schools need to be more “trauma sensitive.” Those of us on the front lines are doing a face palm at the obviousness of this statement. Instead of zero tolerance and punitive measures that can force the child to reenact an earlier trauma, some of us have perfected the “warm demander” approach, where we kindly and with a sense of humor try to talk them into doing their homework or coming to class. If you saw my grade book this marking period you’d wonder how well it’s working. Sometimes my goal for the week is to keep one student from dropping out.

I don’t mean to make light of a serious topic. I commend Susan E. Craig for focusing on this issue. I have advocated for trauma-sensitivity in something as simple as a Code Blue drill. Some of our ESOL students have lived through war-like situations – so don’t yell at them to “get down” and “cover your head” without giving teachers a heads-up so that we can provide some context – the buffer that Ms. Craig is talking about here . One thing she says that I cannot repeat enough: students who have lived through trauma need consistency and predictability. All this testing disruption undermines the very nature of cumulative progress.

And can I add one more thing? I have posted about how stressful this year feels. Recently a friend suggested that I stop caring so much! At least now I have some back up. See the quote below from the Ed Week interview with Susan E. Craig, author of Trauma-Senstive Schools: Transforming Children’s Lives (Teachers College Press).

Another challenge is giving teachers enough information and support to avoid being traumatized themselves by their over-exposure to the trauma children. It’s a very serious mental health issue that can come up for people that work with traumatized populations. I don’t think we do enough to help teachers recognize that and get the support they need to avoid having their own mental health compromised because of how stressed they are by the lives of the kids they’re working with.

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Eva K. Sullivan teaches English Language Learners in Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland. She was an English Language Fellow with U.S. Department of State during the 2017-2018 school year, working with the Ministry of Education in Laos, Southeast Asia. She writes short stories, personal essays, and has completed a memoir about her experiences as an expat in West Africa in the 1990s.

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