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July 7, 2022
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When Trauma Explodes in the Classroom

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A fight in the classroom left one teacher both shaken and re-committed to breaking patterns of socioeconomic disadvantage.

EquityClassroom Management
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Credit: images / iStock
The teacher stands between the two muscular teenage boys as they start rising from their desks, towering over her 5’2” frame. She speaks in a calm, measured voice, attempting a three-pronged plan of action: diffuse the situation, refocus these students on their work, and keep the problem contained.  
Hearing her, the slightly smaller of the two begins sitting down, ready to move on. But the larger one is beyond the place of listening, as shown by the tension in his jaw, the set of his broad shoulders, and the clench of his hands. He sees only red. 
The teacher dives out of the way just before a fist crashes into the smaller boy’s face. She screams for them to stop as the larger boy drags the smaller one through the classroom, scattering desks and notebooks. Roars of pain and fury add to the cacophony in the room.  
The other students, their faces masks of horror, cling to the edges of the classroom, not knowing how to help. These are the biggest kids in the room—trying to pull them apart could be dangerous. 
Blood drips from the smaller boy’s face, streaking the linoleum. The teens burst through the classroom door, transporting the violence into the hallway. The teacher watches, still yelling, attempting to prevent her remaining students from joining the chaos. 
Help arrives—the burly deans of discipline, experts at breaking up fights, are able to separate the boys. The teacher’s final glimpse of the taller student is a portrait of rage: His white shirt torn and streaked with his opponent’s blood, his face contorted, his muscles taut and tense as he struggles to break free.   
The boys, both Black, are led away into what she knows will be a disciplinary labyrinth. She will never see the taller boy again.  

When Control Is Lost

That was my classroom. I was that teacher, and those were my students.  
We still had about 20 minutes left of class. A stunned silence filled the room.  
“That was awful,” a student finally said.  
“What do you think will happen to them, Dr. Sachar?” someone else asked. 
We had all seen fights in school. I’d even had a couple others in my classroom before this one in the 14 years I had worked for the district. It was always stressful and upsetting, but this was different—far more severe.  
“I don’t know,” I said, “but let’s remember that they are our classmates.” While some students were frozen in shock, others undoubtedly were texting their friends about the incident.  
I tried to get the lesson back on track, picking up a paper from the floor to remind myself what we were doing before the problem erupted. Now crumpled and shoeprint-stamped, it was a worksheet I had created about analyzing quotes in To Kill a Mockingbird. As I held it, my hands started shaking. I opened my mouth to speak, and the sound that came out was not my loud, strong teacher voice, but something weak and trembling. 
“It’s okay if you’re upset, Dr. Sachar,” one of my students said. “We know you’re human.” (I appreciated his kindness, though I would learn later that he filmed the fight with his phone and posted it on social media.) 
In 14 years of teaching, I had never cried in front of my students. A couple of tears might have leaked out in this moment, though. Somehow, students resumed their work. They actually put pencil to paper for a few minutes before the assistant principal arrived to dismiss them to an early lunch—the custodian needed time to use a special blood-cleaning solution to take care of what he referred to as a “crime scene.” 
After everyone left, I took a few minutes to lay my head down on my desk and let those tears flow freely.  

