Helping Teachers with Secondary Trauma

African-American teacher wearing mask in school classroom and looking at camera, stressed teacher.

We know that students have had a great deal of stress and consequences due to the pandemic that has engulfed our nation. Truly this pandemic has been unprecedented in the impact to our school environments. One issue that often escapes us is the mental health consequences that are so prevalent among teachers. They too have experienced a significant amount of toxic stress as they have had to manage during this pandemic. 

In a recent article in Edutopia, Paige Tutt brings focus to an example of a leader that has lead the way to help students and teachers have equal opportunity to overcome some of the adversities they have faced together in an urban community. Dr. Art McCoy, superintendent of the Jennings School District, has demonstrated significant compassion and actions steps to deal with these adversities in his urban school district. Here are some excerpts from this article:

Descending from three generations of ministers and church pastors, Dr. Art McCoy remembers growing up with “a passion for helping people, healing hurt, and transforming minds”—but he was determined to take his passion “beyond the walls of a religious institution.” For McCoy, a school building became his church.

At 18, he was the youngest certified teacher in his home state of Missouri, and at 33, he was the youngest ever and first African American superintendent of a local district in St. Louis County. The early years of his career were a crash course in the challenges of school leadership. In addition to learning the ropes of management, he regularly witnessed the toll that adverse childhood experiences took on the minds of his students—and the staff that supported them.

Unhappy little african american kid showing negative emotion. Child trouble concept.

“I’ve had students who have experienced major trauma,” says McCoy, who for the last five years has served as superintendent of the 3,000-student Jennings School District, where 100 percent of students are on free and reduced-price lunch and 98 percent of students are African American. “When I go into a school building and tell the whole student body, ‘Raise your hand if you have a loved one in jail,’ 80 percent of hands go up. I say, ‘Raise your hand if it’s your brother, your sister, your mother, your father,’ and 70 percent of hands are up.”

As he navigated his career as an educator, vice principal, assistant superintendent, and superintendent in eastern Missouri, trauma continued to impact his school community. One year, he attended the funerals of seven students, and in 2014, a former student, Michael Brown, was fatally shot by a Ferguson police officer when he was 18 years old.  Students regularly toiled with poverty, racism, and toxic stress—and other circumstances beyond their control.

Preteen african American girl talking and with counselor

But McCoy learned that when schools put the right systems in place, their success is “not defined or confined by zip code.” In recent years, the district has achieved a 100 percent graduation rate with 100 percent career and college placement for students. McCoy credits this success, in part, to wraparound supports for students—and crucially for the staff—that prioritize their social and emotional wellness and mental health. Since 2016, McCoy has raised approximately $2 million in private funds annually to support numerous health and wellness initiatives within schools.

The article goes on with a full interview of Dr. McCoy that discusses some of the realities and initiatives he has established within his school district that have dealt with the mental health of his educational staff.  

I deeply appreciate Dr. McCoy’s leadership and sensitivity to the needs of his staff and students.

The results he has attained is an example of what can happen when we are intentional and supportive to meet the needs of those who are carrying a huge load of responsibility in educating and caring for our students. Kudos to Dr. McCoy!

Gerry Vassar


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