Do low-income teachers suffer from PTSD?

It was early in August. Students would not be starting for several weeks. I had spent June and July in New York on a much-needed vacation with my family after a grueling first year of teaching. Now I was back. Ready to start a new academic year. Theoretically.

I pulled into the parking lot of my school and grabbed a box from the pile of junk in the back seat. It had been two months since I’d packed up my classroom for the summer. Time to start another year. I finagled my way past the building’s rusty gate and somehow managed to open the southeast door with a few spare fingers underneath my box of supplies.

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Cool air hit me as I walked inside, carrying with it all the familiar smells of the school. A distinct scent of old building mixed with dust and wet newspaper — at least, that’s how I think of it. I walked through the foyer past the old cafeteria doors and into the hallway. Familiar scenes enveloped my sight as I walked. The massive sink where students wash their hands before lunch, the empty cafeteria filled with tiny chairs that would soon host hundreds of little bodies, and those damn cafeteria doors where that crazy grandpa would bust through every single day during breakfast and shout, “Good morning! Good morning! Good morning!” And all the children would start screaming inarticulate responses, shouting and jumping and running to who knows where.

The sounds of the cafeteria gnawed at my ears. I could hear the students screaming. Crazed laughter rippling through the doors after Franklin threw another chair into a child’s face.

I realized that my whole body was trembling. I took a minute to slow my breathing. “It’ll be better this year,” I whispered. I shook off the feelings and found a pushcart to help me with supplies, moving one box after another into my classroom, back and forth down the hallways as the audiobook of Augustine’s Confessions played through my ear buds.

But I wasn’t listening. Tears streaked my face, and I finally sank into a chair in my classroom and clutched my head with trembling hands. “I can’t do this,” I whispered. I said it over and over and over. “I can’t do this again.”

But I did do it again. And then again. And again after that. Each year it gets a little bit easier to do again. No year has been as difficult to go back as my second year.

For months there were entire sections of the building that I would avoid. If I walked down a certain hallway, a surge of fear would overwhelm me, so I just never went down that way. Even though I knew the feelings were irrational, I devised a new route to work every morning, because taking the old route resurrected past anxieties that ruined my ability to work. To this day, nearly four years later, my chest still tightens when I drive down that road. The chaos of my first year is over, but somehow the feelings still linger on everything associated with it.

Is this a small-scale version of PTSD? I really don’t know. Apparently the phenomenon has been documented before. It seems that many teachers from low-income schools report PTSD-like symptoms almost every year, and the numbers have been rising.

Some people scorn the idea that teachers could possibly develop symptoms akin to PTSD. Surely teachers can handle a few kids for eight hours a day? Such things are easy to say when you don’t know what goes on in the school system, and the result is that teachers feel ashamed to admit their struggle. Perhaps instead of scorning the idea, we should begin examining the conditions that exist in our public schools, especially our low-income schools, that such symptoms are becoming more and more commonplace.


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