Transcript of the episode “Addressing teachers’ trauma; plus, antiracist teaching in a white classroom”

Jon M: [00:00:15] Hi. I’m Jon Moscow.

Amy H-L: [00:00:17] And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Shayla Ewing. Ms. Ewing is the English department chairperson and a drama teacher at Pekin Community High School in Pekin, Illinois. She was a 2020-21 Teach Plus Illinois Senior Fellow. We’ll be discussing two topics today, teacher compassion fatigue and teaching about white privilege in an all white classroom. Welcome Shayla.

Shayla E: [00:00:44] Hi! 

Amy H-L: [00:00:44] Shayla, what was your path to becoming a high school English and drama teacher?

Shayla E: [00:00:51] Okay. So I have an interesting story. Maybe. I think it’s interesting. I don’t know if other people do, but I teach at the high school I went to. So I teach in the community that I grew up in, and I originally did not want to be a teacher at all. I did not want to say in Pekin, Illinois, which is a small Midwest town out of Chicago. As you know, 18 year olds, they want to leave and go do something fabulous. So I was really involved in speech and debate at the time. The speech team at our high school was very fortunate to have a great speech teacher, and I got a scholarship to go to acting school in Los Angeles. I was on my way, but then that summer I actually went and did some volunteer work in Los Angeles in an area with a high needs population. I helped students who were struggling to find housing and a lot of basic necessities they needed. I helped  teach reading during that summer, tutoring. And it totally changed my life. And I was like, this made me so happy to be able to provide the gift of reading to other people. So from there, I was like, I want to be a teacher. I graduated and ended up getting offered a position to be that same speech and theater teacher at  Pekin High School. And I took it and fell back in love with my community, and I never looked back. So that’s kind of how I found my way.

Jon M: [00:02:23] That’s really cool. What does being a Teach Plus Illinois Senior Fellow involve? 

Shayla E: [00:02:29] Yeah. So Teach Plus is a great organization. They’re a national organization and they do have state specific state organizations. I’m not sure how many states they’re in now, but they do have a if you want to go find that information, but I’m involved with the Illinois affiliate and they are a group that gives teachers pathways to advocacy. So there’s a pretty rigorous application. But you are involved in a year long fellowship when you’re accepted and it  involves writing. So any topics that you are passionate about, you can get supported as a teacher to have your voice heard on a larger forum. And it also involves state level projects. So this year I worked in conjunction with a team of teachers on revitalizing the implicit bias professional development that the state of Illinois teachers are provided. So we looked at increasing the quality of implicit bias training that teachers are required to have. So it really is just a platform to help teachers, not just be teachers in the classroom, but advocates for their students on a state and national level. So a pretty great organization. 

Jon M: [00:03:40] You wrote an article in the June 9th Education Week titled “Compassion Fatigue is Overwhelming Educators”. What is compassion fatigue?

Shayla E: [00:03:49] Yeah. So compassion fatigue means the cost of caring. So when we help support someone who has experienced some sort of trauma, there is a secondary trauma that can happen. You can carry that heaviness with you as well. So it was kind of like if someone tells you a really sad story and then you in turn, feel yourself feeling really sad too, and that’s kind of a really simplistic way of explaining it. But the interesting thing about compassion fatigue is if I help support someone who has had a similar experience to me, I can be re-traumatized in a way. So if I’m supporting someone who’s experienced the death of a loved one, and that is some trauma that I have experienced as well, then by supporting them, I’m also kind of reintroducing that trauma that I had back in my life. So, yeah, but if you want to be simple, the cost of care.

Amy H-L: [00:04:46] What are some of the symptoms of compassion fatigue? 

