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In the face of tragedy, sometimes work needs to take a back seat, expert says
Talent Elementary education assistant Patricia Halley supports a student who doesn’t want to come into the classroom on the first day of in-person instruction last week. School staff are dealing with heightened student anxieties while trying to navigate new school routines. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Fifth grader Hannah Yeamans lost her home in the Almeda fire, but she says she’s doing fine.
“It’s OK to cry,” she said. “It’s OK to have a lot of emotions. Mainly, I just do really deep talks with myself. And also, life is not fair.”
Jodie Yeamans, a Talent Elementary special education instructional assistant in the Phoenix-Talent School District south of Medford, says she is having a harder time than her daughter. That’s especially true when her students talk about losing their homes.
“I try not to cry,” she said. “I try to take the emotion out of it, and then I break down to my co-workers.”
When tragedy strikes a community, school staff and community partners mobilize to support and care for the children. The teachers, administrators and classroom staff are asked to absorb and process all that student anxiety, sometimes while trying to manage their own pain.
For school staff to effectively and compassionately carry that burden, though, first they need to take care of themselves, experts say.
School leaders need to understand that sometimes teachers won’t be able to do their jobs and that should be OK, said B Grace Bullock, senior mental health strategist for the Oregon Department of Education. She extended that need for patience to school board members in giving grace to superintendents, who are not inclined to ask for help.
“Self-care doesn’t mean anything; the system has to support it in creating realistic expectations,” she said. “People need to be able to give themselves permission not to be on every day.”
School leaders should be ready and willing to change plans when someone is having a rough day, she said.
“You need to create space, just scrap the agenda and check in with people,” Bullock said. “We need to trust people to do what they need to do, or we’re going to burn out the workforce.”
Yeamans said her co-workers’ support has meant everything.
“They try to help me,” she said. “They listen and they don’t judge, and they love me and my girls unconditionally.”
Yeamans said she knows her principal will support her taking a break if she is feeling overwhelmed. Knowing that safety net is there helps her keep going, she said, because she knows she only has to take it one day at a time.
Phoenix-Talent has long grounded its education philosophy in trauma-informed practices to give people the social and emotional support they need. Yeamans can see the training in co-workers’ responses and in some of her own subconscious self-care.
Christine Hunter-Robertson, director of outreach and education for WinterSpring, said teachers are being overwhelmed by the suffering they are seeing. WinterSpring, which offers grief counseling, has partnered with Phoenix-Talent to provide support and training.
She said schools need to offer ongoing support to teachers to build habits, not just a one-time training.
The stages of grief are too often seen as linear, when in fact it is more like a spiral running out from an impact event, Hunter-Robertson said. People will have ups and downs and repeat some stages. New traumas can also reopen old wounds.
“Grief will not be buried,” she said.
COVID-19 and social distancing have made the relationship work harder for school staff, creating barriers between students and staff.
Derek Rodman, Phoenix-Talent district psychologist, said distance learning was stressing students and staff already and the fire just added to the anxiety.
On a visit to Talent Elementary to evaluate a student, he carried a Plexiglas shield in addition to masks, face shield, gloves and sanitizer.
“It’s hard for the students to feel comfortable,” he said, which made his job more challenging.
Bullock said a community-wide tragedy, such as a natural disaster, also offers an opportunity for powerfully healing conversations.
“The more people feeling like they are experiencing something together, the less likely they are to be traumatized because they don’t feel alone,” she said. “When we feel isolated, that’s when despair sets in.”
Bullock said that assuming staff or students are traumatized by tragic events does a disservice to their resiliency. She said some will be fine, some will have transitory symptoms and some will have longer lasting effects, but that percentage is low.
Bullock emphasized that traumatic events are a normal part of the human experience and not everyone will be traumatized.
“I want to focus the conversation on strengths, not deficits,” she said. “When we lead with trauma, the assumption is that we need to fix what is broken. … If we focus the conversation on how to build strength in the face of adversity, we focus on strength.”
Talent Elementary instructional assistant Celia Parra’s strength has been an inspiration to her co-workers. Parra is living in an apartment with her daughter and husband after losing their home to the fire.
When she was taking the trauma-informed practice training, she did not expect to be using it on herself. She said the breathing exercises have really helped, and she has been able to tell the students, “It works, it really works.”
Parra’s loss has also given her empathy and understanding to better help her charges.
Students are feeling lost and sad, even the ones whose homes are fine, because so much is different, not just from the fire but also from the pandemic, Parra said. Many families didn’t just lose homes and possessions, they lost a sense of belonging, she said.
“I needed to come to work because I knew the same way I felt the kids were feeling,” she said. “That was the best thing about losing my home, being able to understand. I’m thankful.”