CLEVELAND — The past few years have been traumatic for all of us, in so many ways.
But for Cleveland students and teachers returning to schools — returning in person — that trauma has manifested in ways and behaviors staff have never seen before.
“I teach 27 lovely little kids,” said a first-grade teacher at a Cleveland elementary school. We hide his identity for his safety.
Twenty-seven students, one teacher — back in person for their first full year.
“It’s hard to meet their needs, and they have so many more needs this year than they’ve ever had before,” she said.
She was assaulted; bruises cover his belly, made by small but determined fists.
“Total loss of emotional control, throwing chairs and overturning desks,” she said, describing a difficult and chaotic year for students and staff.
During her sixth year of teaching, she said she saw behaviors she had never experienced before.
“Just a lot more violence, a lot more pushing and shoving, and going from 0 to 60 really quickly,” she said.
She is among 56 Cleveland teachers who were assaulted in the 2021-22 school year.
District data shows that down 25% from 2019, when 75 teacher assaults were reported.
Assaults between students appear to have decreased by 42% after the pandemic; 153 reported this past school year.
Shari Obrenski is the president of the Cleveland Teachers Union. She believes that policies on reporting assaults have changed, so these numbers don’t tell the whole picture.
“The reality of the situation is that we are still seeing serious behavior,” Obrenski said. “Whether it’s 50 in a year, or 500 in a year, or 5 in a year – one is too many.”
Bill Stencil, a psychologist at the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, has been there for 33 years. He said the change in routine coupled with the trauma of the pandemic has been a learning experience in terms of behavior – and responses – for everyone.
“It all comes down to relationships, and the stronger the relationships between staff and students, students and staff, students and students, the more we can minimize unrest,” Stencil said.
Stencil also runs the district’s “Humanware” program, which is their social-emotional learning program and was started after a school shooting at SuccessTech Academy in 2007.
The district plans to expand the program and social-emotional learning to all schools starting next year, as well as having a family support specialist Say Yes to Education in each school. The majority are social workers and will help organize a wide range of services, including mental health services.
Obrenski said the need for mental health services in schools is critical — and even greater after COVID. Smaller class sizes and more counselors in schools would also help.
But, adds Obrenski, it’s not just the district that can help students move forward and provide what every student and family needs.
With the issues of hunger, housing insecurity and violence in our neighborhoods, it takes community involvement and investment.
“The reality is that our kids bring things to school with them that we can’t solve at school,” Obrenski said.
But if there’s one thing we know about students and teachers, it’s that they are resilient.
And with the summer ahead, a difficult and chaotic year behind them, they give each other thanks for the next school year.
“That’s my favorite part, this class community, seeing them support each other and grow into these amazing little people,” the teacher said.