Teaching Through Trauma

This piece was published on The Triibe, to view it there please click here.

In my 16 years teaching in Chicago Public Schools (CPS), I have lost more students than years I have taught. During my teacher programs in college, I had fears surrounding how to create engaging lesson plans, how to make connections with students and how to help students who needed more support. I learned the basics of how to be a teacher in my college classes and then learned even more during student teaching (a.k.a. teaching internship) from experienced educators. My mom was an educator in Michigan, so I knew that teaching would be extremely rewarding and also extremely frustrating. The one thing I never learned, or was even remotely prepared for, was what to do when a student dies.

Everyone that I know and respect who works in school buildings always goes above and beyond for the students. We want to give our students every great school experience that we can. We try not to, but we think about lesson plans, grading and how to better connect with our students when we aren’t even at school, on weeknights and weekends. We dwell on that one kid who we haven’t been able to reach yet and think of ways to connect with them, to engage them in our class.

So how does an educator even begin to cope when a desk that was once filled by a student that we knew and built relationships with goes empty because that young person is no longer alive. How do we cope when we taught and mentored a student and saw them graduate only to see on social media that their life is over?

These are things that we are never taught and there is no support for in our school systems across the country. In Chicago, our schools are already criminally short on social workers and counselors. We went on strike in 2019 for eleven days in part so we could make sure every Chicago Public School had a social worker by 2024. The National Association of Social Workers says schools that are experiencing high levels of trauma should have one social worker for every 50 students

In Chicago, because of the 2019 strike we have one social worker for every 520 students! Chicago Public Schools has four crisis counselors for over 340,000 students. As I have learned through the deaths of my own students, these four crisis counselors go to a school to try to help the students dealing with the loss of a classmate and friend. The crisis counselors come for a day and then leave, but that school’s staff is supposed to pick up the pieces after that, with no additional sustained support.

The first student I ever lost passed away on a cold January night in 2011. My assistant principal called me early the next morning to tell me that Trevell was killed. I taught him as a freshman in 2007; the first ever class of students that I taught. 

I remember Trevell giving a speech in my class about the need for Black-owned businesses in Woodlawn and Englewood. When Trevell was killed as a senior, he was preparing to head to college. I remember going to school and worrying more about my students and how to make sure they were okay. I — and every adult in the building — tried to be their therapist and support while ignoring our own pain. That is a cycle that is repeated time and time again in school buildings across this city, every time a student dies.

Since then, I keep a list of students’ names in my phone who I taught that have died. That list continues to grow. It’s now at 22. These are the students I taught and talked to daily, who I cared for, was playfully annoyed by and loved deeply. 

These students are no longer here because of intra-communal violence, police violence and tragic accidents. In my head, when the number of students on the list on my phone would climb, I would start to get anxious. As it approached ten student deaths, I said to myself, “I am not sure how I will react if I ever have ten students die.” Ten deaths came, nothing changed; students, staff and families still grieved, but the trauma of loss compounded. 

For the past 16 years, I’ve honestly tried not to think about these losses, let alone talk about them, because if I bring them up, the emotions overwhelm me. It is like a fog rests on my brain. After many losses and much encouragement, I hesitantly started seeing a therapist because of student loss. I sat for an hour not wanting to tell my therapist about why I was even there because it was so painful. 

I’ve also been hesitant to talk about student loss publicly because I didn’t feel worthy of the deep pain I felt for them; these students had families and loved ones that were experiencing the loss much more profoundly than I was. I also worried about people commenting horrible things about my students if I shared my grief for them publicly. I have grown used to criticism and trolls hating on teachers, but when people blame my students for their own deaths, that hits different. 

The cycle of violence and trauma continues, prayers are given and children are blamed. Children are blamed for being with the wrong people or making the wrong choices. There are no “good” or “bad” kids. They are just kids. We must break the habit of trying to justify how sad we should feel when a student dies, depending on their goodness level. It is as if when a kid who has all the support that they need dies, then we should feel sadder than when a kid who should be getting more support dies. It is as if a child’s struggle absolves us of the same level of sadness. Violence and tragedy have become so normalized in our city and society that many immediately try to determine if the life that was lost essentially “deserved” it.

