Teachers, You Can Never Know the Demons Your Students Face, But There Is Something You Can Do to Help

This guest post is by an anonymous, Oakland-based educator.

One time my mom tried to kill me.

She chased me with a knife, cackling like a witch. It was hide-and-seek—but it wasn’t, it wasn’t a game. I trembled in a dark corner of the basement, which terrified me, but I was more terrified of her finding me. It was hours down there, in the dark.

She sometimes heard voices, and sometimes those voices would tell her to do very bad things.

But as a child, it’s just the two of you, hard to make sense of what is what, and this the person you love most, admire most and still do.

And that time with the knife, she later told me, the demonic voices were telling her to kill me. That is when she had to banish them.

That is how I lived. It wasn’t like that every day, and I love my moms, of course—but there were these episodes. You come home and all your stuffed animals are burning in a pile in the backyard—they were talking to your mom, they were evil, so she burned them. The cross that hung over your bed disappeared, it’s a sign, you rush out of the house and stay in hotel for a night.

She self-medicated. She drank, but she would never take medication. A proud Black woman, she would say she’d “never be a slave to a drug.” So she never took any drugs that might have helped her.

She would binge-drink and once I understood the symptoms of being drunk, I would scour the house and pour what alcohol I found down the drain. Thankfully she wasn’t a mad drunk and she never came after me, but I would pour every drop of alcohol out because she would drink it if I didn’t.

Her health got worse and eventually she was completely disabled. Life got worse for me too, struggling with where to sleep, among other struggles.

Thing is, nobody ever knew. About any of this. Nobody at school. Really nobody. I was good at just keeping it all in. Telling people my mom was “at the hospital” when they asked where she was, since she obviously wasn’t at the house I was often sleeping in. She worked in health care, so I wasn’t lying, but they just assumed she was working.

Many children live in a similar world of insecurity or fear, with their protector haunted by demons. But that is the only world you have as a child—or at least it is better than your other choices. And you learn early on to keep that world private and invisible to the outside world. Even though I was active and well-known at school, I was very alone, like so many children living through the mental health or substance challenges of their parents. Desperately trying not to attract any attention. Holding those secrets close.

One of my coaches pulled me aside once and tried to talk about my escalating drug use. Really gently, he talked about how his own child had a disability and he would have hated to have done something to be responsible. Even as a teen I understood the message. He had heard something and he cared enough to just talk to me. I appreciated that. I didn’t stop using drugs, and it didn’t relieve any of the underlying issues, but it mattered and I felt a little less alone. That was the closest any adult got to me.

Every educator likely has kids whose parents have serious mental health challenges and/or substance abuse issues. Chances are, they also have young people facing down their own mental health demons.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 20 percent of adults live with a mental illness and 1 in 25 have serious mental illnesses. These numbers vary by race and other factors, as does the likelihood of getting treatments. And half of all chronic mental health issues materialize before age 14. Furthermore, roughly 1 in 10 Americans over 12 needed treatment for a drug or alcohol problem according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

I studied psychology in college, because I wanted to understand if I was having mental health issues. Instead, I ended up in education. I don’t have the answers here, but I do have some simple advice for other educators, which is…you just don’t know.

You don’t know what some or many of your students are struggling through, things that might literally be life or death, or the more subtle wearing down of a kid’s psychological defenses. You really don’t. And you probably won’t.

But you can create environments where children are physically and psychologically safe. Where they will be known and cared for. Where basic needs are always met and more complex ones are increasingly met.

There is an invisible world educators interact with every day, because as children we learn to hide things from the world. I know there are things that I should but will never know about my students, but that doesn’t mean I still can’t act. We need to support that invisible plane that students sometimes exist on, even without seeing it, but knowing it is always there.

And I have also learned that persistent caring matters, just being there enough, asking for the 100th time how a child is doing even if they said “fine” 99 times. Just showing that I care for their well-being consistently in bigger or smaller ways. And sometimes kids will talk, and share, and that can help.

