Back to school time! We bought our new clothes, new shoes, new backpacks, and school supplies! But, with all of these shiny, new, perfect things ready for the school year, it was evident that my kids were putting so much more then pencils and books into their backpacks. It is incredible how my mom brain teaches my teacher brain things sometimes- things a teacher knows- but a mommy feels. Step into my living room with me as my children packed for their first day of school…
My middle school daughter carefully placed her binders and notebooks: supplies which she had personally picked out, counted and checked three times, and on which she had already written her name and homeroom. She asked me if I knew her classroom yet, her teachers, what kids would be with her, what friends she would leave behind, how far my classroom was from her locker.
I watched her pack her fears and anxieties, her perfectionist tendencies and control issues into that backpack. I know what created them in her, very real stresses that left not a mark on her body, no outward telltale signs… and I wondered how this would show in her classes, or if her teacher would see “all” of my daughter and what she carries.
My daydreaming first grader threw all of his stuff in the bag- after I repeated myself three times. This summer, he was diagnosed with hearing issues caused by negative pressure. Into the bag went this hearing problem…but will his teacher unpack this detail about my son, or will she think he doesn’t listen to directions?
My shy, quiet preschooler packed his bag too. He was eager and happy about all of his new things- but desperately afraid to leave us. Into his bag went his separation anxiety and his learning disabilities. I wondered how he would act on the first day: would he throw a tantrum, would be cry, or throw things? Would his teacher understand his frustration, or only see his behavior?
Finally, my hyperactive, emotional 3rd grader was packing. He snuck back to his room, collected a couple of little toys and placed them in his bag. This made me wonder how many things my students would be ¨hiding¨ in their backpacks: hunger, neglect, poverty, incarcerated parents, substance abuse in their home, divorces, abuse, abandonment, sick family members, or even overbooked schedules. Really, there are so many stresses that could be affecting my students this year, and often no way for me to SEE it! They may not show up in their files or on their nurse’s cards. But it will show in those behaviors I don’t understand, in their reactions, their interactions- in not doing their homework, or not being interested, or being hyperactive. And it looks different in different students- just look at my very different children who all have suffered through the same stress of a divorce.
From my mother’s heart, to my teacher’s head, to the advice I´m writing here. Teachers: we NEED to take the time to find out what is packed in our students backpacks. We need to check the files, the nurse reports, and notes in the computer. Let’s take the time to track down last year’s teacher. Let’s go through the extra work of reaching out to parents. When there is an issue, let´s question what else could be there, remembering that many of our students are carrying hidden trauma with them!
You and I know that when kids are stressed, it’s tough for them to learn. Let’s have compassion, setting a tone of caring, peace, and safety in our classrooms. While routines, schedules, and procedures are important in every classroom, it is especially important in helping a hurting student, because when they know what is happening next, that provides a safe feeling. Be aware that hurting, traumatized kids often have negative attitudes, and are always expecting the worst. Let’s give them positive experiences- often. Set goals and help them to achieve them, filling them with the worth and value they deserve. When you meet your kids this September, look a little deeper into those backpacks. Be a teacher who sees their students. Students today are carrying so much with them- maybe we can help to lighten their load.
Jessica Cicalese-Kurtz, MA in k-12 Teaching and Technology, BA in k-8 Education, BS in Biology, Science and Engineering. Jessica is a middle school teacher at Toms River Schools, K-8 Science curriculum writer for Toms River Schools and Ocean County, an independent Science workshop creator and presenter, freelance writer.