Teaching Through Trauma

Interview by Sophie Pollock

Esmer is teacher of early childhood development at Sacred Heart in the Washington Neighborhood of San Jose. She was been working as a teacher since she was eleven and has been coming back to teach 3 to 5 year olds how to cope with the traumas of living in poverty.


“Growing up all my life I felt like I lived in poverty. I definitely lived with racism, with inequality. I felt growing up that I was not privileged. So I walked with that stigma, with what society labeled me as. It wasn't until eight years ago that I came to work in San Jose that I really knew what poverty looked like. Growing up people would make fun of me, my peers would make fun of me because oh your daddy works on a tractor, your mommy picks vegetables in the fields, you guys are losers, you guys need to go back to where you came from. Well, we were all born in the United States. The difference is my parents didn't have office jobs. So a lot of the times we were ostracized. You know I turn it back to eight years ago when I started working here and I was richer beyond what I could ever believe in because I had friends that lived in the city, I have friends now that are very very well-off come from very wealthy farming families. And it's interesting because I look at them and I can sit back now and go whoa I wasn't the one that was living in poverty, it was you because even though you had the money factor on your backs, you had no family connection. You didn't have a close knit family because your parents were always so busy working that they never had time for you. You guys raised yourselves, you faced your own poverty within your own rich systems in that you had drugs pretty much at your doorstep in high quality you know to boot. The access to alcohol, access to people coming in and out of your homes at all hours of the night because you didn't have your parents there was very present. Whereas my parents they kissed us and sent us off to school went to the fields, when we were coming back we would wave to them, they were still working, but we'd wave to them out in our front yard which was where they worked. And you know our snack and our dinner was set. They'd come in like around 5:00 in the evening and we were ready to go. And so living in a close knit farming community you had that mom, that aunt, that makeshift grandma that was there to receive you because they knew that the younger ones were working in the fields. And so I literally lived one home surrounded by six pine trees with 50 acres of land.”

“So in the beginning when I started I'm at Sacred Heart it was with a mentality of "Esmer these children have to be kindergarten ready." You have to show them numbers, letters, colors, shapes. They have to know you know the planets and they have to know science and all this stuff and I learned very quickly that all that goes out the window when you have a child coming from trauma because when they go into our school school systems no matter how much we dump into their brains in regards to scholastics because they're coming from trauma they either get labeled as a kid that is a troubled kid, they get labeled as a kid that has a learning disability, but never once do teachers take a look at did you even eat this morning. Is that why you're falling asleep at my desk? And our kids are getting medicated because teachers feel that this child has ADHD this child doesn't have ADHD, this kid is trauma traumatized. So I learned very quickly that those scholastics aren't important if I didn't give my students the strong roots to be able to survive out here in this world, all these numbers, these letters didn't matter. So I really started looking at: what does it take for a human being to be able to survive in such an ugly chaotic world that we live in? You Need to be able to talk about your emotions, you need to be able to say "you know what teacher today I know you want me to learn but I can't learn because my mom just got beat up by my dad. And so my heart and my worries are there. They're not here with you."

"And so I decided to teach meditation. I decided to really talk about resiliency pieces, how to teach deep breathing to my students, how to tell them that it was okay to come in here angry, but we were going to have a special place where they can be angry in and I really put into practice "what happened? How Did it make you feel? What are three things that you can change about you?" I can't change the other person in front of me, I can't change the world around me, But I can change me and through my change I can create a ripple effect. I can be that model for that child that doesn't have anybody. And so that is a philosophy that I've put into this classroom. Everything that these children do is through play. They learn colors, they learn numbers, they learn letters, and they don't even realize that they're being taught that. Parents are coming to me going "oh my gosh teacher thank you so much because you're teaching them how to write." I'm not teaching them how to write, but because they're right inside their heart because they're able to funnel emotion, because they're able to call out how they're feeling and regulate what they want to keep and what they don't. All the learning comes naturally. I look back at growing up in that Migrant Head Start and that's exactly how we were taught. We were taught self-help skills we were taught emotion regulation. We were taught family, morals, ethics, life skills that was ingrained into our souls. Our earth, making sure that plants were always available in our classrooms so that we can give back to what gives to us was very key and a lot of classrooms lacked that. And so I get told all the time. "Why do you work there? Your Education is so much higher, your wealth of knowledge is so much bigger you can make so much more money. Why do you settle?" And for me it's not a matter of settling more than a matter of loving what I do and doing what I love.”