When Best Efforts Aren’t Enough

Over the last eight years or so since this event happened, I’ve been reflecting on what life is like in a public high school that serves a varied student body. The school where this fight took place served a diverse student population in terms of socio-economic status, race, religion, country of origin, and intellectual ability. Many of my students hailed from inner-city Wilmington, Delaware, an area where they likely were exposed to regular violence and trauma. Over the years of my employment, my school lost funding to competing schools, and many of our high-achieving students left for better-resourced schools. Our test scores dropped, and many teachers found different jobs. A number of those who stayed tolerated teaching the “difficult” students, but they made it clear they were there for “the ones who want to learn.”   
“If they don’t want to learn, I can’t make them.” I’ve heard different versions of this sentence countless times in my career. I do not accept this statement, and I don’t respect a teacher who gives up because the students are “difficult.” My philosophy has always been that we need to keep trying to reach them. If it isn’t working, we need to try something else. 
Of course, no teacher likes it when students are disengaged or disrespectful. No one wants to be called names or screamed at on a daily basis. Teachers want students who are well-behaved and self-motivated. I agree—I’ve had students who have gone on to study at the University of Delaware, Northwestern University, Harvard, and Stanford, and it was great to work hard to challenge these high flyers and watch where they landed.  
Here’s the thing, though—even if I hadn’t been as diligent, even if I were a bad teacher, these students would have been fine. They would have figured it out on their own, going online and researching what they needed to be prepared for college, selecting books to read in their free time even if I didn’t do my job. But it’s the other students, the ones who are incorrectly labeled “difficult” who desperately need teachers to care about and work with them, especially when they’re struggling. These students might put their heads down in class, not turn in their work, act out, or miss a bunch of days of school.  
There’s a slew of reasons students behave in these ways. When students are exposed to violence, live in poverty, or experience homelessness, it is far more likely that effects of those experiences will show up in school. However, it’s a false and dangerous narrative to assume that all students with trauma or who come from disadvantaged backgrounds may be “difficult” in class or have disciplinary incidents. I’ve heard heart-wrenching stories when I’ve checked in with students to see what was wrong, everything from “My brother got shot and killed yesterday” to “They arrested my dad for sexual assault.” Some students have been through hell and need space to process what’s happened to them. So, no, they might not always stay focused on Romeo and Juliet, not even if the teacher creates a dynamic lesson plan.
Systemic racial disparities in school discipline also play a huge role; it’s well-known that Black and Brown students, especially boys, are disproportionately disciplined, suspended, and expelled compared to students of other races. The odds were stacked against students like Travis, through no fault of his own, from the very beginning—and it’s partly up to educators to figure out how we can mitigate those issues as we engage with students.   
Some of my students didn’t make it through high school. Some didn’t even make it out of their teens. I can close my eyes and picture the faces of those who died: Dante, who didn’t come to class much but was personable and respectful, was shot in a drug deal gone wrong. Alan, my former student aid, overdosed. TJ intervened to protect a woman and her baby from an attacker and ended up getting stabbed. Benny, who misbehaved often but had the nicest smile and always stayed on top of his assignments, shot at police officers before ending his own life. I read or hear about these stories and picture them as they were, sitting in my classroom, their futures open in front of them.   

Letting Students Know They Matter

Upon learning about that fight in my classroom, people asked me what on earth possessed me to approach two students who were each nearly a foot taller than me and outweighed me by close to a hundred pounds. How could I have been so careless about my own safety?   
But I didn’t think I was being reckless. These two teenagers were friends, or at least friendly enough—they chose to work together in a group that day. So when I heard a bad word from the other side of my classroom, I thought it was just two guys talking. I walked over not to put out a fire but to remind them of appropriate classroom language and get them back on task. 
Also, most important, I had a good relationship with both Zach (the smaller student) and Travis (the larger one). Zach was never a problem; he worked hard and was unfailingly polite. Once, he saw me at the mall and came over to introduce me to his dad. 
Developing a relationship with Travis was tougher. He had come to my class about a month before from a juvenile detention center. This wasn’t information the school gave me; Travis himself told me this. He admitted he had an anger management problem but said he was working on it. He desperately wanted to play on the school basketball team, but he needed to raise his grades. 
Travis tried my patience at times. He got angry whenever he didn’t understand something. He raised his voice at me if he didn’t like his grade on an assignment. There are students who need a sharp tongue at times to stay in line. That approach wouldn’t have worked at all with Travis—he was searching for confrontation, looking for a reason not to trust me. He had lived his life being told he was bad.  
So, I listened. I’d ask Travis to step outside of the classroom with me for a minute so his outburst wouldn’t be on display. (Since I had a special education teacher working with me, I wasn’t abandoning the rest of the class.) I would offer solutions. His behavior never escalated to the point where I couldn’t help him calm down and regain control. I never needed to call someone to have him removed from class. 

It’s not the specific words that are important—it’s that we show we care what happens to our students.  