Shayla E: [00:04:49] Yeah. So people experience it in very different ways. Some really common symptoms would be increased anxieties, loss of sleep. Some people even develop some sort of sleeping disorder, obviously symptoms of stress. There’s also some physical things that can happen with it. So this is kind of personal, but for instance, I recently went to the doctor because I was having this like weird tingling in my fingers. I was like, there’s something wrong with me. Like, what is happening? My doctor was like Shayla, you’re stressed. Like this is a symptom of, you know, the stress that you’ve been through this school year, and our body reacts in physical. ways, too. So there’s a multitude of ways it can impact someone. It just kind of depends on who you are, how your body functions in the situation you’re in.

Amy H-L: [00:05:40] Is compassion fatigue something that’s developed as a consequence of teaching during the pandemic, or is it something that exists even when there isn’t a pandemic?

Shayla E: [00:05:50] Yeah. So that’s a great question, Amy. And I think a really important one because it’s something that persists in being a public servant and serving your community always, right. There is a sacrifice that comes with caring for your students and not in a way that, and it’s like this complex where a teacher has to like martyr themselves, you know, give up their wellbeing for someone else. That’s not great, but there is some truth to that stereotype that to go into your classroom or your school, or however you serve your community, and to be open and willing to support someone through very difficult times in their lives is stressful. And there is an emotional and sometimes physical tax for that. And just the pandemic, just like with all sectors of life, it exacerbated that really hard part of teaching. So. It’s every day, right.

Jon M: [00:06:54] What are your recommendations for supporting compassion fatigue healing?

Shayla E: [00:06:58] I think there’s a couple of simple solutions and then a couple of really great long-term solutions. So teachers having a network of support is really important. So for instance, I have a really phenomenal instructional coach at my school, and one of the reasons that I got interested in this topic is some of the self-care and mental wellness resources that she promoted. So for instance, mood tracking. So just being aware of your emotions throughout the day, so you can realize what is happening to you and how you are feeling before you’re totally burnt out or you like snap at someone. And you’re like, why, what is happening with me? So being in tune with who you are is a simple thing that you can do as an educational professional.

But I think a lot of this goes to leadership and normalizing conversations around how you are doing with your costs of caring. And I have a really great administration that modeled this for my school community this year. They took time, whole faculty meetings, to just educate our staff about what mindfulness is, how you practice it, how if you are feeling stressed or anxious or having these symptoms, like, what do you do? Where do you go?

Also a really big thing on that. I know not all districts do, but mine does this, is providing mental health support in your insurance plan. So not only having support at school and making people feel comfortable about identifying their own situation and having people at school to talk to you, but having professionals where you can go and speak to a counselor or get, you know, the medical help that you might need. So there’s lots of solutions. Some are easier than others. A lot of people like to focus on the easy ones of like the mood tracker or the breathing exercise and you’ll be fine, but there’s more to it than that.

Jon M: [00:09:01] Are there some things that people might be doing, thinking that they’re helping, but that actually make things worse?

Shayla E: [00:09:09] Yeah, I think that that’s just a common life problem, right. We do these little fixes and we’re like, we’ll put a bandaid on that, this is great, but it’s not. So I think a lot of the way we think about ourself as educators and how we talk about ourselves as educators can be really harmful. Phrases like “this is what’s best for kids,” even though if we know a policy might not be what’s best for the people providing the education, or saying things like “do it for the kids” or using language that discounts other people’s feelings. So like sometimes teachers might be experiencing compassion fatigue. So in our conversations, they might not come off as very positive. They might air frustrations they might be feeling. And those people a lot of times might get shut down or be perceived as negative.

Kind of reminds me of when I was a first-year teacher, well going into teaching. I got a piece of advice from a former teacher and they said “don’t eat lunch in the teacher’s lounge,” right, because people will complain and be negative and whatever. I have a great teacher’s lounge. Um I eat there every day, but there’s this perception of if someone’s being negative, that’s their issue. But a lot of times those people need to be heard and, and they need help. They’re burnt out. So I was really, I think just the worst thing you can do is shut down the conversation or not see where someone’s coming from and recognize their humanity. Like if they are frustrated, there’s probably a reason for that.

