While many American students and their parents worry that the next mass shooting could happen at their school, schools are also facing a number of other threats that do not involve guns. Many of these threats are related to the mental health of educators and students.
From 2018 to 2021, both before and during the pandemic, I spent time studying a public middle school in the San Francisco Bay Area that serves a high-poverty community of color. The research involved spending more than 100 hours of observing classes and teacher and staff meetings. It also involved a series of interviews with 10 teachers and the principal.
Here are five of the biggest threats that I identified through my observations.
1. Trauma among students
Students often spoke and wrote about traumatic experiences. This included losing parents to murder, imprisonment or deportation.
Teachers and staff told me they were not prepared to handle students’ emotional reactions to these traumatic experiences and how the experiences affected student learning.
Extensive research shows that trauma can result in poor academic performance and more anxiety or aggression that can interfere with learning.
Racial minority and low-income students tend to experience significantly more trauma than white students and students from higher-income families.
The COVID-19 pandemic created more trauma for more students, especially for low-income students of color, as disruption to the normal way of life and to the economy created high stress on families. Perversely, school closures during the pandemic also made it more difficult for students experiencing trauma to receive mental health care and treatment often provided by schools.
2. Worse well-being for teachers and students
Staff in the school I studied described their middle schoolers as increasingly “shut down,” “fragile,” “beaten down” and “hopeless” with every passing year.
Teachers also talked about their own struggles with “the stress of this place” and “negative emotions” from their daily challenges to support their students. During the pandemic, teachers described increasing “exhaustion” from the level of effort needed to keep students in school and engaged in learning.
Since the onset of the pandemic, lower overall well-being of students and teachers has become a nationwide concern. In the 2020-2021 school year, 80% of teachers nationwide reported feelings of burnout. In the 2021-2022 school year, nearly half of students across the U.S. in grades 9 through 12 reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. Across the nation, district leaders in the 2021-2022 school year reported a general decline in mental health and well-being of all students and educators as their most pressing concern.