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Connecticut teachers say they need more time and space to process traumatic events

Craig Hoekenga/AP
A photograph provided by Craig Hoekenga shows his son Trey, a kindergarten student at Sandy Hook, on the school bus in 2013. The window has a quote from the late principal, Dawn Hochsprung, who was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting.

The day after the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Amber Moye went to work with a sense of numbness. And when she arrived, she was directed to treat the day like any typical school day.

“I think we’re losing the human aspect of it,” said Moye, who teaches third grade in New Haven Public Schools. “This is a thing that happened to a group of people, and essentially the impact of it goes beyond the room where children lost their lives. We need to recognize that ‘today’ is not a regular day and how do we navigate through that.”

Connecticut educators have been saying that teachers need to be given space to process traumatic events, like the Texas shooting, before having discussions with students.

That space is both mental and physical, said Moye. “That could mean more mental health professionals at multiple schools to provide the care we need. Less security guards and police officers, and more mental health support.”

The Texas shooting served as another reminder for Moye that more law enforcement presence on a school campus isn’t the answer.

“Security measures matter, but the mental health priority for both teachers and students is dismal and needs to be elevated,” she said. “We can no longer rest on the idea of out of sight, out of mind because things are happening and we are not prepared to respond to those things.”

Teachers carry the burden of keeping students safe without being given opportunities to release their own stress, said Cameo Thorne, director of New Haven Public Schools’ restorative practices program. Her focus is on preventing conflict by building healthy community relationships.

“It’s really hard to have days like that and think that I’m going to go in and teach like life is normal,” said Thorne, who pointed out that teachers want to give students what they need. But their own needs also must be met before they can help students make sense of traumatic events like a mass shooting.

“None of this is in teacher prep,” said Thorne. “A lot of teachers don’t have those skills but because we’re teachers, we’re asked to step into that space. The emotional stability of a classroom comes from both the teachers and students.”

Thorne said giving teachers fewer daily demands, creating smaller classes and providing more community-building conversations on race, culture, and trauma are all different ways to help create that “space” for teachers.

“Teachers are asked to do too much and conflict happens when needs aren’t met,” said Thorne. “This is an incredibly complex issue that needs to be addressed without adding another thing to do in a teacher’s day.”

For Moye, it was important to show her students that she was there for them after traumatic events. She gave each student a hug and opened the floor for questions the day after the shooting. Moye said she had the emotional capacity to do so, but it’s important to recognize that not everyone does.

“It worked wonderfully with the students and we made a lot of connections,” said Moye. “The discussions were good practice. But it really shows that we need to reconsider what it means to be a healthy educator and how much is too much in terms of what we expect from teachers.”

Catherine Shen is a Connecticut Public’s education reporter. The Los Angeles native comes to CT Public after a decade of print and digital reporting across the country.

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