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He even started coming after school for extra help. The very day before the incident, he was among a group of students in my classroom working on an upcoming assignment after school. He got angry about something and was rude to me.  
“Travis, this is my own time,” I said. “If you’re going to treat me like this, I’m going to need you to leave.” 
Izzy, whom I did remove from class a couple of times due to her own anger management issues, backed me up. “Don’t be disrespecting my teacher like that,” she told him.  
Travis left, stomping out of the classroom. 
A while later, after the other students had gone home, Travis walked back into my empty classroom. The halls were quiet, my colleagues having gone home an hour or more before. 
I’m ashamed to say it, but my first instinct was fear. What does he want? I was all alone, defenseless. 
Travis came close to my desk and stood before me, his face unreadable. “I want to apologize for my behavior earlier,” he said. “I was way out of line, and I know you’re trying to help me.” 
I invited him to sit down and we talked. We had a good chat about how he could be more successful. When he left my room, I felt that Travis would be okay.  
I never expected what would occur before my eyes the very next day.  

Two Divergent Futures

Travis was not a bad kid, but he could not contain his demons that day in my classroom. Zach was taken to the nurse’s office for his injuries. A hall monitor who accompanied him there told me later that, despite his injuries, including lacerations to his mouth because of his braces, Zach was most concerned about me
“I was trying to get him to calm down so the nurse could help him. He was covered in his own blood, and he was yelling, ‘Is Dr. Sachar okay? Is she okay?’ He was worried you got hurt.” 
Both boys were suspended. Zach got to come back to school. I didn’t know what happened to Travis. I assumed he went back to the juvenile detention center.  
A few months ago, I plugged his full name into Google. The first hit was an old article with the headline “In the Spotlight,” noting that he was the number one 7th grade basketball player in Delaware. 
The second hit was Delaware Inmate Finder. I didn’t click on the link. 
All that talent. All that potential. 
About two and a half years after that fateful day, Zach graduated. A wide smile broke across my face as his name was read and he walked across that stage. 
Two teenage boys. One terrible fight. Two divergent futures.  

Compassion Matters

For weeks after the fight, I mentally beat myself up, wishing I had intervened sooner, thinking that I could have done something differently and prevented the situation from occurring. Even though I had been attentive to my students’ needs and had made some progress in building a relationship with Travis, I didn’t have the power to stop his choices. 
Classroom management is an incredibly difficult skill to master. Similar to my college job as a lifeguard, even though the water is calm one moment, it can turn choppy the next. As teachers, no matter how hard we try, we will never be able to give our students everything they need. We can’t solve all the problems that are distracting them from reaching their potential—we can’t fix all the pressures and disadvantages they face. There are structural, societal problems that are beyond teachers’ reach—problems that government leaders, policymakers, and voters need to help schools and communities address.  
What educators can do is offer compassion and support. We can give them a fresh start after they have had a bad day. Caring teachers matter in the lives of underprivileged students. 
While I experienced many difficult times during my teaching career, there were wins as well—moments that made it all worth it. I recall the day I broke through to Shane, who struggled with impulse control and constantly talked back. He had written a marvelous introduction to his essay on The Crucible, so, after asking for his permission, I used it as an example in front of his class. Unaccustomed to positive praise from a teacher, he swelled with pride. It was a turning point.  
Another time, in my role as senior class advisor, I led the seniors out after graduation, and one of my former sophomores caught up with me, glowing. 
“Do you remember when I wanted to drop out?” she asked me.  
I recalled the day we had a tough talk regarding her attendance and level of effort. She had decided to give up, but I knew she could succeed and pushed her to keep trying. I watched her cry, passed her a tissue, and became part of a network to hold her up, letting her know that I saw her struggles but also her potential. She didn’t magically transform into a stellar student that day, but she started taking the extra steps she needed, such as staying after school for tutoring.      
“You’re one of the reasons why I’m graduating now. Thank you.” She ran away to her family, who was smiling widely in the rafters, thrilled at what their girl had accomplished. 
It was such a simple act for me to give her that first pep talk, taking almost zero effort or time out of my day. The words I told her that single day, or perhaps snippets of conversations we had over many days, are largely inconsequential; I can’t write anything down and say, “This is what you need to tell students in order to help them succeed.” 
It’s not the specific words that are important—it’s that we show we care what happens to our students.  
I couldn’t stop that one fight, but it reiterates my own battle, the one to try my best for all of my students. The clock resets each morning in our classrooms. Each day, we have another chance to support our students. And these efforts matter. 

Cassandra O’Sullivan Sachar, a former secondary English teacher in Delaware public schools, is an associate English professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, where she continues to work with at-promise students and provide professional development to her colleagues in how to best support them.

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