Blog titles about "post-traumatic stress from teaching" are absurd and insensitive

Joanne Jacobs Diana Senechal (guest-blogging for Joanne Jacobs*) had an unusual blog post this morning, calling out two other blogs (GothamSchools and one by Ed Week's Sarah Sparks) for sloppy reporting ? or more specifically, sloppy titling. She writes:

I was a bit puzzled when I read the GothamSchools ?remainder?: ?Researchers in Houston are asking whether students can give teachers post-traumatic stress.? Post-traumatic stress? Is the study investigating whether teachers have bouts of depression, nightmares, etc. after they have stopped teaching?

I followed the link to the Edweek blog by Sarah Sparks, which bears the headline, ?Can a Class of 7th Graders Give Teachers Post-traumatic Stress?? But the article itself made it seem as though this were a study of teacher stress, not post-traumatic stress. (Sometimes the headlines are written by someone other than the blog's author.)

Indeed the study ? while potentially interesting ? has nothing to do with?post-traumatic stress?(it just so happens that the researcher conducting it has a background in researching trauma and PTSD). This mis-characterization of mental illness, and about teachers nonetheless, is frustrating in several other ways.

First, it completely misconstrues an actual medical definition. According to the DSM-4 PTSD occurs only after one's life ? or that of someone they love ? is threatened by serious injury or death. If one is aware of the true definition, then the headline leads you to believe that this particular class of seventh graders must have been armed with weapons or holding the teacher hostage. Alternatively, and more likely, it begins to dilute the actual meaning of the term such that stress = post-traumatic stress = all the same. This may seem like a wasteful argument in semantics, but I've overheard one too many conversations where people wrongly refer to the illness in the context of breaking up with a boyfriend, getting stung by a wasp, or getting into a nasty argument with one's mother-in-law. (This might seem petty, but to me it all stems from the infuriating people-don't-treat-mental-illness-the-same-as-physical-illness phenomenon. No one claims they have diabetes if they don't actually medically have it. Why is it that we accept flinging around mental illness labels? Or use them jokingly ? e.g., ?this weather is schizophrenic??)

Second, while the actual study sounds interesting (examining teacher stress levels and whether they negatively impact student achievement) there are a host of other studies related to PTSD and education waiting to be done. Don't waste headlines on it now. For instance, I'd love to know whether teachers are impacted not only be stress but by ?vicarious trauma? ? that is, how does the trauma incurred by their students affect them? How can we better serve students and their teachers in communities where violence spills over into the classroom? Are teachers prepared by their training programs to know how to handle it? In my experience as a TFA teacher, I know I wasn't. Teach For America had a robust ?diversity? training component but I had zero heads-up on how deal with the vicarious trauma that spilled into my classroom say, when a child admitted abuse in front of the class, or described a violent event in a way that upset other students, or merely acted out not because of mis-labeled ADHD or hyperactivity or a learning disability but because of undiagnosed, unrecognized, un-talked about symptoms related directly to trauma.

Trauma and stress in communities ? among both students and teachers ? are hugely relevant and deserve to be discussed, but accurately.

(Note, this soap box was constructed in large part because I've worked in volunteer settings with trauma victims who have PTSD and have also read far too many psych books as a result of being married to a psychotherapist. Stepping down now.)

* Correction Diana Senechal was guest blogging for Joanne Jacobs; I originally reported that Joanne had written the blog.

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