Whether children are struggling with their parent’s demons or their own, nobody wants to face them alone.


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Teachers Need Tools and Support not “Accountability”- Concretely Appreciating Teachers on Teacher Appreciation Week

Accountability like sh*t flows downhill.  And accountability talk from policymakers and shills is like the halftime at a Raiders game after too many tailgate tacos.

It’s teacher appreciation week, so let’s actually appreciate the lifeblood of schools, and give them a break.  The current accountability talk, misses the soul of a school and teacher, and hurts rather than helps.  And rather than crafting more whips to crack, we need to lighten the increasing load of teachers so they can get back to educating.

In an increasingly complex job with an ever expanding set of mandates and masters, teaching is extremely challenging, and less fun.  At least in the schools I see, I don’t see anyone kicking back and reading the paper.  I see some teachers struggling, exasperated at times, overwhelmed by need, but everyone is trying to dig themselves out of that hole, they may not have the tools or support but they are trying.

“I feel like a failure”

Nobody I know who teaches, went into it because it was easy or lucrative.  The motivation of educators at least 95% of the time is to help students. It’s not to have an easy life, or easy job, or giant paycheck with summers off.  It’s to help.

When our teachers saw their student’s scores on the new common core exams—they were crushed, “I feel like a failure” one moaned.  They don’t need some third party that has never been to the school to hold them “accountable.”

And in my younger days I was that “accountability” guy.

Of course teachers should be judged on student test scores.  In theory…maybe…but in reality, in this world?  In NY a politically and monetarily costly battle to include test scores in evaluations has been pulled back largely due to errors in implementation.  And while these systems make hypothetical sense, the reality is much more challenging.

The research is mixed at best.  First, there are large year to year differences in test score gains even with the same teachers, which should just make us pause.  Second, the research around pay for performance and its effects on learning and the educational experience, is not necessarily positive.  Certainly nowhere near the political enthusiasm.

Teaching is getting harder

The bar on what children need to know and be able to do has been abruptly raised by the common core curriculum.  The children are also, more diverse, and I think bringing more issues and trauma to the schools.  And teachers are meant to be counselor, nurse, data specialist, special needs expert, family outreach worker, restorative justice coordinator, translator, and educator, with new roles, reports, and responsibilities mandated monthly.

The same teachers have become scapegoats in the debate, for our failure to give students the supports they need to be successful.  In this context it’s not surprising that we have a current teacher shortage in CA, with an even larger one looming, particularly for high need specialties.

Real Teacher Appreciation

If we really want to appreciate teachers, as I am sure everyone will say they are, then let’s spend some time thinking concretely about how we can make teaching better, more fun, more sustainable, more supported, and more impactful.

I have one idea, well it’s not my idea.

What is the most miserable time for teachers that recurs several times each year?  It’s grading.

Getting grades in and completing grade books is a quarterly or triannual tooth pulling.  Teachers scrambling to compile grades for 40 homework assignments that were copied in breakfast, and include a plethora of measures that are not really related to student learning, and likely unintentionally harbor bias of one type of another (like behavior and class participation).  This is ripe for simplification and reform.

A recent blog by Joe Feldman of Crescendo Education Group is a great starting point describing that firm’s work in reforming grading with teachers,

They learn the benefits of grading on a 1-4 scale instead of a 100-point scale, not awarding extra credit, considering the most recent performance as opposed to averaging scores, and separating academic mastery from behaviors and subjective judgments. They consider more effective ways to give feedback, and how using grading as a classroom management strategy (“I’ll subtract points from your final if you misbehave”) undercuts learning and undermines equity. In the best situations, teachers learn through collaborative action research; they test alternate grading practices in their classrooms, share results with colleagues and repeat the cycle throughout the year.

I challenge others reading this on Teacher Appreciation Week, to drop the speech, and to think about how we actually honor and support educators.  Rather than adding one more mandate, what can we take away to allow them to effectively teach.  Isn’t that what we all want.