Amy H-L: [00:10:46] So teachers of course, experienced trauma directly as well as secondary trauma. I mean, we’ve all just been through the year from hell, so are the same sorts of supports needed?

Shayla E: [00:11:02] Oh, so not just this year, but like in the future?

Amy H-L: [00:11:06] Well, I’m just talking about the difference between the direct trauma that teachers themselves are experiencing. Like the rest of us, teachers have experienced loss. Are the same sort of supports helpful forteachers with direct trauma as for secondary trauma?

Shayla E: [00:11:27] Oh, okay. I see what you’re saying. Sure. Yeah. So I would say definitely there would be things that would be in appropriate in both cases. So for instance, And I wrote a little bit about this. I had someone very close to me who suddenly passed away from a very aggressive cancer at the beginning of COVID. It was really difficult because she was in the hospital and we couldn’t see her. My family couldn’t grieve properly. We couldn’t have a proper funeral and be together. So that was really difficult. And after that time, I had a lot of situations, like I probably can’t tell you, I don’t have a number probably, cause I haven’t internalized all the situations, but of people who lost someone very close or special to them as well. Students, staff, just my community, right. And I was still dealing with that initial loss. She was my great aunt. Every time someone deals with their loss. So it very much is not a lesser trauma. It is all connected and it is something that should all, I think, be taken seriously to the same level. But Amy, I think that’s actually a really interesting question and I haven’t thought about that maybe as deeply as I should have before, because I feel like in teaching a lot of times we deal with the trauma of if you’re just in the classroom of students or of children, and sometimes that’s not seen as, or viewed as, I don’t know, damaging to deal with or as deep to deal with or as hard to deal with because they’re just kids and it’s not adult problems, but it very much is. And our problems are similar to theirs because, you know, we’re all human beings living through not great times. 

Jon M: [00:13:19] You know, as you’re talking about that, one of my sons is a teacher, a high school teacher, and they’ve had several deaths of students over the last couple of years, sometimes suicides, sometimes accidental deaths, and so on. And he said that one of the problems has been, that is in New York City, that the school doesn’t seem to be really set up to provide adequate or meaningful support for the teachers, support for the students, training for teachers. And how to deal, you know, you learned that somebody died and then you have to go into class immediately, while you’re still processing. I just wondered if you’d had any experience with that or what helpful ways that your school is, perhaps you’ve dealt with it.

Shayla E: [00:14:08] That is such a tricky issue because public schools deal with and provide so many services to a community and are expected, rightfully so, to provide so many services, but aren’t funded necessarily, always in the way to provide those services. So schools have to get creative. In regards to situations like you’ve spoken about, we have a very involved counseling team in my district. My district has expanded. So we’ve invested money in making sure there are more counselors to serve our students because we have, we run about 1700 kids. For around where where I’m at, it’s a very large district. So having professionals who are trained, ready to help students, is important, cause that doesn’t always necessarily happen. And then when that doesn’t happen, you have the same problem with compassion fatigue, with the school counselors who have so much on their plate and so little of themselves left. 

Another thing is just making resources accessible to students. So for instance, my district, we were a hybrid district this year, so we saw students every other day. We have digital mindfulness rooms where students could have resources wherever they were. We also, we have advisory time. So it’s time after lunch, where you check in with an adult, talk about grades, but you also talk about, you know, your life and if you need to get connected to resources, but having a person, an adult that you are specifically connected with and have time every day to connect within the building is really good.

So when that does, you have a system in place for the person who’s going to help shepherd those students through and already have the relationship there. So resources and connection are huge. And also, I don’t know, that’s just so hard because you can never do enough, right. But obviously that’s some of the things that we’ve done, but honestly just from my classroom perspective, teach English. So some of the therapeutic and helpful things you can do for students is to pause your curriculum and and let them write and reflect and grieve there. But yeah, those are really difficult situations, Jon, and I think that that’s something that I’m still working in growing with in my experiences as far as like a non COVID related.

