The Critical Link Between Education and Health: Why You Must Watch Paper Tigers

It was an April morning early in my teaching career when, in the middle of a history lecture, I paused because of an unusual noise coming from the hallway.

"Finish copying down the rest of that slide, everyone. I'll be right back," I told my students.

I poked my head out the door to find out just what was going on in the hallway. Megan, one of my students who'd I'd marked absent at the beginning of the period, lay crumpled near the wall rapidly double breathing. I rushed over to help her up and find out what had happened. Her face was red and covered in tears. She couldn't bring herself to speak, so I quickly called the office for assistance.

After school was dismissed that day, I connected with our school counselor and found that just before arriving at school, Megan's cousin had called to tell her that Megan's mother had attempted suicide that morning. The crippling stress of such news was compounded by the fact that Megan had no siblings and that she'd never known her father. Her mom was all she had.

The name and details of the above story have been altered to protect the privacy of individuals. It's very close, however, to many experiences I have had as a teacher in schools and serves to cast light on what educators often experience in schools.

In the mid 1990's, the CDC and Kaiser Permanente partnered to begin the study of how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) impact longterm life outcomes. Nadine Burke Harris speaks eloquently about the study and ACEs in the video below.

Recent advances in neuroscience have helped us understand how ACEs, trauma, and chronic stress affect not only life outcomes, but the ability of students to focus and learn. They also affect our physical health. We know now, as Gabor Maté puts it, that humans are bio-psycho-social beings. Our physical health and optimal functioning is affected as much by diet and exercise as by our social-emotional health and vice versa. The implications of this new knowledge are so significant that those of us who work in schools have no choice but to educate ourselves on the effects of trauma and the practices of trauma-informed care.

For every student like Megan, for whom we may learn about an emotionally distressing life experience, there are many more who keep silent and cope on their own.

However, it needs to said that the point trauma-informed care is not to train educators to be therapists or to insinuate that every teacher needs to know the deep emotional lives of their students. In a recent post by the Seattle Times Education Lab on trauma's effect on students, one commenter mistakenly perpetuates this view.

Forest Farrington writes,
"This is the most asinine trend in education. Teachers taking the "trauma' approach to discipline must dance around every student disruption in order to sooth their past traumas.  In time, all of us experience some sort of trauma, and in the real world of the workplace, employers won't take the time to consider our past traumas if we choose to behave out of line.  If my child chooses to disrupt her teacher's classroom, I don't expect the teacher to psychoanalyze what's going on with my daughter at that moment; rather, I expect her to immediately address my daughter's choices with redirection, and if necessary, discipline."
Educators who understand trauma do not need to "dance around every student disruption in order to sooth [sic] their past traumas." Rather, teachers who understand trauma learn to hold students accountable for their behavior more humanely and compassionately. This decreases the likelihood that a student who's angry about something in their home life from that morning will deal with a teacher who snaps at them for something minor like being late to class.

In her book Police in the Hallways, Kathleen Nolan notes that it is often the inappropriate adult response to minor misbehavior that can escalate situations. This can lead to disproportionate punishment and youth disengagement with school. When students are unable to manage their emotional response, this can be a recipe for suspension and expulsion when denying students an education is exactly what we're trying to avoid.

Educators who understand trauma understand that students need to be taught how to handle their emotions and how to understand themselves. This does not mean that educators can't hold students accountable for their behavior. To the contrary, it means they continually strive to hold students accountable for their behavior in ways that help students grow.

It's with this understanding that James Redford and Karen Pritzker made the film Paper Tigers about Lincoln Alternative High School in Walla Walla, which the Seattle Times hosted a screening for yesterday morning at Foster High School in Tukwila.

My emotional response to the film was strong, and as a friend commented on Facebook, "if you have experienced childhood trauma, care for yourself as you watch it, and afterwards." But as an educator and the son of a social worker, trauma-informed care training for educators is an issue I feel strongly compelled to advocate for.

Paper Tigers is empowering because it shows us that there is much we can do in schools to better serve our students. And we shouldn't imagine that ACEs affect only students in low-income communities. The rash of suicides in cities like Palo Alto make it clear that emotional health is just as important an issue for affluent communities.

But Paper Tigers also reminds us how deeply ill our society is. Schools must adapt to better educate students, but schools alone will not solve issues of structural inequity buried deeply in our societal systems. Problems like segregation, pollution and waste, climate change, structural unemployment, soaring college costs, and wholly deficient social services must be addressed alongside school reform if we are to have hope for a better future.

Ultimately, it is through this lens that we understand that health and education are intricately connected, so much so that I think they are actually the same thing. It's difficult to learn and be metacognitive when you are unhealthy, and it's very difficult to be healthy and whole without an education.


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