September 1, 2021

How Teachers Help Create a World Free of Family-Induced Childhood Trauma

How Teachers Help Create a World Free of Family-Induced Childhood Trauma

Without a doubt, teachers have been one of the big heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the height of the public health crisis in 2020, as schools closed from coast to coast, we relied on them to keep our kids engaged and educated — mostly by Zoom. Some teachers were asked to do an exhausting mix of in-person classes and distance learning. Many had to navigate school environments that felt unsafe, with little social distancing, unreliable mask wearing and poor ventilation.

And they still had to keep up with their other duties, including reporting suspected child abuse and neglect. Educators are mandated reporters. In fact, they originate the largest share of reported cases each year (21% according to a 2018 federal report).

So, it’s no surprise that reports of child abuse and neglect plummeted nationwide after millions of children were sent home, away from the watchful eye of teachers, coaches and other authority figures. 

But fewer reports didn’t mean less abuse. Actually, as total reports of suspected child abuse fell, cases with confirmed evidence increased, according to a study by University of California, Irvine, researchers. The study also found that cases severe enough to need medical attention rose from 10% before the pandemic to 17% during it.

“By the time children are identified, the abuse they have suffered is more severe than it otherwise would have been,” said Stacy Metcalf, a doctoral researcher at UC Irvine, in a presentation on the study at the Association for Psychological Science.

These figures make it clear that teachers provide one of the primary safety nets for abused and neglected children. Without them, the frequency and severity of abuse would increase. It’s that simple.

Now, as most schools reopen for in-person classes this fall, the number of child abuse reports is expected to surge. Again, we’re asking teachers to be at the frontlines, watching for signs of abuse and neglect in children who have spent a lot more time at home with potential abusers than ever.

Only this time, the teachers are tired. 

After enduring more than a year of lockdown, facing the threat of getting sick on one side and threats from some state governors and even parents on the other side, they are exhausted. Many are overwhelmed with compassion fatigue. Some are simply giving up and leaving the profession.

Those who are sticking around are struggling with their mental health in ways that they’ve never experienced before.

“I have NEVER been this exhausted,” said Sarah Gross, a veteran high school English teacher in New Jersey who was profiled in a recent New York Times article about teacher burnout in the pandemic. She added, “This is not sustainable.”

“Teachers are not OK right now,” said Evin Shinn, a literacy coach at a public middle school in Seattle, in the same article.

One year later, teachers have gone from being hailed as heroic to being seen as unreasonable about COVID risks. That has left many educators feeling underappreciated and undervalued.

“[Some] parents are not truly our partners and feel education is really just free babysitting,” wrote one teacher. “And schools are relied upon to offer mental health, protection from abuse, and meals, but yet don’t deserve funding.”

At For The Children, we love our teachers. A great many of our mentors are educators in their day jobs. We have seen firsthand how they can save a child’s life by being the one adult that a child in foster care can rely upon for consistent support and guidance — or by being the mentor that ends up reporting a case of child abuse.

We would like to extend a very big “thank you” to all of our teachers / mentors. They are the crucial safety net that prevents further abuse from happening to millions of vulnerable children every year. They are our partners in creating a world free of family-induced childhood trauma. Thank you!

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