by Emily Alexander, City Year San Antonio ’11, ‘12
During my first year of service as a City Year AmeriCorps member in San Antonio, I made a life changing connection with a counselor from Communities In Schools. Though I joined City Year after college because I thought I had wanted to go into teaching, the relationship I built with this counselor helped me to see that my skills and interests were more in line with pursuing a career in counseling or social work. After two years with City Year San Antonio, I completed my Master's Degree from the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, and I decided to continue the work I started as an AmeriCorps member—fighting for social justice and educational equity for all of our students by ensuring they receive the support they need in school to be successful—as a school counselor.
Today, I work at a public charter school in Washington D.C. where I connect with middle school students. My day-to-day schedule is like a social work buffet: I provide counseling for students in special and general education, working closely with teachers, administrators and parents. I do crisis intervention for students. I provide in-class and whole school support to students and teachers, a little bit like what an AmeriCorps member might do in classrooms and schools, focusing on attendance, behavior and social-emotional skills. Lastly, as our schools’ homeless liaison, I work with homeless families and coordinate with community organizations to ensure students have transportation, uniforms, supplies and anything else they might need such as food and shelter.
Looking at this list, my job seems overwhelming—especially when you consider that many of the students I support have experienced some kind of trauma. Yet, I'm lucky to work on a team of social workers and counselors, and my school has placed a great deal of emphasis on supporting students’ emotional health, so I feel very supported.
We know that young people who live in communities affected by poverty, inadequate resources and violence are more likely to experience trauma, and that trauma has profound effects on how young people learn and develop. As a social worker, I have to be "trauma-informed" in the way I approach my work with students. Here are a few tips that have helped me in my work:
1. Get to know the student as an individual
Traumatic events can affect everyone differently. For example, I work with a family with three students at our school who recently lost their home, and each of the three siblings has had a completely different reaction to being displaced. It is important to me that I get to know each of these kids as an individual so that my response to each can be exactly what they need. By doing so, I can learn what their particular triggers are and how they need to be supported in the classroom and in the greater school community.
2. Respect their space
Respecting a student's physical space is so important, and asking before giving a hug, a handshake, or even a high five can help a student take ownership of their body and their space.
3. Be patient
Remaining patient when a student acts out their anger or frustration is a big part of maintaining a relationship with a student. They might not know how to handle their feelings, but by remaining consistent and showing students that you can handle their emotions, they learn that they can handle them as well.
4. Understand their strength
Students are amazing; they face so much adversity on a daily basis but they continue to do their best. This strength from my students is what has sustained me every day in this difficult work. Remember that students who have experienced trauma are incredibly resilient. They’ve gone through some tough stuff and still show up to school. That’s definitely something to honor.
As I've seen schools become more aware of what trauma is and how it affects students, I have seen student success grow. When students feel triggered and scared, their brain shuts down to protect them, making it really hard for them to learn. However, if we create an environment where students feel safe and supported, they are able to access the parts of their brain that are needed to learn and be successful.
During my time with City Year, I learned the importance of building bridges for students to caring adults who could help them. I learned that it was important for me to seek support on how best to support my students when I needed to, ultimately ensuring a better outcome for my students. Now, as a full-time social worker, I’m convinced more than ever that it takes an entire community to support a student, particularly those who have faced trauma. I am so glad I get to be a part of a community of caring adults working to fight and advocate for students and their needs, every day.