This school year started off on a not-so-good note for me. My dad’s favorite uncle died and my siblings and I had to accompany our father to Jamaica, West Indies for the funeral. This caused me to miss the first three days of back-to-school.
You see, just as we adults have troubling things going on in our lives, our students do too. We, their teachers, are with them the most and are the ones they trust. Just as I prepare to meet my students with engaging and meaningful academic lessons, I must meet their social-emotional needs as well. While I, as an adult, have outlets to express needs, my students often don’t.
At the beginning of the year, I received a strong confirmation from one of my students from last year on the first day of this school year:
Dear Ms. Dukes,
There have been many things going on in my life. You already know my situation and the problems I’ve been through. The reason you know this is because I trust you. You see, you’re the teacher that I can go to when I have a problem. Thank you for being a role model on persevering. Thank you for being there when I needed someone. Thank you for being the person who made me realize about the real world problems. Because of you, my mind changed. I noticed I wasn’t as happy or confident as I used to be. I wasn’t secure. Being next to you made me feel protected. That cute smile of yours would always make me happy. Your humor and jokes would always make me laugh. I have realized that some kids don’t like you or think negative about you. Don’t worry about that because for me you are the best teacher someone can have….let me be honest, I don’t like you…I love you! You are the way better version of Pepper Jackie, lol! You are the person that was able to help me. I have been feeling depressed and anxious. I have been scared to lose my family. You have been there for me. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. I love you.
Our students are hurting, just like we are. There’s no debating this. Their social-emotional needs are not being met. Even though we might not hear as much news coverage any more, students across NY and this nation are still reeling from ICE agents separating families because of unjust executive orders signed and enacted by President Donald Trump. They are coming from marginalized neighborhoods where many of the men in their communities are incarcerated and households are plagued with divorce. They have parents who work two and three jobs to make ends meet. They are cyber-bullied 24/7. They are addicted to screen time. Our students need a plethora of support that teachers are expected to provide, often without the adequate resources with which to do so, the primary one being, first and foremost, stress management and self-care for teachers themselves.
According to Kate Stringer,
“Social-emotional learning programs for students are becoming more popular, and rightly so, as research points to gains in academics, graduation rates, and earnings. But what’s missing from these programs is support for the social-emotional needs of their teachers, who are experiencing stress and burnout. Research shows that if teacher needs aren’t addressed, students feel the impact….“Kids who are coming from homes where there’s a lot of poverty and violence and stress, having a teacher who is more tuned in to them, more caring, and more able to provide the social-emotional support they need may make a big difference,” Jennings said.
I am glad that I am able to support my students during their times of need and I know without a doubt that I am able to do that because I take care of myself — unapologetically and without permission from anyone. I have supportive school administrators and I’m honest with them when I’m experiencing challenges in life. Not every teacher is fortunate to have that experience. Many of my fellow colleagues sullenly share how sometimes they get a lot of flack for taking days off to take care of themselves.
How ironic that we are charged with taking care of so many others, yet we are not encouraged to take care of ourselves. Something is wrong with this picture.
Departments of education need to do a better job of taking care of teachers and empowering teachers to take care of ourselves so that we can take care of our students. The reality is that our students are hurting as well as us teachers. The social emotional needs of both parties must be addressed in order to achieve the education improvement that we as a country crave.