Our students are experiencing trauma. We teachers need training to help them cope.


A few weeks ago, a co-worker of mine walked into our suburban high school library, sat down, and took a deep breath before slumping her shoulders and opening her laptop. I could tell something was bothering her. I know all too well the look of helplessness mixed with defeat.

Eighteen years ago, when I was a teacher at Corliss High School in Chicago’s South End, I had the same look as I stood in the hallway after interacting with one of my students. I had been a teacher for five months and this student had lost her mother and siblings to the violence during the Christmas holidays.

When she came back to school, I didn’t know what to say. I walked out of class to talk to her, nervous about saying the right thing. I was suffocated thinking of his tragedy.

But my student stopped me dead. “Mrs. Caneva, here is my essay. She handed me a long typed essay on The Canterbury Tales and entered the classroom. I was left speechless and in awe of this student who had been through so much but was still writing her assignment.

Years later, we reconnected and she revealed that a counselor and another teacher were the only ones at school helping her deal with her trauma. She knew more could have been done.

Now let’s move on to my colleague: when I asked her how she was doing, she welcomed the interruption, speaking willingly of a student in her class.

“My student is worried about his family members. She is Ukrainian,” said my colleague, just after the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army. When her student expressed concern, she added, “I just didn’t know what to say.

I told him it was OK not to know what to say and briefly shared my experiences with students on the South Side who had lost family members and even the grief I felt when I had lost students. I wasn’t ready to help them or myself deal with trauma. While each case helped me better handle these situations, teachers shouldn’t have to rely on experience alone to guide the way.

In all my years as a teacher, I have never attended a meeting or professional development session on how to help students deal with trauma. I bet the teachers in most districts in our country don’t either.

Think of the past two years: mentally and emotionally, we have been devastated as a society. We have faced global disease, heightened racial tensions due to police brutality against people of color, gun violence in some of our safest places – our schools and churches – and a war launched by Russia only a few months after the end of the war in Afghanistan.

Many of us watch this news unfold from the comfort of our phones, at all times. Doom-scrolling, as it is called, weighs heavily on us mentally.

Our children and young adults are not oblivious to these events. Some, like the two students mentioned above, experience it directly; they are part of traumatic events. Others are deeply affected by witnessing and watching the events, and/or by the environment these events have created. Researchers from the University of Calgary conducted studies globally during the COVID-19 pandemic and found that anxiety and depression had doubled compared to before the pandemic.

As adults, we are often told that children are resilient. But we can’t ignore their trauma and just move on to the next part of the program. Addressing student trauma should be a top priority in our professional development, taking precedence over workshops on the latest technology tools, standardized test scores, or grading practices.

Teachers need tools other than writing a pass for a student to a counselor’s desk. Our students see their teachers every day, the effects of trauma often manifest for the first time in the classroom, and school counselors are already overwhelmed by a high workload.

Now is the perfect time to offer trauma training to teachers. Our students need and deserve it.

Gina Caneva is the Library Media Specialist at East Leyden High School in Franklin Park. She taught at CPS for 15 years and is nationally certified. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva

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