Many moons ago I worked at a school in one of the roughest parts of the city. To say that my white suburban-raised ass was out of place is an understatement. I was completely clueless.
When I began my position as a neophyte teacher I was hired by one principal only to have another as my boss. I saw four in four years. The administrator who stayed the longest during my tenure was a veteran for a mere 2 1/2 years before getting the boot. She was something else entirely.
I once attended therapy after becoming a teacher, but before having my son. I was experiencing severe anxiety to the point that I was terrified of returning to work after summer break. As I sat in the therapist’s office and spewed forth my story, he mentioned that many teachers, especially those in poverty-stricken areas, experience signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.
I was baffled, but he went on to explain that, where I worked, I was entering a war zone daily. This was due to my white upbringing, which while not rich or entitled by any means, was eons away from what I was experiencing daily at my job. To top it off, I was dealing with teacher evaluations by an unstable supervisor who was only compounding the stress and instability of the situation.
The principal had bipolar disorder. She frequently shared this with members of the staff, along with other details of her personal life. Because of this, my therapist explained that it was akin to living with an alcoholic parent. Each day I would show up to work, never knowing if I was getting happy “mommy,” sad mommy, manic mommy, or angry mommy. Knowing that I could be a target, as I saw many others become, added to my anxiety.
Once, in the middle of one of my first staff meetings (only her second as the boss), I and the entire staff witnessed her accept a group’s report only to ball it up and throw it in the trash with absolutely no explanation. The group, consisting of a second grade teacher and two middle school English instructors, were horrified.
Another time, as I was weeks into my very first class and still reeling from the idea of lesson plans and such, she manically came up to me and demanded that I take my students on an overnight field trip to Marengo Caves, as her son had just read a book about spelunking. She began speaking in quick succession about an entire unit designed around caves and stated that it was my duty to plan and submit it to her.
By the end of the year we teachers were forced to create and present power points highlighting reasons we should keep our jobs. After prepping all semester and waiting eagerly to share our project, she would stop us midway through our presentation to begin babbling about non-work related things.
Within the second year I felt that I had become a target. Her supervisor would gently suggest that she dress more appropriately, using my wardrobe as an example, so I was now singled out. During standardized testing she would peer into my windows and state that I was sitting down instead of circulating the room (I had merely leaned against a desk for a few moments as time wound down). She would later explain that I would be fired the next time. I received emails asking why I hadn’t greeted her in the morning when I was only busy with other tasks. She accused me of being rude and stated that I couldn’t teach boys. She once taunted me for having lower scores than my co-teacher and laughed as I wondered why our scores would be separated from within the grade level.
My coworker, who was pregnant at the time, was also a target. The boss, being rail thin and wild-eyed, commented regularly on my coworker’s weight gain. It was embarrassing and hurtful. When my friend didn’t immediately slim down to a size -2, the principal was at it again. When I became pregnant I was terrified that I would go into labor and need to be driven by her to the hospital.
One of my last memories is of her wearing a “Cat in the Hat” costume for Dr. Seuss’s birthday. She would serve up green eggs and ham to the younger students as her white face paint drilled into the scrambled eggs. Later, her supervisor came to the building with many other “suits” for a scheduled meeting. Without changing out of her costume, and with her face melting off, she sat through the meeting. The staff saw her later as she cried in her office, which was clearly a low point. However, as a highly-educated professional and the face of our school, I did not feel she was being unfairly reprimanded by her boss.
When I did go into labor and went on maternity leave, she snuck onto the maternity ward floor of the hospital after I kindly requested to not have visitors. I was experiencing difficulty breast feeding and, as I sobbed dejectedly to the floor nurse, heard a loud knock on the door. My family had left to give me some privacy as I attempted to feed my son, and here I was being accosted by a woman who terrified me. I begged the nurse to send her away and we all wondered how she had managed to get in, as each patient received a code to share with visitors that unlocked the ward doors. I hadn’t given her the code and neither had any other family members. She simply showed up, like the Wicked Witch, in her green noxious gas.
Everything came to a head when it was discovered she was using work computers for a new employment search. Her boss, who for years we were terrified of due to her character-slaughtering lies, had had enough of her crazy shit and she was soon replaced with a principal who was the complete opposite of her.
So, you can imagine why I truly believe that teachers can experience PTSD. Hell, having a horrible boss can lead you to experience PTSD. Was my principal the only stressor that I experienced while teaching? No. But when you don’t have a positive leader or, hell, even a stable leader, the stress compounds itself and suddenly work becomes a place of tension, fear, and harassment.
I highly encourage all of you to check out the links below. The incidence of PTSD in teachers, especially those in urban “war zones,” is on the rise.
Take care of yourselves!
CPS and PTSD
PTSD in Middle School Teacher