Editor’s note: This essay is an entry in Fordham’s 2021 Wonkathon, which asked contributors to address a fundamental and challenging question: “How can schools best address students’ mental health needs coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic without shortchanging academic instruction?” Click here to learn more.
“A learner is always embedded and embodied in a particular place at a particular time and his or her learning is a journey of which he or she must progressively become the author.”
—Ruth D. Crick (2012), p. 692
When I taught high school eighteen years ago in Southern California, I would have told you that two of my 150 students were struggling with the effects of psychological trauma. I remember those students vividly—their emotional outbursts and frustration, as well as their charm, humor, and charisma. Next, I would also have told you that my teacher preparation program, with its emphasis on student-centered teaching, had equipped me to make academic content accessible to all students, but had left me ill-prepared to meet the deeper needs of traumatized children.
Today, as an education researcher, I realize I was probably way off in estimating the prevalence of trauma among my students. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study of the 1990s, which included more than 17,000 California adults, found that nearly two-thirds had experienced at least one major traumatic event in childhood (e.g., abuse, neglect, or separation from caregivers), and 22 percent had experienced three or more such events (Felitti et al., 1998). Later research in the U.S. found similar ACE prevalence across races and socioeconomic classes (Giovanelli et al, 2016). The prevalence of trauma is an urgent problem for schools, because higher exposure to these stressors predicts not only higher rates of depression, substance use, and health risks in adulthood, but also lower educational attainment and occupational success. Even so, the ACE scale fails to account for broader contextual stressors, such as environmental health risks and economic uncertainty, that disproportionately affect communities of color (Paradies et al., 2015), and have wrought profound racial disparities during the Covid-19 pandemic (The Atlantic Monthly Group, 2021).
Trauma due to the pandemic is real and widespread. As of May 14, 2021, nearly one in ten U.S. residents had contracted Covid-19, and about one in 550 had passed away from the disease. This means that millions of U.S. schoolchildren, especially those from communities hit hardest by the pandemic, have had to grapple with the serious illness or loss of a loved one, to say nothing of the job losses that befell so many families due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, school closures have left as many as 55 million U.S. K–12 students bereft of contact with peers for extended periods of time, and without the respite from complex home lives that school often provides. Seeing a sharp rise in urgent mental health care needs among children and adolescents (Leeb et al., 2020), schools are cognizant of these challenges. They are rapidly adopting curricula, such as mindfulness training, to help students cope with stress and anxiety (Brooker, 2020). That is good news, but meta-analyses show modest benefits of such curricula for students’ well-being and achievement (Maynard et al., 2017), meaning they are not a panacea in themselves.
We have known for some time that teachers are the most important school-based determinant of student learning (Chetty et al., 2011; Rivkin et al., 2005), but they may also be the most important resource schools have in facilitating students’ resilience. School leaders should not only remind teachers to respond flexibly to students’ social and emotional needs, but should help teachers reframe their teaching practice around relationships. Students of all grade levels and backgrounds need to know that their teachers see and value them. This is true not just for the students who actively demonstrate the effects of trauma with disruptive behavior, but for every student, because trauma does not always announce itself in the classroom.
Asking teachers to prioritize relationships is not as easy as it may seem. Teachers are trained to teach—to distill academic content in ways that students can master it (Hill et al., 2005). Education policy in the past two decades has required them to maximize efficiency in that regard, to the near exclusion of other aims (Hamilton et al., 2013). Moreover, teachers’ caseloads are often huge. A secondary school teacher may teach upward of 150 students per day dispersed across four to seven class periods. This configuration makes it difficult for teachers to work individually with students on a regular basis. But by meeting with students in small groups or one-on-one while other students work independently, routine connections are feasible. In fact, when focused on academic content, individual and small-group check-ins are widely used pedagogy. But school leaders can ask teachers to think beyond that. On a routine basis, teachers should check in with students about how they are doing, what they are anxious about, and where they need help. Students’ answers may concern academics, meaning they can inform teachers’ pedagogical choices. Or they may be personal, invoking longer conversations or a concerted response among school staff.
Skeptics will say, “Don’t teachers have enough on their plates without trying to connect routinely with every student?” But the choice between teaching and connecting is not a choice at all. Teaching as a human act happens in the context of relationships. We have evidence from young children and adolescents that when the teacher-student relationship is strong, students’ academic achievement is higher (Gale, 2020; Lee, 2012; O’Connor & McCartney, 2007). Granted, it is difficult for such studies to rule out reverse causation and omitted variables. Students who are better-prepared or more-engaged may find it easier to gain their teachers’ attention and support. But descriptively, these findings remind us that relationships are a central feature of student learning. From earliest childhood, they characterize how each of us understands and engages with the world.
They say hindsight is twenty-twenty, but that seems generous. If I could turn back the clock eighteen years and re-teach my former high schoolers, could I better engage not only the most distressed among them, but each student on my roster? In considering that question, I do not want to discount the time constraints teachers face, or the physical exhaustion of teaching seven hours a day, with lesson planning and grading on nights and weekends. Still, I think the answer is yes. I would do some things differently.
First, I would aim for a brief individual conversation with each student each week, and I would try to ensure that it included at least one question beyond the current lessons and assignments—a question about their lives, families, or goals. Periodically, I would use lunch or afterschool times for follow-ups (much as I now use office hours in teaching graduate students), and would coordinate with a school counselor when I perceived that more support was called for. In addition, I would reserve part of class once a month for a group discussion of whatever was on students’ minds, aiming to follow-up informally with students who seemed disengaged or frustrated during the discussions.
These are small steps; they are the farthest thing from a sweeping policy agenda. But they do ask us to reconceptualize the role of teacher from that of pedagogue to mentor. It’s a subtle shift, but perhaps if we helped teachers to place relationships at the forefront of their practice, we could engage more students in the kind of sustained learning that human connection makes possible.
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