When Curriculum Becomes Life or Death Learning

This week we had a day and a half of professional development in our district. For some of that time we broke into teams and groups to work on curriculum and to share ideas on pedagogy, resources for implementation, and time for collaboration. We want to make sure our instruction is meeting the academic needs of all students and take that work seriously.

Then we focused on a side of education we rarely discussed at the start of my teaching career: the social-emotional needs of our students, in particular those who have experienced trauma and at risk for harming themselves or others. This was painful for us as teachers to explore, because we know how painful it is for our children who are experiencing this in their young lives.


We first had a training on “Understanding and Responding to Child Sexual Abuse”. When you hear 1 in 5 people are involved in sexual violence in your state, and you look out at your classroom to the faces of those 20 or more children, you know the odds and it breaks your heart.  I’m certainly going to spend some time on the Children’s Safety Partnership website this weekend to become more familiar with their resources.





I kept wondering how many of our children struggling to follow rules, engage in our lessons, treat others kindly, or control their behaviors are dealing with trauma we could never imagine? How do we teach them when their little hearts and minds are so wounded?


Then we had a training session on Suicide Prevention. We learned that our state has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation and that suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for 10-24 year olds!

We (teachers) might be one of the most protective factors for our students in  preventing suicidality.  Our relationships and connections with our students may be a lifeline we don’t even know we are throwing out. 





The last session of the day was exploring the “Traits and Characteristics of Violent Offenders”- in other words, those who have carried out mass shootings .

Our local police department prepared a presentation that helped us recognize these traits but were careful to say there is NO “model profile” of a school shooter.

The term that stuck with us was “leakage“-signs that are red flags or indicators of threat that offenders put out ahead of their violent acts, but are often only recognized in hindsight.

Sandy Hook Promise has put out some great videos to raise awareness with this issue.


So being a teacher these days is not only about ‘Readin’, Ritin’, and ‘Rithmetic. Those 3Rs are competing with Social Emotional Learning  and truly life or death issues for our students. Later this month our state test results will be released and there will be cries from the communities for us to raise those scores and work on school improvement plans. Luckily our state has done away with school “Report Cards” that shamed us on these high stakes tests and would have tied them to our teacher evaluations. But the pressure is on teachers to transform lives both academically and social-emotionally with less and less resources.

Am I saying we should lower our expectations? NO WAY! I am saying we should increase our society’s expectations for raising and supporting our children. It needs to be an “All Hands on Deck”, “It Takes a Village”, “No Child Left Behind” mentality from our entire society. It takes money and resources and a real understanding of what schools are being asked to do. We will never be able to attract the best and brightest to become teachers in the future if we blame schools and teachers for every failure, if we don’t have competitive salaries that will draw and keep educators in this difficult profession, if we underfund resources by diverting them to private schools, and we throw around flip and ill-informed comments like, “We can’t throw money at all our problems.” Education is a piece of the puzzle, but so is health care, nutrition, mental health resources, and child care. Accountability is often laid solely on the shoulders of schools. This must change.

I go to work each week grateful for the teachers who return each day to their classrooms with a passion for what they do. They are making a positive difference in the lives of children, no matter what their MECAS score tells us. This weekend many of them will be contemplating the depressingly serious professional development we just had, I’m glad we have a long weekend.

One More Off My TBR Stack

THEY CALL US ENEMY by George Takei, (with Eisinger, Scott & Becker)
This graphic novel memoir by actor/activist George Takei (Sulu on Star Trek) takes us back to WWII when every person of Japanese descent in the west coast was rounded up, taken from their homes, and forced into “relocation centers”. They lost everything (homes, businesses, jobs…) and were held for years in camps with armed guards. This was America and these people were Americans. How could this happen? Could it happen again? As Mark Twain once remarked, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” Timely, powerful, and important memoir told in an engaging and accessible format for readers

