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Teachers cope with trauma, fear once again after Uvalde school shooting

Texas School Shooting
Posted at 6:28 PM, May 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-27 07:42:08-04

All it takes is one word to capture the fear and trauma of another school shooting for teachers — again.

“Again. It's devastating each time. It never gets easier each time,” said high school teacher Stacey Hervey. “It keeps happening, and you just start to get a little battle worn.”

Again, because this has happened to so many students and educators in so many communities across the country.

Again, because teachers are having to cope with the fact that two of their peers died trying to protect their students, and one day they may have to make a similar decision.

“I've had that conversation with my own children, that I would lay my life down for a student here. And that was hard for them to hear, but I know their own teachers have told them that, too,” Hervey said.

Again and again and again.

There is so much trauma that comes with being a teacher and being the one who has to walk children through lockdown drills or help them navigate through "big emotions" anytime a tragedy happens. There is trauma in having to be constantly prepared for the worst.

“Every day, I check the door to my classroom to make sure it's locked,” Hervey said. “A balloon goes off, and you are kind of like, "Wait, was it just a balloon?" We had a transformer blow in the neighborhood a few weeks ago, and there's always that first instinct of is it gunfire.”

Teaching has changed a lot in the 22 years since Hervey first stepped into a classroom. There are times she goes home and doesn’t know if she can do this job anymore.

Hervey is not alone. Between the low pay, post-pandemic stresses, class sizes and school shootings, Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, says she knows a lot of educators that have decided to leave the profession. She doesn’t blame them.

“I think we've heard a lot in the last several years about our educators being heroes, and certainly they are heroes and do heroic things every single day. But we're also not superhuman,” Baca-Oehlert said.

Baca-Oehlert is a high school counselor herself. She’s sick of thoughts and prayers. She’s sick of the kind words. She, and many other teachers like her, are angry.

“You reach a point where you almost feel numb to this," Baca-Oehlert said. "But also, you reach a point where you are angry. You are, you know, filled with rage and wanting to do something."

Vincent Atchity, president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado, wants educators to know that all of these feelings are normal.

“I think we are living in a prolonged period of mental health distress,” he said. “This is our sick cycle that we are suspended in as a community where these events occur.”

The best thing Atchity says people can do for their own mental well-being is to limit exposure to the information causing secondhand trauma. That doesn’t mean burying your head in the sand or completely ignoring what’s happening, but means not dwelling in it.

Atchity would like to see the community rally around educators to support them now and in the future with all the trauma that comes along with the job.

“These are the heroes of our times, and they are absolutely unrecognized for the value of the work that they do,” Atchity said.

For educators, meanwhile, Atchity encourages them to not wait to seek mental health help if they are struggling and to not try to put it behind them for a prolonged period of time.

As for Baca-Oehlert and Herley, they are still coping with all of the emotions associated with another school shooting and the reality that there will likely be another sometime in the future. They only hope that one day that won't be the case.

“I don't want kids growing up in a world where it's normal anymore," Hervey said. "I don't want kids having to hide in their classrooms."

If you or someone you know is struggling, help and resources can be found at mentalhealthcolorado.org.