By Brittany Ray, TREE Director
About a decade ago, as I flipped through a catalog of classroom supplies, I saw a poster of a young woman, suitcase in hand, looking out over an aquamarine sea. Written across the sky were the words: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. - Marcel Proust.” I ordered the poster, and it hung on the wall of my school counseling office for many years. It was a helpful reminder for all of us working with students to be “emotional detectives,” and not assume that, when students were withdrawn or acting out, these were behavioral choices. Instead, it was often necessary to look with new eyes through the lens of trauma, and understand that under stress or anxiety the brain stops forming new connections, making it very difficult, if not impossible, to learn.
Washington County statistics reveal low levels of educational attainment, high rates of poverty, and high rates of addiction and overdoses. Too many students come to school every day carrying the trauma of constant hunger, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, and the turmoil of households experiencing addiction. The CCLC has long-known this, and launched TREE as a response. Washington County schools are filled with administrators, teachers, and others committed to using scientific discoveries and best practices to create change for our children. They are hungry, even famished, for support in creating socially and emotionally safe environments where all children can learn. Schools want to be trauma-, poverty-, and equity-informed climates. They know that trauma is toxic to the brain, and are ready to utilize research revealing the brain’s plasticity and potential to heal.
During the fall and early winter, TREE interviewed 22 administrators and conducted focus groups with 131 teachers and 186 students. Students clearly articulated the importance of caring teachers and stable relationships at school. One 7th grade boy told us, “Sometimes things are so crazy at home that I look forward to coming here to school where life is calm and predictable.” Teachers described students struggling both academically and behaviorally due to the toxic stress at home. One teacher commented, “Sometimes my students are held hostage by fear and anxiety about what is happening at home. Learning multiplication just isn’t a priority when a child wonders, ‘Is Mom ok and will Dad be going to jail again?’”
Schools cannot create this change alone. TREE, working in collaboration with educators and researchers from Colby College and The University of Maine, is engaged in an intensive design process so that we can support schools in this voyage forward. By providing schools with mental health supports onsite, by providing coaching and professional learning opportunities for teachers to embed social and emotional learning (SEL) within the curriculum, and by enhancing opportunities for student voice and civic engagement, TREE is committed to supporting this change in our rural landscape.
I don’t have that Proust poster anymore, but I wish I did. I would offer it to every hard-working teacher and administrator as a symbol of our shared work. With our new eyes we will transform schools so that all students have an equal chance to live the life they want to live.