K-12 educators reflect on stress and trauma from past few years
Conventional wisdom says summer is down-time for teachers. They take a break from the classroom and enjoy some rest and relaxation. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, that down-time has become even more important
Teachers and school administrators in Northern Michigan said the past few years have made it harder to manage their own mental health—while still striving to put their students first.
Duncan Moran is a middle school teacher at The Pathfinder School in Traverse City. He has been an educator for 33 years and said it’s hard to be a teacher right now, especially for his younger colleagues.
“It’s been very stressful for them," Moran said. The profession of teaching is disregarded, and it is demeaned by the public at large and teachers are chronically underpaid and overworked.”
Teachers often have to walk on eggshells when talking about current events. Moran said critical race theory and LGBTQ+ identities are two things that are hard to teach without backlash from parents and community members. He said his experience and skill with language make it easier for him to navigate conversations like this with his students.
“One of the reasons I love being a language arts teacher is because I have to watch my language at all times," Moran said. "Because any word that comes out of a teacher’s mouth can be misconstrued. Every teacher’s been called to the mat. I’m really diligent with my language. There’s a lot of data—in an average day in a classroom, a teacher makes over like 4,000 instantaneous decisions—and they’re consequential decisions.”
Superintendent of Suttons Bay Public Schools Casey Petz said hyper partisanship has caused parents and community members to become more critical of teachers than ever. He said it is a big source of stress for many teachers.
"When you’re trying to teach social studies or current events or acknowledge student inquiry, while also being really careful not to divide your class with every word you say, it’s enough to drive you crazy,” Petz said.
“People come out swinging—it’s like judgement first before curiosity.”
COVID-19 safety protocols also caused many schools to come under fire, while also creating a lot of unique challenges for teachers. Jessie Houghton, principal of Traverse City Central High School, said the pandemic gave teachers even more responsibilities.
“What COVID has taught our families and our communities is how much we expected of our schools," Houghton said. "We don’t expect schools just to teach content, we expect schools to help support positive behaviors in kids, to identify potential concerns with kids, to protect kids from dangers.”
Among those dangers have been threats of gun violence in schools. On June 6, a teenager was arrested in relation to a threat of violence towards Northwest Education Service's Creekside School. Houghton's school was not close enough to go into safe mode, but other schools in her district were.
She said the effects of the threat were felt throughout her hallways, including after the November 2021 shooting in Oxford.
"I hate it," Houghton said. "To be honest, I hated—I hated that day after Oxford. That one felt really close because it was a high school and it was in Michigan. I hated seeing my staff who had created a really cool lesson and were super excited, and then seeing them anxious and feeling unsafe.”
Petz said stress and trauma can give people invisible injuries.
“It isn’t outside the realm of possibility that coming into a school could be potentially traumatizing for somebody whose job it is to be here every day in support of our kids," Petz said.
"That’s something I think that also weighs on the hearts and minds of our staff and students. How does that feel when you know that the laws haven’t changed?"
Houghton said it is important for schools to build a strong relationship with local law enforcement for any potential safety problems.
Not only do teachers and staff have to cope with current events and political issues, Petz said they also have to help their students navigate them.
“When you see the car crash or the train wreck—how hard it is to turn away," Petz said. "We’re on the front lines of a massive shift in a daily traumatization of a school-aged population. We don’t get the choice to look away. We have to bear witness to what is coming into our classroom and the impacts it’s having on our kids.”
Despite the challenges of being in the classroom, Petz says his teachers won’t back down.
“Teachers are hardwired to take care of people and to empathize and to be in the work for all the right reasons. It’s a rare person who goes through the education necessary and the internship and all of the work that you have to do to get a job in education—that doesn’t also have a great heart for the work and for our kids.”
Teachers are vocal about the challenges in their industry, and the pandemic has made more people aware of the personal struggles our mentors deal with. Educators are now seen as caregivers just as much as they are instructors, but perhaps it’s always been that way.
WCMU Public Television will explore issues surrounding mental health with a Ken Burns documentary, "Hiding in Plain Sight." The film premiers June 27-28th on WCMU Public TV.