One of my second-graders, Tony, generally entered the classroom happy. But it took a very small thing to make him furious. Tony, who had been diagnosed with anger impulsive disorder, would get angry if he didn’t know the answer to a question, if I took too long to assist him with his work or if he didn’t understand the lesson.
One day, Tony was angry that he couldn’t be first in line. He began to yell at the other kids and push them.
When I intervened, he wasn’t pleased. He choked me with my necklace, screaming at the top of his lungs. He pulled hard and the necklace left markings around my neck.
In 2015, the Illinois Legislature passed the Senate Bill 100 (SB100) with the aim of creating more effective discipline practices. The bill means that students like Tony can no longer be suspended. SB100 eliminates zero-tolerance policies and limits suspension and expulsions. Instead, schools must implement appropriate and available behavioral interventions.
While the passage of SB100 was a good thing, my school did not offer an alternative discipline policy, nor did it provide training on developmentally-appropriate disciplinary methods that would help to serve students like Tony and to help guide and support teachers like me as they address students’ behavior and struggle to meet their needs. At least in my school, the bill was not implemented as it should have been.
As a result, I had to embrace that having Tony in my classroom was my reality. Daily, I would sit in my car consumed by an anxiety attack, unsure of what behavioral issues I would have to address once I got to my classroom. I looked forward to Fridays and hated the thought of Mondays, and my passion for and commitment to teaching started to fade.
Many teachers, especially those of us who teach in urban settings, experience work-related trauma. According to a 2017 survey conducted by American Federation of Teachers, 58 percent of teachers said their mental health was “not good” for seven or more of the previous days.
But we can do something about it. Here are a few ways to get started:
- Seek professional help.
Teachers are human and are as susceptible to trauma as anyone else. After experiencing the terrors of second grade, I enrolled in counseling. My therapist diagnosed me with PTSD, which shocked me. It is the last thing I expected to develop as a teacher. Now, she talks me through my experiences and helps me to find the tools necessary to ease my symptoms.
- Connect with others.
For an entire semester, I was afraid to tell my family and friends about the pain that I was dealing with. I was worried about the stigma that comes with mental health and so I didn’t talk about the physical attacks or the daily anxiety attacks. When I did finally reach out to other teachers, I realized that I wasn’t alone. Connecting with others helped me to realize that I did not have to suffer by myself. I could lean on others for support.
- Prioritize your mental health.
Take charge of your mental health. Develop a self-care plan so that you are not burned out. Listen to your intuition, and take time to restore yourself and to recuperate. You have sick days. Use them.
- Don’t be afraid to change schools.
Know your worth as a teacher and assess your environment. Is it just your class or is it the school? Does your workplace offer a supportive environment? My school was poorly managed and my principal didn’t offer me any support. She knew that the kids were beyond challenging, yet she did nothing to assist me. My principal did not effectively implement the components of SB100. Eventually, I asked her to sign my transfer papers. I knew that there was little else I could give to my students. The best thing I could do was find a new school to teach in.
It has been over a year since I saw Tony or any of the other students from my second-grade class. I continue to struggle with anxiety attacks and PTSD.
But I have taken the steps to reclaim my passion for teaching. By ensuring that I take care of my mental health, I am able to help kids like Tony. I am in a better place mentally and I feel more equipped to best serve students that truly need my help and support. I hope that schools in our state implement the components of SB100 with fidelity so that teachers can better serve their students.