Everytime a student has died in this city, the mayor — whether it be Daley, Rahm or Lightfoot — has said how sad they are and sent their prayers, but we need more counselors, social workers and mental-health providers for the students in our schools. Educators have been demanding an increase in those supports since I started teaching in 2007. Officials are not developing policies to help create safer communities for our kids to live and thrive in. 

The situation has not improved since we lost Trevell. Students are still being killed, as we have seen this year, sometimes right outside the schools they attend.  I don’t want educators who have never experienced student loss to have to experience this. I want our students to be safe and I want politicians who will actually invest in neighborhoods, with job creation and youth activities, and invest resources into our schools for mental health services for our students, not more police.

For me, when any young person in this city dies, I instantly start to think about each and every student’s empty desk in my classroom.  I think about the balloon releases,  social media posts and funerals. I worry about losing more. I worry about my colleagues across the city, teaching through the trauma caused by the loss of students. 

The trauma of student loss makes me not only remember the students who I have lost but also tragically makes me afraid to lose the students who are in front of me. Through therapy, I have realized that I started to put distance between myself and students needing more support because I was picturing losing them and trying not to get attached. Honestly, this is likely the reason that I left other schools that I have worked at, because the likelihood of experiencing loss and more trauma was too high. My own therapy has kept me in the profession. I have learned how to work through the pain with a trained professional. Without therapy, I would be a distant father and spouse as the grief would consume me at times, and I likely would not be teaching.

What do educators do to survive this pain? What do we do when we are grieving but trying to be strong for our students, while at the same time, trying not to let ourselves picture losing the students in front of us too? 

In addition to the tragedies at Michele Clark and Benito Juarez high schools in 2022, my school experienced losing a student. I didn’t know this student personally, but hearing about his death made me think of every student who I had lost. Kanye, the student from Kenwood, was killed at the gas station where I used to get our family van repaired, at the corner where my partner and I lived during our first six years in the neighborhood, at the corner where my mom walks daily and the corner where our students buy snacks after school. A normal corner, outside a high school. 

I don’t want this or the next generation of teachers to have to figure out the coping mechanisms that I’ve learned. I don’t want this or the generation of students to fear just existing. We shouldn’t be experiencing loss in our schools or our communities. We should see politicians writing policy on the local and national level to create jobs, fund after-school programs, and at least double the required recommendations for counselors, psychologists and social workers in schools. We need to stop relying on teachers to counsel our students, and hire the trained experts. 

Every single student and staff member in our schools should be getting more support so we aren’t forced to fight this normalized violence and trauma alone. I’m thankful that the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is and has been fighting for wraparound services for our students and schools. Alder Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd Ward) has written policy so that Chicagoans can get treatment, not more trauma.  I am thankful to organizations such as GoodKids MadCity that have concrete proposals like the Peace Book Ordinance to provide resources and plans to establish the practice of peace.

Before this school year started, I talked to my partner and told her I was going to try to open up more about student death. She asked if I could handle it, not because she thought I couldn’t, but because she knows the toll it takes on me to do so. I’ve realized that everything that’s hard to talk about is worth talking about. 

Hopes and wishes have their place, but not to replace actual policy and investment that our students have deserved for generations. There are no “bad” students, just failed policies put forth by bad leaders. And because of this, we all suffer.

Panel Discussing What Chicago’s Students Deserve in Schools, Instead of Police

It’s important to remember that as Chicago’s school buildings re-open, that students going back won’t be greeted with mental health experts. They will be met by police. We need to reimagine our schools and what supports our students should have to help them, instead of the looming threat of arrest against them. I was honored to be on a panel discussing what our students should have instead of police put on by Raise Your Hand Illinois. To watch the full panel featuring CPS students, parents, educators and elected officials click here. #CopsOutCPS #PoliceFreeSchools

White CPS Parent to White CPS Parent, What Are You Thinking?

