by Melissa Monzyk, English teacher, Ritenour High School, St. Louis, Missouri
I love teaching at Ritenour High School, a public school with about 1,700 students in St. Louis County, about six miles outside of Ferguson, Missouri. However, it can be a tough place to teach for educators who are not equipped to instruct children who are regularly exposed to trauma outside of school.
Ritenour is the most diverse school district in Missouri with black and Latino children comprising more than 60 percent of the district’s student population. The per capita income is less than $22,000 and approximately 20 percent of all children 18 or younger live in poverty. Last year, more than 5,000 violent crimes were recorded by the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. Ritenour High School’s graduation rate lags behind the state average by nearly 10 percent.
A significant number of our students have experienced personal and interpersonal traumatic events in their lives. And there is a large body of research documenting the negative effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) which includes physical, emotional, and verbal abuse and neglect of the child; alcoholism; domestic violence; incarceration; mental illness; and death or abandonment in the home.
“At times I doubted my approach, but at my core I always believed that empathy and understanding were the most effective way to help my students.”
When I first started teaching, I could not have guessed that my understanding of human development, psychological responses to trauma and cultural nuance (I was a sociology and psychology major in college) would so strongly inform my approach to managing my classroom and connecting with my students. Without this baseline knowledge, I may have never discovered the true value of Trauma Informed Practices (TIP) in schools.
At times I doubted my approach, but at my core I always believed that empathy and understanding were the most effective way to help my students— many of whom are dealing with unbelievable pressures outside of my classroom. One such example is a student who lost his mother in a tragic accident when he was just 13-years-old. He blamed himself for the accident. He joined my classroom at a time when he was placed into his father’s custody—with whom he had no prior relationship. The student’s new home was far from stable and he struggled desperately with anger and aggression, depression, suicidal ideation, substance abuse and crime.
Through application of TIP with this student, and after years of starts and stops, success and suspensions, I am proud to say that I watched him walk the stage at graduation in 2018. I’m sure this story hits home for a lot of teachers, and it is one of the reasons why I’ve dedicated the past four years of my career to studying TIP and working to implement it in my classroom, as well as others.
“Study after study shows that tough discipline policies have often been ineffective, and have played an outsized role in absenteeism, poor graduation rates and feeding the school to prison pipeline.”
In 2016, the Ritenour School District formally incorporated TIP into its recommended instruction model for its schools. Last year, I partnered with the district and Alive and Well, a local community wellness advocacy non-profit, to apply for a grant from America’s Promise Alliance—a national child advocacy non-profit organization. The grant was a part of a broader effort to accelerate the implementation of TIP across the district as part of America’s Promise Alliance’s new Every School Healthy campaign.
The Every School Healthy campaign embraces many aspects of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child (WSCC) model, which recognizes that educational outcomes improve when children, their support networks and their school environments are healthy. This approach is desperately needed in schools like mine, as study after study shows that tough discipline policies have often been ineffective, and have played an outsized role in absenteeism, poor graduation rates and feeding the school to prison pipeline.
A group of my colleagues and I formed a TIP leadership group that is working to firmly establish TIP at our school. We’ve placed new emphasis on teacher wellness through yoga instruction, mindfulness practice and creative expression during professional development hours. We are also working with our administrators to develop new initiatives on a more equitable and less punitive dress code and on developing a policy to address sexual assault claims in a way that does not traumatize the victim. We’re also driving the implementation of restorative justice practices in individual classrooms.
“Some of these changes have been met with resistance, as we work to unthaw a prevailing attitude that every child needs a rigid classroom structure and traditional discipline to succeed.”
Some of these changes have been met with resistance, as we work to unthaw a prevailing attitude that every child needs a rigid classroom structure and traditional discipline to succeed. I know from personal experience that this outdated ideology can present tremendous obstacles to progress for children who need empathy rather than just punishment to adjust their behavior. Despite these obstacles, we are committed to producing demonstrable results and proving to all Ritenour School District administrators and educators that TIP isn’t a passing fad.
I believe that trauma-informed practices have a bright future in education. In a profession where success is often measured by test scores, TIP support the equally important measure of the strength of relationships between the educators and their students— TIP is emerging as the leading conduit for fostering those critical connections.
Melissa Monzyk is an English teacher at Ritenour High School in St. Louis, Missouri. She specializes in working with at-risk students and was integral in piloting FUTURES, a freshman intervention program designed to improve credit acquisition and graduation rates. She has attended many conferences and in-service trainings related to trauma-informed practices, and has facilitated professional development sessions and book clubs intended to raise trauma awareness at RHS. Melissa holds an undergraduate dual degree in Psychology/Sociology, teaching certifications in K-12 Special Education and in 9-12 English Language Arts, a Master of Arts in Teaching degree, and, this spring, a second Master’s in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Melissa is a member of the RHS Trauma Team, which is comprised of staff members chosen to participate in the training and development of TIP via Ritenour’s Every School Healthy grant administered by America’s Promise Alliance.