3 thoughts on “When Curriculum Becomes Life or Death Learning

  1. My friends may lose their voices in the attempt to explain how simple teaching can be. For those who’ve gotten quality educations themselves, but also have worked, had hobbies, and know how to think for themselves. Here’s how we see education: Ensure the kids have their basics (i.e. math skills, writing skills, reading skills, and moreso, reasoning skills). Through all the subjects, we supplement where needed. We create creative lessons. But all along the way, we require the kids to do their work, and their homework. In all of this, supported by the parents who want their kids to have opportunities, the kids do well. Those who don’t do the work, are not supported by the family, do as well as the effort they put in. Regarding the kids who have learning difficulties, we’ve always found ways to educate, utilizing the resource teachers, but also providing alternate materials. I am so grateful I grew up decades ago when times were simpler, we were the students, and the teachers taught. They shared, we learned. We were responsible for understanding, and what we didn’t, or what more we wanted, that was on us throughout our lives.

    1. I agree that we want our students to be more self-directed and embrace a greater sense of agency for their learning. What we are struggling with as teachers today is the trauma our students are enduring and attempting to overcome at such young ages. Teachers can make a huge difference in their lives when we know the best responses and supports to these adverse childhood experiences. Learning about them is hard, but so important.

      1. Thank you for the concern and thoughtfulness. I must add, as there are readers, that my experience has been, through good classroom management, focusing the kids on work, creativity, and productivity, looking at the positives and how we are preparing them for adulthood, much of the problems disappear. Let me explain. In one class, a few years back, I noticed a higher number of students who constantly focused on their problems. Having talked with their parents, I had a better understanding, better in position to know the ones who had more serious problems and the ones who simply worried. A couple of students I had been able to talk with, so they knew they could share with me if they found it necessary (Of course, all the students knew this.). Also, on Fridays, we would have sessions on how to solve our problems, being more positive (Of course, not all kids participated, but listened just the same to their fellow classmates.). For most of the kids, they began to handle their problems in school, social problems better. As always, I was a very sure, self-directed teacher who taught the subjects, supplemented, and created projects (sometimes with student suggestions and help). My goal, as always, was strong academics and creative lessons that taught them to think for themselves, but with quality information. Interestingly, by the third quarter, the students were finding their self-esteem in being positive members of the class, our one-year family we called it, and grades improved, more students helping others. The kids who did very little were now working hard, some hoping to get on honor roll. For whatever reason, a counselor began pulling kids out of the class, talking about their feelings (They shared their feelings with me, but I always maintained the authority figure. I listened, offered advice where I could, encouraged them to talk with their classmates and solve their own problems, which seemed to increase their self-esteem.). Within a few weeks, the kids who had made great progress stopped working hard, were always thinking about their problems (We all have problems.), and forgot the lesson of looking forward, setting problems aside where work is needed, and learning that life has challenges, but that they can rise above the challenges. That counselor only focused on their feelings, caring little that they got their work done, and even suggested that some students only do what they want. You can only imagine what this did to the class. I wonder about what this will do to these kids in their futures. They had learned from me the value of work, working together, helping one another, and dreaming of future opportunities. From the counselor, they learned constantly think about their worries, which had the effect of them feeling sad all the day long. As a class, we had become very positive. Many who had struggles started having dreams of college, their own businesses, and were doing the research. That was before the counselor talked with them, bringing those students to her room during lunches or whenever she felt like it, even pulling them out during instructions. ***Now, I want readers to understand I have know amazing counselors. This one was not one of them, but I learned a valuable lesson through her. **I’ve never been that cuddly teddy bear of a teacher, but I found early, by my maintaining professionalism, being the adult in the room, that it gives the kids a sense of structure and safety that they appreciate, and in this, they become more confident as I support them in being positive and handling their own problems. Sometimes, they would do this in front of me, as when they needed to confront a bully, for then they had more courage since I was there. And they then knew, that if I knew, the bully would not be able to get away with his/her former ways. But the bully then knew he/she could also talk with me. Healthy.

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