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Instructions to Teachers: Put Your Own Oxygen Mask on First Before Assisting Students

by Peshe C. Kuriloff - August 27, 2018

In this commentary, the author argues that teachers need more exposure to challenging school settings and better preparation for helping students with circumstances that extend beyond the classroom.

Should oxygen masks drop from the ceiling above your seat on an airplane, the instructions to passengers are very clear: put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting others. You can only help children or fellow passengers once you have protected yourself. That precautionary measure enables you to do more good than you could possibly do by risking your own safety. Why is that lesson so difficult to learn?

People in helping professions often talk about self-care as a prerequisite for caring for others, but that message goes unheeded on school improvement plans. Although teachers experience high levels of stress in the face of sometimes massive student needs, rarely does anyone acknowledge their suffering or reach out a helping hand. In fact, quite the opposite generally occurs: they are blamed for the very circumstances that create their stress in the first place.


When a 12th grade student in one of my student teacher’s classes shot and killed another student over the weekend a few years ago, I woke to the very real dangers of teacher trauma. How would this soon-to-be newly minted teacher cope with the violence and loss? More recently, that concern was reinforced when a teacher with more than five years of experience in the city reflected in an interview that she considered losing her first student to violence a benchmark in her career. She has lost other students since then, but that first incident colored her transition to teaching.


The current focus on mass school shootings has only reminded many of us that teachers in urban settings have been losing students to gun violence for decades. Yet, no one pronounces that reality a crisis or suggests that dealing with violence needs to become a standard in teacher preparation and a prerequisite for anyone teaching in settings where violence is most likely to occur. Of course, as we are learning, violence can occur in any school setting.


The actual death of a student is only one traumatic outcome teachers in high poverty schools are likely to experience. Day-to-day reality in sometimes chaotic, low-performing, urban schools, in which large numbers of new teachers are employed, can involve students who are hungry, abused, homeless, neglected, or sick. As a counselor and principal in the city, I encountered many students being raised by grandparents or extended family whose fathers were incarcerated, whose parents, relatives or neighbors were drug addicts, as well as students who had lost relatives and friends to gun violence. How to respond to such realities was not part of my training. Like so many others, I had to learn on the job.


Violent incidents occur, although presumably much less frequently, in suburban schools as well, but more highly resourced middle-class communities have access to so much more social capital that it feels different in that context. No one in the suburbs takes a student’s death for granted or accepts violence as a fact of life. Just as middle-class parents would never accept dirty bathrooms or garbage in the school yard, they would never allow violent incidents to pass without a forceful and public response.




Do best practices for preparing teachers for trauma exist? Just recently, in the wake of the Parkland school shootings, I asked my student teachers whether or not they felt their responsibility for the well-being of their students extended to throwing themselves in front of their students to protect them from a shooter, as teachers at Parkland and Sandy Hook have done. I asked that question not to frighten them, but to raise their collective consciousness. I have begun to think that we do teachers a disservice by not confronting with them the potential hazards of their professional choices; not just the risks to their safety and that of their students, but the risks to their own sense of well-being and peace of mind.


That particular teacher whose student shot another student taught one year at that school after he graduated and then went back to teach in his hometown, a small city an hour from Philadelphia. Many teachers persist, however, and subject themselves to the likelihood of repeated traumatic incidents, incidents that shock and distress them, without sufficient supports in their school communities and without any acknowledgement of the impact on their mental health.


There is ample evidence that caregivers need care in order to provide care for others. In the same vein, in order to care for their students, teachers need helping relationships with peers, administrators, and mental health professionals familiar with the impact of trauma. Recent trends in teacher professional development have brought child trauma to the forefront. More and more teachers with whom I interact in high-poverty schools are recognizing the need to educate themselves about trauma, but their focus remains on children, not on themselves.


