Why There Are High Rates of PTSD In This Teacher's Classroom


In his 22 years of teaching high school English to East Oakland’s teenagers, Jeff Duncan-Andrade has witnessed kids and their families struggle through all kinds of trauma. He has seen how the constant, unrelenting stress – what researchers are now calling toxic stress – that comes from housing, employment and food insecurity, as well as continued violence in the neighborhood, visits a punishing impact on students and how they learn. 

These experiences led Duncan-Andrade, some years ago, to begin looking for ways to better support students and their families — to show students they were valuable members of a community and worthy beyond their test scores. Buoyed by the belief that it is essential to provide kids with the most basic supports (food, shelter, safety) before they can learn, in early August Duncan-Andrade opened the doors of the Roses in Concrete Community School, incorporating his philosophy of involving parents and families to lift up the whole community. The school aims to “develop youth committed to lives characterized by self-discipline, integrity, love and hope in the pursuit of justice and equity for all communities.” Located in East Oakland, the school currently educates 200 K through 4th grade students in a Spanish/English dual-language immersion program; the plan, eventually, is to expand through high school.

In addition to running his new school, Duncan-Andrade, who got his Ph.D. in Social and Cultural Studies in Education at the UC Berkeley, is also an associate professor of Raza Studies and Education at San Francisco State University. He has worked with students and teachers all over the world to help develop classroom practices and school culture that foster academic and social success, and has writtenbooks and articles on effective practices in schools, supporting urban teachers and critical pedagogy. 

Duncan-Andrade sat down with AlterNet to talk about the high rates of PTSD among kids in his classrooms, the distinction between “hokey" hope and “critical" hope, and why Tupac Shakur continues to have such a profound influence on him and his students. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Emily Wilson:In your keynote address this year to the California Federation of Teachers, you asserted that inequality makes us sick. How does that play out in the classroom? 

Jeff Duncan-Andrade: The research around the impact of inequality in the U.S. and globally is not just compelling, it’s conclusive. Neuroscience, public health, economists, they all agree [that] the biggest threat to health on the planet is inequality. So if you’re going to be having conversations about building a healthy community or a healthy state or a healthy global society, all of the research suggests that at the top of your list has to be inequality. And you can’t have an “oppression Olympics” — it’s all forms of inequality on the table all the time. So we have to be talking about racial inequality, gender inequality, hetero-normativity, income inequality, and educational inequality. We’ve siloed those things, [but] the latest research suggests you have to understand the intersectionality around those things. If you silo one and make investments, you actually don’t get very much bang for your buck.

Nowhere does all of this come to a head more profoundly than in the schools. Because children, [who] are the living, breathing beings of the various strands of inequality, land in a teacher’s classroom where then all those forms of inequality manifest themselves. People often ask me, what do you teach? What I say is, I teach children. English literature is the vehicle through which they come to me, but I teach children. Which means that if a child is hungry, I gotta figure out how to get them fed, and I can’t prioritize Sonnet 22 over this child’s basic human need. I also know if I can meet that basic need then I’m exponentially more likely to get them engaged in a dialogue with me and their peers about Sonnet 22. I’ve always understood intuitively that Maslow was right: I have to start at food, shelter, clothing, safety, and then I have to create a space that gives them a sense of love and belonging. I have to have a curriculum and a pedagogy that bolsters that, and when I have those three tiers stable, they will self actualize. That’s what the research clearly supports. 

[Rather than relying on] education theory that was hyper technocratic, I started to focus on the pre-conditions I need to understand working in a community that’s experiencing perpetual toxic stress and long term multi-generational inequality — [thinking] about how to raise literacy scores and win the heart. I’ve been teaching 22 years now, and I know you have to win the heart to win the head. But most of my training and the professional development I’d get was about the head. I had to leave the field of education and get into conversations in public health and neuroscience and these other fields to understand from a research perspective what I needed to pay attention to. I knew once kids felt safe, the head would open up for me.  

EW:How can you accomplish that with all the students in your class: make them all feel safe? You don’t just have one hungry kid, you have many kids with many needs. 

JDA: That’s often the mistake – that’s the national narrative about the "hero teacher.” If that’s the tack you take, that it’s all on you, you’re never going to pull it off. It’s really about creating a community where young people are supporting young people, where the families are included. But that doesn’t happen [right now] between schools and poor communities. We literally gate the families out, and then we wonder why we don’t get broad change. 

We have to be communal. The single biggest protective factor in a child’s life who’s experiencing toxic stress is a caring adult. [Teacher and author] Herbert Kohl famously said, “Kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” Children tend to measure care almost exclusively on the quality of their relationship with you. And you need time for relationships. So as we squeeze the school day and the family, all the research indicates the longitudinal impact of that on health outcomes and quality of life is dramatic. We’ve inverted our priorities in this society and we’re off the meter in bad health outcomes. Obesity, cancer, type 2 diabetes; there’s really no getting around the aggregate data sets that we have. 

The question is, what are we going to do about it? I think schools are fundamental to that conversation because they’re contacting, generationally, every kid for 13 years. So if the schools can create a pivot, where if we pay attention and we’re willing to fundamentally rethink the purpose of public schools, we can right this curve in a generation. 

EW:You wrote an article for the Harvard Educational Review about the importance of giving kids hope — but not what you call “hokey” hope, which doesn’t take into account the inequities children face. How do teachers keep real hope — or “critical" hope as you call it — for themselves and their students? 

JDA: Yeah, everyone can get behind hope. [But] there’s this thing where people are Pollyannaish about hope; there’s a naiveté about what it means to build hope in a community that is heavily traumatized. That’s why I add the modifier, “critical.” We’re going to have critical sensibilities if we’re going to build hope in a growing number of children and families in desperate times. 