In Chicago Public Schools, white kids make up only 10% of the students. Yet shockingly, almost 7 out of 10 of the white families have decided to influence CPS towards reopening in-person learning during a pandemic. Roughly 7 out of 10 Black and Latino families have decided to keep their kids and school staff safe by continuing to learn from home.

As a white CPS parent who is absolutely, without question, keeping my children at home to continue remote learning, even amongst its challenges, I have to ask, white parent to white parent, with kids in CPS, why?

My partner and I are both white CPS educators and our two white children attend CPS. We will not be sending our children back to school in-person. Our own kids’ CPS teachers, as well as CPS educators across this city, are being more innovative than ever before, to teach our kids remotely. Of course, in-person learning is ideal, but we’re in a pandemic, nothing is ideal right now. We care about the safety and health of our children, their friends, their families, and their teachers. We will not put them in danger, period. So my question is, why are you?

Do you think that Covid-19 won’t harm your child? That the virus won’t harm you or your family? That it won’t harm your child’s friends or their families? That it won’t harm the educators who work with your child? What about their families they go home to each day?

My experiences with CPS didn’t start until 2007. Unfortunately, I learned quickly that the way the institution was run was deeply flawed and unjust. My experiences taught me that CPS is and has been full of lies for years, research tells me for generations

I’ve worked in schools that only had a nurse for half a day, once-a-week, on Fridays. I’ve seen librarians, counselors, psychologists, and social workers cut. Technology coordinators laid off and computer labs filled with non-working computers. I’ve worked in schools with no soap in the bathrooms, broken asbestos tiles and barely functioning HVAC systems. I’ve taught in classrooms with no windows, just cinder block walls and poor ventilation. I’ve worked at a school that was defunded to the point of being forced closed. I’ve seen little kids, on a February night, beg CPS officials not to close their schools. I have seen parents go on a hunger strike to open a school in their neighborhood. I, along with thousands of other educators, walked picket lines so your kids and every kid in Chicago Public Schools could have more

I’ve watched CPS close schools in the name of saving money, while simultaneously buying ten million dollars worth of new office furniture. Since my first year teaching in CPS there have been 8 different CEOs leading the school system.  Even the title of CEO is problematic, like kids are some sort of pawn in a business scheme. Some of these leaders are in jail, while some give themselves $40,000 raises, during a pandemic while simultaneously talking about equity. 

I’ve watched mayor controlled and undemocratically appointed school boards fail the students of this city time and time again. Just recently, the Mayor forced CPS to buy broken computers from her campaign donor. Until students across this city protested over the summer, our school system was paying the Chicago Police Department $33 million per year from our education budget to police our own students, in their own schools. 

I’ve seen the communities and schools that I work in be defunded. I’ve seen TIF Funds diverted, clinics closed, and violence increase. I’ve experienced the death of my students. I’m not okay from these losses, from these disinvestments, from these lies. I learned not to trust this school system. Due to your privilege of whiteness and the segregation of our city, you may not have learned these same lessons. 

I can’t sugar coat it, the choice you are making is selfish and beyond offensive. Of course, parenting is hard right now, working from home or in-person while figuring out how to do remote learning is beyond challenging. We have had to figure this out for months now. However, by opting to send your kids back to hybrid in-person learning you are choosing to risk the health and lives of others because of your inconvenience. Inconvenience, a foreign concept to most of us. The teachers that you desperately want your children to be with will catch your kids up again in-person. We do this constantly, after every break, after a student illness, after summer vacation. We are professionals and masters at our craft. We will catch them up, after we all are vaccinated, next school year. Kids will bounce back from the limitations during the pandemic.

However, do you know what you can’t come back from though? Guilt from causing pain and loss. The guilt of being responsible for getting other children or their families sick. The guilt of getting educators sick. The loss of livelihoods. The loss of life.  The guilt will rise because of your selfishness to push to open the schools, when it is clearly unsafe for so many.  Be inconvenienced.