As the nation and our leaders focus on whether to arm teachers, the need for more mundane skills must be confronted. How should teachers respond to students who are hungry, dirty, homeless, or just in desperate need of hugs, attention, and care? How to break up a fight is one skill they generally don’t teach you in teacher preparation. Nor do they teach you how to protect yourself, not just from physical harm, but from the pain of loss when students die, or the depression and discouragement that plague teachers without resources who entered the profession to make a positive difference in children’s lives.




Trying to meet the overwhelming needs of some students in their classrooms takes its toll on teachers. “I wish I had been warned,” one of my former student teachers told me as she came to terms with students who were hungry and whose basic needs had not been met. How was she supposed to teach them science when they had so many more pressing concerns that she could not address? Administrators focused on test scores had nothing to offer her. Her colleagues seemed to take these conditions for granted. Feeling helpless, she began looking around for a position in a private school.


Important research on teacher attrition and migration has focused on teachers’ working conditions (Ingersoll & Smith, 2003), including student discipline, lack of student motivation, lack of support from administrators, and lack of teacher influence over decision making. These areas are all key to a teacher’s sense of job satisfaction, which leads them to want to stay in their schools. However, we don’t often hear about teacher trauma as a reason why teachers might leave their positions. The teachers with whom I spoke did not present themselves as victims of trauma, yet the evidence points in that direction.


Since Sharon Feiman-Nemser (2003) highlighted the “reality shock” experienced by new teachers, the process of enculturation has only become more difficult, especially for those entering high-poverty, under-resourced urban schools. As well-intentioned, middle-class teacher candidates (often young white women from suburban neighborhoods) enter the profession, it becomes increasingly imperative to prepare them for and support them through the sometimes traumatic impact of their students’ lived experiences. How do we sensitize teachers to a reality so foreign to any they have known? How do we teach them empathy? Fostering resilience as a disposition might help new teachers survive, but it won’t create armies of teachers well-prepared to confront and overcome the realities of a life experience they are shocked to discover and which aggressively prevents them from accomplishing their goals.




Perhaps most importantly, how do we prepare teachers to care for themselves, not just to balance their private lives with the demands of their work, but to locate peace of mind in a reality they find disturbing, difficult to accept, and impossible to change? Too often without mentors, without administrative support, and without a community of like-minded educators with whom to share their distress, they give up and run away.


A recent article in the Wall Street Journal describing a shortage of plumbers (“Perks for Plumbers: Hawaiian Vacations, Craft Beers, and ‘a lot of Zen,’” May 23, 2018) documented the steps businesses were taking to recruit and retain qualified workers. In addition to yoga and a kitchen stocked with locally roasted espresso beans in Colorado, stand-out attractions in Minnesota included a tastefully designed “quiet room” where workers could relax and decompress after a hard day. Without making odious comparisons about the value of different kinds of work, I would argue that there is a lesson here for school districts across the country.


Teachers are leaving the profession in droves and either refusing to enter or abandoning the city before they ever get a chance to become good at their work. The costs to communities and to children are just beginning to be understood.




Feiman-Nemser, S. (2003). What new teachers need to learn. Educational Leadership, 60(8), 25–29.

Ingersoll, R. M., & Smith, T. M. (2003). The wrong solution to the teacher shortage. Educational Leadership, 60(8), 30–33.

Levitz, Jennifer. (2018, May 23). Perks for plumbers: Hawaiian vacations, craft beer and ‘a lot of zen.’ The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/perks-for-plumbers-hawaiian-vacations-craft-beer-and-a-lot-of-zen-1527087328

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 27, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22484, Date Accessed: 5/24/2022 6:49:56 PM

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About the Author
  • Peshe Kuriloff
    Temple University
    E-mail Author
    PESHE C. KURILOFF is a professor for teaching and instruction at Temple University's College of Education. She oversees undergraduate general education courses on Youth Cultures and Tweens and Teens and also teaches the seminar that accompanies student teaching. She studies and writes about education policy and practices.
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