Jon M: [00:16:38] I had a different question, but something else that you wrote that was really interesting. The teachers sometimes get rewarded, not necessarily in terms of more money, but in terms of praise and so forth for working really unbelievable numbers of hours and that this is understandable, but that it can also have real effects on people. Could you talk about it? 

Shayla E: [00:17:05] Yeah. So I am absolutely a walking hypocrite in regards to that because honestly, a lot of teachers, not all teachers, but a lot of people who go into teaching are people who are good students, right. They were the students who are people who are achievers. They want to do well. They want to get the A. That’s typically how a lot of us are. Not all of us, but a lot. So when you go into teaching, there’s this idea that because, you know, our evaluations are, are very difficult. We’re held to a very high standard. Our work is very intense. There’s this idea that you can never do enough to be good enough, right. Like I’ve met very few teachers who would tell me that they are always a great teacher every time. So when you have that type of environment, and then you see the people who excel and they are a lot, and a lot of this has to do with social media, too. Or if you look at the types of people who get published, right, or who get a certain state or national level awards, they are doing it all all the time. And the perception is that they are a great teacher every day. And that is possible from the things they post from people who celebrate them. So there’s this idea that, okay, if that person can do that, they can sustain this work, then I should be able to do that too, because I want to be great for myself, right. Everyone wants to do well in their profession, but also for the people I serve. And that is just a quick road to burnout and actually not being a great teacher. So, and it goes back to this society celebrates teachers who really sacrifice themselves. So you’ll see stories, especially during pandemic times, of absolutely wonderful teachers, like going to students’ homes, teaching outside their like windows and doing all these incredible things. And yeah. In my case here, I am like in my little apartment, like grieving for the stuff that was happening, trying like everything I can for my little laptop to engage my students. And I’m like, I’m not good enough. I don’t measure up. And that was not true at all. So I think that one, teachers who are highlighted and win many national awards or do get platforms have this duty to be very authentic in their teaching journey and the toll it has on them, and also with the hours they’re really working and what, you know, they’re really doing to achieve great results for them and their students.

And on the other end, being a teacher, being kind to yourself, right, I think is where I’m trying to go with that, and knowing that you are great and you are [inaudible] and within your teaching community, really speaking that to the teachers and educators around you too. It’s so rough though, but, yeah, that’s a good question.

Amy H-L: [00:20:22] In your Ed Week article, you ask, “When was the last time educator wellbeing was considered in discussions of educational initiatives?” How would you like to see educator wellness, prevention of compassion fatigue and even burnout incorporated into discussions on district, statewide, or even national initiatives?

Shayla E: [00:20:47] I’m glad you asked that question. Truly, I think that a missing piece to the educational policy puzzle is that when you support teachers, you support students, right? A lot of times there’s a lot of media, like when a union might be striking or asking for more money or more funding, that it’s teachers against students or teachers against the community, but if we can support teachers, then we’re going to have, it’s proven research, higher student achievement. You will have those district goals and results that you wanted to achieve. Those will happen because you have the people in the field who can help you do that. So I think that, for instance, a lot of the conversations specifically around the pandemic, looking at the trauma that students were facing and totally rightfully so, right. But if you never step back and look at the bandwidth of the people  you are asking to help support those students, that’s a real issue. So for instance, if I have to provide mental health services to a student, who’s going through some, you know, really tough stuff and I’m struggling at the same time, too, and I’m untrained to do this, I’m never going to be able to provide the service  to that student. I might be damaging that student’s mental health if I don’t know what I’m doing, and I’m definitely going to be hurting my own. So I think there is a lot of room to grow in regards to specifically teacher education and very explicitly teaching future teachers the symptoms of burnout, compassion fatigue, what it looks like, what to do if you are experiencing it. So they know, and they can identify it.

