Op-ed: BTA teacher asks, how can we support our kids?

The lengthy piece published Wednesday on Berkeleyside about Berkeley Technology Academy has certainly caused a wide array of reactions and emotions throughout our school, district and community. 

Rather than cast blame, point fingers and re-count unfortunate anecdotes of past and current students in crisis situations, I’d like to take this opportunity to provide additional context about the challenge of our school, and how some of us think and hope we might become better and more effective at serving our students, who are indeed — as our Principal Quintana accurately states — simultaneously “brilliant kids” and “traumatized.”

To be clear, the pictures that this article presents, and the profound challenges and issues we must address, are not isolated to BTA. Our students are among the multitudes of students and families in our country who bear the brunt of a nation that continues to embrace, celebrate and glorify hyper-capitalism and greed, while ignoring the perpetual injustice and institutional discriminations faced by a huge portion of our population, generation after generation.

Yes, it’s true. There are hundreds of students in our community, neighborhoods, and yes, school district, who endure and confront intense social challenges every single day. Many have been struggling with these challenges for years. Often, so did their parents and grandparents. And great grandparents.

Perhaps the most pertinent fact mentioned in the article about our school is that such a huge majority (90+%) of our students are struggling with significant social-emotional challenges brought on by complex traumatic stress. Why would anybody be surprised by the intensely stressful and difficult learning situation that is created when you concentrate in one school more than a hundred adolescents afflicted with this disability? There is plenty of evidence that demonstrates what is known as vicarious stress and trauma that affects the adults who work in these environments.

In recent years, as mental health and educational professionals begin to better understand how complex traumatic stress impacts brain and emotional development, hopefully we can begin to get better at healing our young people who have inherited these conditions. A lawsuit was recently filed against a school district in Southern California that would require school districts to recognize “complex trauma” as a disability under federal law. This can indeed be a watershed moment in public education in our state and country. 

The critical first step of recognizing the science behind the challenge of complex trauma is emerging, but we aren’t there yet in our state, in our school district, or at our school. The vicarious trauma that impacts the adults who work on a daily basis with these children is real, and is often manifested in varying degrees of despair, depression, anger, self-destructive behavior, and blaming others (yes, even colleagues and administrators). 

In a broad sense, the article about our school is an accurate reflection of all these complex emotions and responses. The “alarm” that was raised in that article needs to be understood as a desperate cry for help in a profoundly challenging situation.

The children are watching to see how we respond.

Every adult who works at Berkeley Technology Academy is doing the best they can under these extremely difficult conditions. This year, we have begun a partnership with Berkeley Mental Health and embarked on an ambitious and worthy vision of building capacity toward creating a trauma-informed school. This will take time, focus, commitment, and resources. In the meantime, I hope this article will cause us to address the critical question: What more can the Berkeley Community do to support our children?

Berkeleyside welcomes submissions of op-ed articles. We ask that we are given first refusal to publish. Topics should be Berkeley-related, local authors are preferred, and we don’t publish anonymous pieces. Email submissions, as Word documents or embedded in the email, to editors@berkeleyside.com. The recommended length is 500-800 words. Please include your name and a one-line bio that includes full, relevant disclosures. Berkeleyside will publish op-ed pieces at its discretion.

John Fike is a teacher on special assignment at Berkeley Technology Academy. He is a native of Berkeley who has taught for over 20 years in East Bay public schools.