The Importance of the “Whole Teacher” and the “Whole Child”
David Read Johnson, Ph.D., CEO Miss Kendra Programs and Associate Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry, Yale University School of Medicine.
At its most basic level, education can be defined as what happens between a teacher and a student. Psychological trauma and toxic stress interfere with the health of that relationship. They impair a students’ ability to concentrate and bring all of themselves to the classroom. This stress also interferes with a student’s ability to self-regulate their behavior and emotions, leading to distracting and sometimes negative behaviors. In teachers, psychological trauma and toxic stress result in less bandwidth to tolerate the needs of the students, leading to states of impatience, avoidance and fatigue.
Add COVID-19, social isolation, hybrid learning to an outdated education system that directs teachers to keep students on task and respond to behavioral or emotional outbursts with disciplinary action and the relationship is even more strained and disconnected. Even though most teachers inherently believe students are not “bad,” they are not authorized to engage with the truth in their students’ lives. This can lead to increased frustration and feelings of professional failure among teachers, who entered the profession to help children live happy and productive lives.
To achieve and reimagine the best education possible, we need to change the way we imagine and conceptualize education and provide resources that allow teachers to “treat the whole child.” According to mental health professionals, this means simultaneously bringing together socio-emotional health and academics for teachers and students.
The first step is enabling schools to reimagine and support the presence of the “whole teacher.”
This means opening up conversations and capacities in a relationship that can tolerate accepting, listening to and solacing each other about the adversity that both the student and teacher may be facing. Without this, we have teachers who are at the brim of their capacity to tolerate the conditions presented to them in school. There is ample evidence to suggest that we are at this point nationwide.
According to a 2017 Quality of Worklife Survey from the American Federation of Teachers, 58 percent of teachers in America rated their mental health as “not good,” while in another survey, 67 percent rate their job as “very stressful,” which is double the rate of those in the larger workforce. We also know that statistically, 8 percent of teachers leave the profession every year, according to National Center for Education Statistics, half from retirement but half from quitting the profession. Of new teachers, 50 percent quit the profession by year five, citing the main reason for leaving as “stress” according to a survey from National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.
We have ample evidence that social-emotional learning programs can help with toxic stress in both student and teacher. By helping children speak about, explain and learn about the toxic stress that they are experiencing, we increase their intellectual understanding of what is happening so they don’t accept this stress as “normal.” This gives children a chance to learn, even if the adversity around them remains.
The same has to be true of the teacher. Teachers need a chance to bring their whole selves into work and to be able to help address the cause of their stress. This does not mean they are sharing their own personal problems from home, but rather to create an opening in themselves where the stories of hardship from the students can be held, and felt. Helping the teacher understand what is going on with the children can in turn give relief to the teacher and create a caring community within the classroom. This community acts as a “social buffer,” a protective social cushion that can mitigate the effect of these stresses on individual people. Strong morale helps to decrease long-term trauma for all, helping to avoid the inevitable breakdowns when students and teachers have to handle toxic stress on their own.
As we make our plans to return to school with safety protocols we also need to work together and reconceptualize the classroom to include the “whole child” and the “whole teacher.” We need to set bold goals and be support courageous school leaders who advocate for trauma-informed learning — for both the student and the teacher. We need to change the nature of the relationship between the teacher and the student. We need to get it right. The long-term mental health and well-being of our students and teachers are in our hands.
David Read Johnson, Ph.D. is the CEO of Miss Kendra Programs, and Associate Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry, Yale University School of Medicine. Miss Kendra Program is a national classroom-based trauma program working with thousands of children around the country. It has been featured in the documentary, Resilience: The Biology of Stress & The Science of Hope. He has written extensively on the treatment of PTSD and is co-author of the forthcoming second edition of Trauma-informed drama therapy: Transforming clinics, classrooms, and communities.