And on the flip side, teaching them and giving them the resources and knowledge to provide, or at least identify, and connect students with healthy resources, right. Because we do expect teachers to do that. Like they’re on the ground floor and the classrooms. They’re the fighters or the champions. So you have to give them the tools to help fight, because if you just send them out there, it’s going to be very damaging for everyone involved. So I would say like, if there’s just one policy that could really be enacted and that would probably be more at a state level, but preparing these future teachers so they don’t have to go through some of the symptoms of compassion fatigue a lot of us have faced, and also, so that they feel empowered for their students as well. So that would be my, if I could choose one thing, that’s what it would be.

Amy H-L: [00:23:32] And just a note about Ethical Schools. We really stand for ethical institutions, which includes respecting teachers, everyone involved in the institutions, the adults and the students and giving them the supports that they need. So just as a matter of ethics.

Shayla E: [00:23:54] As a matter of identifying their humanity and recognizing it,right, which doesn’t happen all the time in the educational field.

Jon M: [00:24:05] Switching gears… You’ve also written that teachers should talk about white privilege even, or especially, when all their students are white. When did you begin doing that?

Shayla E: [00:24:16] Yeah. So specifically that piece of writing and my interests in that topic can be because of the community that I live in. So I live in a mostly white community, which I also grew up in, right. So I didn’t move away for a time. Obviously I went to college and did that whole bit, but our community has a varied history. So in the surrounding area, it has a reputation of having a lot of history steeped in racism, right. And the  late 1920s, our local town newspaper was owned by a member of the KKK. We were former headquarters, a lot of things that are hard to share. But at the same time we have this history of, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Everett Dirksen, but he was a Senator from Pekin. He helped pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act. So we have these great wins as well, which are never talked about either. So just this really varied history and all of that,  both sides of that history, are in my classroom every day. And as a teacher of literature, you can’t just disregard that conversation, especially when you’re teaching a book, for instance, To Kill a Mockingbird, right. That conversation is there.

And when I was teaching that novel, which is no longer in the curriculum, years ago now, and I had a student who came up to me after class and that day. To introduce the book, I had pulled a report from one of our local newspaper .I had gone to our local library, you know, pulled some original documents from the newspaper in the late 1920s, right. And reported some stories about what was happening at Pekin at the time, specifically in regards to a local hate group. And so that’s how we introduce it because it was around the same time as the book. You connect your teaching to your community. And I have a student that day after the lesson, come up to me, and just really was processing what he had, you know, believed about who he was and how he felt about people of color and who he wanted to be and was just in the middle of those two histories of our town. And I had to help him reconcile that as an adult, that he came to want to  have that conversation,  and I was highly ill-equipped to do it, like I was totally caught off guard. I was like, I don’t really know what to do, but you know, you use your best intuition and you  do the best you can. But after that conversation, I was like, I need to educate myself more on having conversations about whiteness and a lot of issues of privilege because that’s what my students are grappling with right now.

And the article, I wrote it a while ago, but now, since the death of George Floyd and the subsequent deaths of a lot of other people of color that have been spoken about in the media and come to a the foreground of conversations, my students are grappling with this because it’s something that they see all around them. It’s a part of their town, in their history. And they need support in, how do I even have a conversation with someone else about these topics? How do I talk about my skin color? So that’s kind of where a lot of that came from. So sorry for the circle there.because it’s kind of a really layered conversation for me, but that’s where it is. And honestly, it’s really scary to publish the article that I published or talk in my classroom when students bring up those issues, because when we look in the media and now teachers who talk about issues of privilege, who talk about systemic racism, it is controversial. So it takes a lot of bravery to speak up. But I have a very supportive administration. I work with a group of teachers who are absolutely phenomenal and committed to anti-bias teaching. So it’s really cool. If you’re ever in town, you should come to Pekin, Illinois and see what we’re doing, because we have a lot of brave educators who are having hard conversations about our town and helping facilitate healing, really, in spaces where those conversations have been forgotten in silence.

Amy H-L: [00:29:04] How do students react to those sorts of conversations?

