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Students, Living with Trauma, Struggle in School

October 12, 2015 — John Green, award winning young adult author, recently gave a TEDx Talk in Indianapolis entitled, “The nerd’s guide to learning everything online.” He explained how he was a terrible student and felt education was a series of hurdles he didn’t care to jump. He said teachers would threaten him by saying he couldn’t get a good job because his GPA was too low and it would go on his permanent record. “As far as I could tell at eleven or twelve years old, people with good jobs woke up early in the morning and the men with good jobs, one of the first things they did was tie a strangulation item of clothing around their necks,” he said. “That’s not a recipe for a happy life. Why would I want to jump over all of these hurdles and have that be the end? That’s a terrible end!”

John Green’s example may seem exaggerated but it is the perception of many students and as experts say in the world of sales and advertising, perception is reality. Students who struggle with trauma in their lives often see little to no importance in attending school. They see it as a hurdle, a hurdle that by law is required of them and a hurdle someone other than them cares more about. Why should a student who is burdened by the crushing weight of poverty, hunger, abuse, having to be the main source of income, living in a crime-infested neighborhood, loss of family and friends to violence, being a teen parent, being the parent to their parent(s), and having intermittent heat, electricity, or running water want to attend school? When life is about survival, school is an unnecessary hurdle.

School should not feel like a hurdle, should not feel like something one has to do for someone else. Students have mastered the basic economic principle of opportunity cost without realizing they have. Many students living with trauma see the cost of attending school as greater than the benefits. By being at school, they see the lost opportunity of getting a job, making money, parenting younger siblings, and having the freedom to make their own choices. They don’t see nor value the future benefits promised of an education because they are focused on trying to survive the present.

According to the 2009 New York Times article, “Large Urban-Suburban Gap Seen in Graduation Rates,” the urban-suburban school attendance and graduation gap is due to the inequality of teacher quality from classroom to classroom. We have to start at ground zero, in the classroom, with increasing the quality of teachers and teaching if we are to motivate students to attend school. The teacher ultimately holds the power to motivate students to attend school and the classroom is ground zero for inspiring students. If teachers create a safe and nurturing environment in the classroom, if they differentiate and individualize instruction based on the needs, wants, and learning styles of students, students will want to attend school. If teachers provide students extended learning opportunities such as guest speakers, field trips, contests, simulations, projects, character building workshops, and college and career fairs, students will attend school.

Steps are being taken to improve the quality of teachers and teaching in the alternative and urban schools; however progress is slow and infrequent. Hamtramck Public Schools is one of the few school districts in Michigan to have a person dedicated to teacher evaluation and instructional improvement, which is my current position with the district. The University of Michigan –Dearborn is one of the first and few universities to have a concentration area in Metropolitan Education for their Education Specialist and Doctoral degree programs. More secondary schools and institutions of higher learning should develop programs and plans specifically to improve the quality of instruction within urban and alternative education schools. By doing so, students living with trauma will receive the emotional, social, and academic support they need and will be motivated to attend and stay in school.

– Tim Constant, Director of Teacher Evaluation and Instructional Improvement, Hamtramck Public Schools

Michigan’s Children invited Constant to write a blog about the importance of trauma-informed practices in education and the need for integrated school services to help all students achieve greater academic success. Tim has been involved with Michigan’s Children for many years, ensuring that the young people he serves have a voice in the public policy process. We were glad for him to share his thoughts about recent work to include components of trauma informed practice into expected outcomes for the educators he supports.

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