We Can’t Do It All, So Please Stop Asking/Expecting Us To

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January 27, 2020

To prepare for this month’s blog, I Googled “what should be taught in school?”


Teachers — I don’t recommend it.

Apparently, we are supposed to be taking care of everything from “how to heal a broken heart” to “how to grow food,” as well as the tried and true “how to study” and “what taxes are.” (Spoiler alert, we DO teach those last two — kids just sometimes turn into grown-ups who don’t remember.) Everyone has an opinion, with many making valid and important points about where we are failing students of color and students with disabilities.

Lately, though, the trend that has me most concerned is what teachers are being trained to do. Now, you may be thinking, “Cara, that’s not a new trend — we’ve been doing trainings forever!” And yes, you’re right. Over the years, I’ve been trained on cross-curricular instruction, multiple intelligences, cooperative learning, standards-based grading, visible thinking, deep learning … the list goes on and on.

What has me concerned is the trend of training teachers in topics that are not directly related to curriculum and instruction, in lieu of giving them the actual supports they would need to help students. Specifically, topics like “social and emotional learning,” “trauma informed teaching” and “positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS)” are popping up in schools all over right now — and for good reason. Our kids are coming to us with wounds and baggage we can’t see, and it affects their ability to listen, to learn and to connect with us and their peers, as well as affects their behaviors and choices. It’s serious stuff, and it requires serious attention.

Recently, one of my favorite people on Twitter, Maire Cervenak (@Maire_from_NJ) pointed out that motivational posters and kindness are not enough to help kids suffering from mental illness or trauma. It started a conversation about what a teacher’s role should be in the classroom, as opposed to the role of a trained therapist or counselor. Teachers want to help kids — it’s why we got into this profession in the first place — but there has to be a point where our help ends, and the students are given (yes, given, for free) access to whatever professional help they need.

So therein lies the problem: Which part(s) of teacher training helps us identify the things we should take on, which are relevant to classroom connection and instruction, and which things we must leave to another expert? Additionally, what do we DO when we come to the point where we realize a student is never going to get access to that expert because our school/district doesn’t have that resource (or the resource is spread too thin to be useful)?

To be clear: This isn’t a “that’s not my job, just let me teach” argument, although I do understand the sentiment and the frustration. This is a plea for realism and support. We know districts can’t always afford the social workers, psychologists, counselors and other support staff needed to truly support students’ needs, so we rely on our teachers (and administrators) to fill these roles. It is in the nature of the teacher to want to know how to “fix” problems, but (well-intentioned) districts just cannot be expected to provide all of the answers. It isn’t fair, it isn’t right, and in many cases it isn’t ethical to allow students to rely so heavily on people not certified or trained to truly help them. Additionally, the impact can be second-hand trauma for teachers, which only lessens our ability to help.

I have never been one to shy away from helping a young person in need. I have driven a young woman to a mental health facility when she didn’t think she could handle admitting herself alone. I met another and then waited outside while she went into therapy for the first time, just to make sure someone was there when she was done. I’ve comforted countless young people in tears in my classroom after school (as most teachers have). But each and every time, I felt my limits. I sensed where my role ended, and the counselor, parent, therapist or social worker’s began, and I didn’t feel guilty about that. My worry is that many teachers are either not given any real supports in knowing when to step back, and/or there is no one to refer a student TO.

This is an unsustainable model, and will continue to contribute to the ever worsening teacher shortages and teacher exodus across our state and the nation if not addressed seriously and quickly. Teachers can only do so much — and we’re being asked to do much more than is feasible, healthy, or good for students. Michigan needs to do better.

About Cara Lougheed: I am a white, straight, cis-gender, non-disabled, married, middle class woman with 21 years of classroom experience in a suburban public school district in occupied Anishinabewaki land. My pronouns are she/her/hers. Anything you find here is based on my perspective, but I acknowledge that perspective has been limited by my experiences, choices, biases (implicit & not), and the unearned privilege I have had in my life. I hope to learn and grow from my colleagues across the state in the coming months as your Michigan Teacher of the Year.
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