Shayla E: [00:29:09] Oh, in my experience, they always want to talk about it. And it usually stems from something that’s happening in literature, right?. Like a story we read or an experience, a lived experience, nonfiction of someone who  has written about their life and really looking at how our lives connect with theirs, how our lives are similar or different from what they’ve experienced. And that is always where the conversation goes, right. Cause it’s all about recognizing each other’s humanity and also learning more about ourselves too, because that’s also, you know, one of the things about high school, from freshmen to senior year, you grow and you learn more about who you are and that’s part of that conversation, too. So yeah, it’s always with curiosity and interest, because these are topics that these students might not have a lot of platforms to speak about or, you know, times or opportunities to talk about. And it’s always interesting because we talk about our community, right. It’s all based in where we’re at and what our town is doing and how we’re growing, too, as a town and community. So I would say they’re very positive and interesting. And honestly  it’s interesting for me to hear students talking. And the one thing I will say, it’s really important to, if you want to have a conversation about privilege with your students, is to make sure that you have done some groundwork of setting, like norms of the conversation, right. Kids might not know them. They might feel scared cause they don’t want to say something that’s considered inappropriate or anything like that. So just being really explicit about what that conversation looks like when we use a term like privilege, what that means and what we’re talking about and also letting them know too. And I think this is important that a lot of my students, because the history of our town that is advertised is so deeply negative. And I mean, , we own our history too, right. But there is a lot of guilt for where they come from a lot of times or shame for where they come from and talking about their power to change that narrative is always the best part of the conversation.

Amy H-L: [00:31:41] That’s great. So once that conversation is opened up, clearly what’s right in front of them is school segregation. Students are in an all white school. Do they talk about that?

Shayla E: [00:31:58] Yeah. That it’s a very obvious thing in our community. And also it’s an obvious thing in the room, right. When all of your students are white, it’s a visual thing. And yeah, I definitely say that does come up because it’s also something they’ve grown up with too, right. And I see that from a person who grew up in the town that I live in and. Also the reason that it is a part of the conversation is because we are a majority white community. There are people of color who live in our town, but because most classrooms are majority white, there’s always a voice that’s not being heard or a voice that’s not represented, which is always noted, and that’s why it’s so great to be a teacher of literature because you can bring  those voices into the conversation. But yeah, it’s always, it’s definitely usually brought up by students or noted by students.

Amy H-L: [00:32:57] Do you get encouragement or resistance from parents?

Shayla E: [00:33:01] Oh yeah. So that’s the conversation people always want to know. Right. And I think a lot of people from outside classroom walls, when they hear that you’ve had a conversation about privilege in the classroom, think that that’s happening every day and like the bell rings and you sit down and you’re like, okay, kids let’s identify how privileged we are. And that’s like this weird perception that’s happening, but that’s, that’s really not the case. It’s student-led conversations, talking about the literature and experiences of other people. And when you are reading literature from people of color or even people who are white and like an old, white dead guy who didn’t have to consider, you know, anything about ways he was privileged in his life. Like we’re talking about the human experience, part of it, and we acknowledge it. So parents in my community, that’s always been the assumption. I think a lot of people would think that because of the community that I come from, that it would be this like complaints all the time and you know, something crazy, but it’s just really not the case. Everyone wants to be someone who recognizes the experience of someone else and a kind loving, wonderful person. And if that’s at the root of what you’re talking about, then you’re not going to get a lot of pushback. People on the internet, though, when I publish things, are not as kind, but that just means you’re doing something right.

I will say to you, on that note, that it’s also really important to have a supportive administration, supportive leaders in your school, which I definitely have. I have a great admin team and also my school board is, you know, very supportive. We’re redoing some, freshening up some of our books to make them a little bit more modern, but they approved a new selection for our junior course and that centers around the Underground Railroad. We have a rich history of the Underground Railroad in our community, and we’re like so supportive. So. Yeah, it really is a community effort to do better and be better. 

Jon M: [00:35:21] Thank you, Shayla Ewing of Pekin Community High School in Pekin, Illinois. 

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