One institution [kids] are consistently contacting is school. And I have to believe that an individual teacher in the most messed up school in the most messed up school system can still be a hope dealer. But you cannot be naïve about the fact the children and the families are suffering. This idea that if we tell children, “If you just work hard enough…” It’s like this revisiting of the Reagan years, “If you just say no to drugs and say no to gangs and pull yourself up by your bootstraps…”  — that’s hokey hope. 

If there’s not a structural and institutional investment in acknowledging that inequality is real and impacts people’s lives, and a deliberate effort to counter inequality, then it’s false hope. To talk to a third-grade girl and tell her, “You can be anything you want, you can be president of the United States.” Well, what evidence do we have of that? That’s the difference between critical hope and hokey hope. You better tell her [she’s] going to deal with all kinds of shit. That’s critical hope. It’s not an extinguishing of the flame. It’s saying let’s be honest about the cost. Let’s be honest by saying that for you to become president it’s a different road to walk. 

EW: In your TED talk, you bring up startling statistics about urban kids and PTSD.  What do those statistics reveal?

JDA: When we look at national data sets for trauma, the numbers suggest that one in three urban youth display mild to severe symptoms of PTSD. They’re twice as likely as a soldier coming out of live combat to have PTSD. In the veterans’ administration, this is topic number one. But in conversations about urban youth, it almost never registers. All data shows symptoms of PTSD are interruptive to someone trying to perform well in school and more likely to create risk behavior, [yet] the investment is being made on incarceration. Michelle Alexander’s work is really illuminating on this point. And this not just [about] urban youth — if go to Appalachia where you see entrenched white poverty, you see the same levels of incidents. 

The [popular] notion of PTSD is that it’s caused by being exposed to gun violence or physical violence, but that’s not [entirely] what the research shows. For a soldier, [the term] PTSD makes sense because they’re “post” — they’re off the battlefield. But it doesn’t make sense to diagnose a young person with PTSD because they’re re-experiencing trauma. So in 2011, Harvard released a new diagnosis, CPTSD, or Complex PTSD. What they’re seeing happening in children’s brains and bodies because of the reoccurring toxic stress [in their lives] is more complex than what we see in soldiers. So a puzzle we can’t put together in soldiers has thousands more pieces for children. 

What we find is that [this diagnosis] explains so much in what we have been mislabeling ADHD, ADD, and misbehavior. When those same behaviors are exhibited by a soldier the immediate jump is, “Wow, I wonder if he has PTSD. We should get him some help.” But when it’s a 12-year-old black girl, [the response is to] send her to juvey, or suspend her from school. The research shows this magnifies the trauma. What the work around CPTSD is lifting up is that if you are food insecure, if you are housing insecure, we can show that is causal of PTSD. So what researchers are talking about now is “toxic stress.” Stress [alone] is not causal of PTSD. It’s toxic stress [that’s the problem], “toxic” being unrelenting and multilayered. 

The conditions of PTSD can range from hyper vigilance to exhaustion. So you could have one kid who’s quick to violence — they’re on high alert and they’re triggered. Another kid experiencing exact same things, their body could just shut down, so they’re not violent, they’re asleep in class or totally disengaged. Think about it — the data suggests one in three. That means every single one of us who is teaching has multiple kids with the symptoms of PTSD. And all the research and practice suggests that if you don’t address that, the likelihood you’re going to get homework done or get a kid to focus for multiple days on state and national tests is zero. So if we’re serious about academic growth for the nation’s most vulnerable youth, we cannot separate conversations about academic rigor from meeting the basic needs of kids. 

EW: Your TED talk is called “Growing Roses in Concrete,” and you named your new school after a Tupac Shakur poem of the same name. Why is Shakur so important to you and your students?  

JDA: I’m an English teacher, a community member, a father, a researcher, a writer, a brown man raised in hip hop generation — and in every one of those paths, Tupac’s work reoccurs in my life. I don’t romanticize Tupac. I think in ways he’s highly problematic, but who’s not? I don’t want to put him on a pedestal, but I wanted to understand why his message has been so transcendent. 

Roses in Concrete is his one book of poetry, and it’s named after that poem. So I think the metaphor of that poem encapsulates for me Tupac’s message that is so resonant with me and young people I work with all over the world. In poem he says, “Long live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else even cared.” He talks about how to grow in concrete, you have to have this tenacity and will to reach the sun, but inevitably you will have damaged petals because you have to break through the most toxic environment. So you are this complex gift of the creator – this beautiful flower that is damaged. It’s that duality that I think resonates so profoundly with young people. It’s like all this hard exterior being put up, and he says, “I see you as a rose, but I’m not Pollyannaish, I also see your damaged petals.” 

To me ‘Pac’s work is about seeing the full humanity of someone who endures suffering and trauma on a regular basis, and I think that’s what the most successful adults working in our communities do. They acknowledge the hurt and the unearned suffering while at the same time acknowledging the tenacity and the will to reach the sun. It’s so consumable for such a broad range of people. You’re not just talking about urban youth. You go to the lily-white suburbs and those kids love Tupac. Wealthy white kids are enduring a level of identity crisis and suffering in this society that we’re largely ignoring, and that’s why they’re gravitating to him too. They’re hearing in his message, “I see you too. I see the exterior you put on and your family puts on of, ‘It’s all good.’ And it’s not all good.

That’s why ‘Pac is somebody I really try and get people to see. There’s a public notion about ‘Pac that is one-dimensional, but people don’t know he was classically trained in ballet. They don’t know that when he died, at the foot of his bed was Shakespeare’s Othello, Machiavelli’s The Prince and Sun Tzu’s Art of War. This is a scholar. When you put that up against the complexity of Death Row records, you have all of us. This complicated, complex human being who, more than anything, wanted to heal and wanted people to feel better about themselves.

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