One day last fall, teachers sauntered past a wall in W.A. Pattillo Middle School in Tarboro as if they were studying works of art. Really, they were looking at the names of all 265 of their students, each written neatly on an index card.
They contemplated which students they had meaningful relationships with, and placed dots next to those students’ names.
“Then we were able to step back and see which students didn’t have a dot, or didn’t have as many dots as other kids,” said Byron Bullock, an administrator at the Edgecombe County school, about 75 miles east of Raleigh. “And so teachers said, ‘Wow, I never really thought about how I never really reached out to this kid.’”
The exercise was part of the staff’s efforts to meet students where they are and make school a place they want to be, because students at Pattillo face serious hurdles to coming to school each morning and staying engaged.
Nearly 80 percent of these middle schoolers live in poverty, and many were displaced by flooding from Hurricane Matthew in 2016. These challenges would overwhelm any adult. For kids, they take on extra significance.
Trauma and stress from things like hunger and housing instability have been scientifically shown to derail brain development. At the least, it distracts kids from learning.
Take, for example, a student at Pattillo who had consistently low grades.
“She was acting out, she would become at different times very sporadic, very abrasive – for some people, almost intimidating it seemed,” Bullock said.
After some digging, staff discovered this behavior was a result of the student’s home life.
“Seeing it through that lens of trauma, we understand that it’s not just that this student doesn’t want to perform right,” Bullock said. “It’s not that she doesn’t want to do right. She has a context and a background that has, kind of, put her in a place where she’s fighting.”
Taking the time to understand that context requires a mindset shift on the part of teachers. That's where the Public School Forum of North Carolina, an advocacy organization, has stepped in. This year it started the NC Resilience and Learning Project, through which it is helping Pattillo and two other schools in Edgecombe County and one in Rowan County to better support students who have experienced trauma.
Through this grant-funded project, Pattillo staff received training on the effects of trauma on kids before the school year started. Bullock said that left a mark.
“We have teachers that have become unconventional in the way they meet the needs of their kids,” Bullock said. “And so, whereas normally you would... just write a referral and send them out, teachers will bring a kid in during their planning and sit down and talk with them.”
Eli Kane, who teaches eighth grade social studies, said he now has more empathy for his students, “just because I know more about the why in how they’re reacting.”
Kane serves on Pattillo’s new resilience team, which is leading the charge on the staff’s trauma-informed approach to education. It’s made up of teachers, administrators, and school counselors. They meet every other week to brainstorm strategies for meeting students’ needs.
“I was afraid it was going to change my expectations of the students, but really it hasn’t,” Kane said. “I have the same expectations, just how I react and the empathy I have towards the students is different.”
This shift in thinking hasn’t necessarily been easy on teachers, not just because they have a ton on their plate.
“Teachers that work with kids who’ve had trauma, they almost experience second-hand trauma, and sometimes they don’t even realize it,” Bullock said. “And so when you go home and you’re a teacher and you’re tired, you just feel drained, normally you would think that’s just the job. But [we’re] really seeing that we carry the burden of our students. So one of the things we did was, we started a self-care thermometer.”
Every time teachers do something for themselves, like getting enough sleep or going to see a movie, they write it in a thermometer drawn on a poster. When the thermometer fills up, teachers get together for a potluck dinner.
“The biggest challenge is just time,” said Elizabeth DeKonty, a fellow with the Resilience and Learning Project. “Time for teachers, knowing that they’re already spread incredibly thin. Knowing that for administrators, there’s already tons of demands on them and requirements that they have and things that they have to do. And so [we’re] really kind of framing this as that culture shift, and not another to do item.”
It’s hard to tell how much of a culture shift has taken place at Pattillo. It’s only been a few months since the school began this work. But on a recent Thursday after the last bell rang, a teacher walked up to a student who was dragging his feet down the hallway and asked him, “Are you okay?”
It's tiny actions like this one that could help make school a place for student to engage and learn – instead of fleeing and fighting.