I’m a teacher educator, and my work has never felt so hopeless

I’m a teacher educator. When it comes to preparing teachers for the stressors now facing them, it often feels like my hands are tied. Across two states, I’ve taught hundreds of future teachers enrolled in teacher preparation programs at the college level. My job is centered on preparing them to take charge of their own classrooms, an experience that culminates in state licensure. This process typically requires that they develop expertise in content and current theories and methods for effective teaching.

While much about my work with student-teachers has remained the same over the years, of necessity, a lot has changed. My students, universally, have a love of learning and want to pass that on to younger generations. They feel as though they were born to become teachers. I am able to guide them through the conceptual, practical, intellectual and emotional work embedded in the profession. Our simulations involve classroom read-alouds and Socratic questioning techniques and debates and discussions about themes in novels. We lesson plan and learn to develop meaningful assessments. We deal with racism and bias in education and I walk them through justice-related work while haunted by the knowledge that being forced to teach in this unregulated, gun-obsessed climate is also an educational injustice. The current reality is a dark cloud hanging over our work together.

Therein lies the hopelessness of my profession. As much as my students feel that teaching is their life’s calling, many of them express terror over stepping into a classroom, afraid that their district will be the next site of a national tragedy. And the work of supporting them in this time of fear and uncertainty is precisely where I’m a lot less sure of myself. There’s a lot that I’m qualified and able to do. But there’s also a lot that I’m not qualified to do, nor do I have the stomach to endure.

The hard truth is that I have no idea how to prepare future teachers for these new stressors. Their future schools will already have lockdown procedures in place — systems for dealing with the possibility of an armed intruder entering their schools. I am wholly unqualified to prepare them for this reality, nor do I have the stomach to ask my students to rehearse, on my watch, for the possibility of their own on-the-job demise.

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In recent months, I found myself wondering whether and how individual states have taken responsibility for helping teacher educators navigate these issues. State departments of education are, after all, the testing and licensing authorities. Admittedly, my own formal teacher preparation and pathway to licensure did not prepare me for the trauma that face teachers and students today. I was never asked to rehearse for my own on-the-job death the way teachers and students are now required to, with highly choreographed active shooter drills. In 2006 — the year I began my teaching career — there were 11 school shootings. There have so far been 27 school shootings this year, and 118 school shootings since 2018, which is when Education Week began keeping track of school climate and safety.

In an effort to understand how states might be supporting teacher education programs in an effort to navigate these unprecedented stressors, I asked my former students whether, in their experience with state testing and licensure, they’ve ever encountered explicit attention to teachers’ and students’ trauma and emotional well-being. Predictably, the answer was a resounding “no.” One student pointed out that even her psychology exam did not include attention to trauma or emotional well-being. Another student, referring to his state’s edTPA requirement and who graduated from his teacher education program in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, said, “Not at all. Seems like something that should actually be addressed in such a test given the current circumstances.”

Another student was perhaps the most specific: “The pressure is there to be ‘on’ all the time and the unspoken expectation is that, as teachers, we must always be ‘on’ when students are around. But no one mentioned how tough that can be to maintain year after year, day after day. I do think in some of my teacher prep courses there were times where student well-being was mentioned or emphasized, but that never showed up on any of the tests I had to take,” she said.

We are largely on our own in navigating this difficult reality.

The subtext is clear: State testing requirements remain unchanged even in a context where students and teachers are dying. Where teachers are protesting for their lives. Where many politicians are advocating for even more guns in classrooms while others continue to block all efforts to institute reasonable gun control measures. In the absence of states joining forces with teacher education programs to tackle the United States’ ongoing school shooting crisis, teacher educators are in a real bind: We are required to prepare our students for a stream of licensure exams, which call for a dialed-in focus on subject-area content and student outcomes sans any sustained attention to their trauma.

Because the path to licensure requirements remains largely unchanged, so too does a lot of the work that I do with students. In the context of a school shooting epidemic, this is a devastating and debilitating reality.

And still, we try. Where I can, I’ve found myself — like so many other teachers — leaning on crowdsourced materials to address the emotional fallout that follows news of a school shooting. The book “Teaching on Days After: Educating for Equity in the Wake of Injustice,” written by Michigan State University researcher and teacher Alyssa Hadley Dunn, is one of the few comprehensive texts that exist on how to navigate these crises in their wake. The companion Facebook group — consisting of nearly 20,000 educators, parents and other stakeholders — also provides a wealth of crowdsourced options that teachers can use in their classrooms. This subtext, too, is clear: We are largely on our own in navigating this difficult reality.

That’s precisely where my work has changed. I have found it abundantly necessary to turn to trauma-informed teaching because we, and our future teachers, and their future students, are traumatized and deserve to be heard. Also referred to as social and emotional learning, trauma-informed teaching acknowledges that our students, and their students, and we are people who bring the challenges and trauma of the real world into our classrooms every single day. Which is more than can be said of any current state licensing exam.