On March 30, more than 700 future and practicing teachers, community members, and Illinois State faculty and staff gathered together in Braden Auditorium to watch Paper Tigers, a film focused on a new approach to educating and nurturing traumatized youth. Following the film, there was an expert-led question-and-answer session from a panel that included Illinois State Clinical Assistant Professor of Special Education Ree Hartman ’85, M.S. ’92.
The event was made possible through partnerships with the Illinois Education Association (IEA) Affiliates Region 14 and 62, Unit Five Education Association, Bloomington Education Association, and College of Education, among many others.
“I was very encouraged by the partnerships that we developed from this event,” said Karl Goeke, M.A. ’09, president of the Unit Five Education Association and member of the Illinois Education Association. “There are many services available in our community, however we do not have systemic supports in place to provide our children with the highest needs access to them.”
About the film
An angry, profanity-laden text to a teacher, a disruptive outburst in class, or a refusal to obey a school administrator are student behaviors that often result in suspension or expulsion in many schools. At Lincoln High School, an alternative school in Walla Walla, Washington, the script has been flipped, and so have the lives of students who may have otherwise been written-off by other P–12 schools. In fact, the punishment the school avidly avoids is suspension.
The teachers and administrators have adopted an approach that is informed by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) studies. As a result of the new lens and way of working with students, the school has experienced a 75-percent reduction in fights, and three times more of their graduates attend college.
Lincoln’s students have a history of truancy, substance abuse, and childhood trauma, and have endured at least one ACE in their lifetime, and often many. In the film, the students detail the persistent toxic stresses in their lives. Because they are in a constant state of fear and anxiety, that state becomes natural to them, and their behaviors reflect this. For Lincoln students, the difference between a real threat (a tiger) and a perceived one (a paper tiger) becomes largely indistinguishable. The teachers are tuned into these aspects of their students’ lives. Regardless of the way the young adults act out, the educators look past behavior to understand the root cause, demonstrate how much they care, and encourage their students to return to the school environment.
The behavioral and academic transformation of the students in the film demonstrated a progression that culminated in graduation from Lincoln High School. But Goeke recognizes that the results are replicable and necessary in other environments.
“One thing that we have learned from the ACEs study is that ACEs are not limited to any one category or group of people,” he said. “They are pervasive, and we are seeing the effects more and more in schools. Additionally, the education of all of the children in our community should be an interest of all community members.”
That’s why the IEA is partnering with the principal from Paper Tigers to develop and deliver professional development to help build trauma-informed schools and communities in the region, with the film screening being the first step.
“Free high-quality schools and living conditions that allow children the ability to learn should be a right for every child in Illinois regardless of their ZIP code,” Goeke said.
Illinois State education majors showed a strong interest in the way the school environment helped the adolescents contend with the tremendous obstacles vividly detailed in the film.
“This movie really opened my eyes to the connections between a student’s living conditions and their school work,” said junior math education major Tommy Fatigante, who attended the film with two of his fellow math education majors. “It shows great communication and respect between teacher and student. These teachers are passionate about their work and their students. By the end of the movie, I was thinking that hopefully one day I can be like these teachers.”
The film was also empowering for sophomore elementary education major Kelsie Loumeau.
“After tonight, I do feel more capable of handling students’ traumatic and personal issues. I would want a teacher to show me that they care and will help in any way they can,” she said. “This is what my goal is as a future teacher. I feel like my approach in the classroom will change because I am more knowledgeable about how hard children can have it at home and how they really need someone to show them love and support.”
Rich Baldwin, M.S. ’99, Bloomington Education Association president, and social studies teacher at Bloomington High School, said the subject of the film is one that does not receive enough attention. He believes the event allowed him and many of his fellow educators step outside of their own classroom, building, or district to see a different point of view of the profession.
“It is very easy for teachers to have ‘blinders’ on when it comes to the bigger picture in education,” Baldwin said. “It is vital that teachers continue to expand their ‘toolbox’ when it comes to meeting the needs of their students. Those needs continue to change.”
Though Baldwin is a veteran educator, he believes the film caused him to reflect more deeply on the substantial long-term effects that childhood trauma can have on the psyche of his students. He admits that to some degree he went along with the general assumption in the field that improving school and home environments would enable students to overcome or “shake off” the impacts of experiences that they already had.
“I believe the awareness that the producers of this film were targeting was that this is not the case,” Baldwin said. “Rather than encouraging students to move beyond these experiences, we need to be addressing skills that they can use to cope with the fallout from them.”
Additional educational partners who helped to make the screening of Paper Tigers possible include Illinois State’s chapter of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, Unit 5 Support Professionals Association, and the Illinois State University Non-Tenure Track Faculty Association.