Let’s be clear, if you’re not happy with remote learning, hybrid learning will be even worse. Educators have gotten pretty good at connecting with our students and can give them all our full attention.  Our lessons are getting more effective.  We’ve made changes to benefit our students that have taken time to develop and evaluate.  Hybrid will change everything.  It will force us to divide our focus.  Kids on screens? Or kids in person?  Does one get the priority?  They will all get a diluted experience.  With remote learning at least we can focus on everyone all at once and meet their needs. We can give live feedback, while students are working. Hybrid will require us to work two jobs at once and keep everyone safe. 

The warm and loving classroom that you picture your kids returning to is not reality. This new school reality, during the pandemic, will have students being yelled at for not wearing masks properly. It will feel chaotic, in-person one day followed by scary and inevitable Covid-19 outbreaks and quarantines the next. Kids thrive on structure. Fear, chaos and anxiety help no one.

Maybe you voted to send your kids back because you wanted options. You want choices to do what is best for your kids. You think you can change your mind in February and stay remote.  Here’s the problem, the decision to have this flexibility, guarantees that educators, parents, and students across this city will be put in harm’s way whether you decide to put your kid in-person or not.  You are responsible for getting this dangerous ball rolling.

Covid-19 has not impacted white communities to the same extent as Black and Brown communities. This isn’t due to racial superiority or inferiority, it is due privilege. White communities have been invested in and valued, while Black and Brown communities have not. To further highlight this, during this pandemic Chicago blew up a factory in a Latino neighborhood adding to air pollution and tried to close a hospital in a Black community, during a pandemic for a respiratory illness. We, white parents, can be anti-racist.  We can inconvenience ourselves for the benefit of those who have forever been inconvenienced.  We can greatly reduce the risk of getting and spreading Covid-19, in your circle, and also in our most vulnerable communities. We can prevent the loss of health and the loss of life. We have that privilege. 

So to my white parents, who make up just 10% of CPS families, yet are the persuasive 67% that want to send your kids back to in-person learning. I am pleading for you to be creative, be ok with further inconvenience and come up with other ideas. You don’t like remote learning and you want it improved? Good, so does every other parent and educator in this city. Use your influence to demand that CPS sit down with, partner and plan with parents, students and educators. Demand that this working group represent the population of CPS by having about 75% Black and Brown families. We white parents are only 10% of the total makeup of CPS, we should be a part of that conversation, we should not monopolize it.

White parent to white parent, use your privilege for good. Listen to and raise up the voices of concerned Black and Brown parents who do not want to send their kids back to hybrid in-person learning. What have they experienced in our school system that you have not?  What do they see that you don’t?  Join parent groups like Raise Your Hand, who work tirelessly to improve our schools, for all. 

Don’t send your kids back to school. Vocally tell CPS and the media that you made a choice because you wanted options and didn’t realize the consequences others would face across the city, because of your choice to have options. It is okay, we all mess up, we’re all naive and make missteps at times. Being a parent is always hard and during a pandemic, harder than ever. It is time for you to speak up, not only for your children, but all children.  As our Mayor ironically says, “We are all one home team, Chicago” so let’s do this together, to keep our city safe. 

Let’s demand that Chicago Public Schools creates a real plan with parents, educators, and students, from across this city making decisions at the planning table. Demand to create ways to bring about safety that does not jeopardize thousands of children, families and educators, just because white parents are currently inconvenienced. 

*Header photo courtesy of the National Children’s Advocacy Center

On The Delve Podcast Discussing Schools Opening During Covid

I was interviewed on a new podcast to discuss why schools should only open remotely this fall. My interview starts just after 18 mins. in. Before is a principal from New York City Public Schools and after me is the head of the Milwaukee Educators Association.

Back on Fox32 Chicago Discussing the CPS Decision to finally be remote

After weeks of teachers, parents, and students expressing their fears with the proposed hybrid model by Chicago Public Schools, CPS announced they would start the school year remotely. I was asked back on Fox 32 to discuss that decision.


Featured in the Chicago Tribune

After my blog post about why schools should be remote only this fall gained popularity, Chicago Tribune columnist Heidi Stevens interviewed me. She wrote this column based on a conversation that we had.