The Whitewater School District is part of a Zero Suicide group aiming to strengthen suicide prevention efforts in the district and beyond.
In her head, Rosalinda Martinez knows she has to take care of herself.
But in practice, the Whitewater Middle School teacher acknowledges she hasn’t always done that very well.
“It’s really hard. I have to be honest. It’s really hard, and I don’t always do the best job,” she said. “I have reached burn out sometimes. It happens, and it’s hard.
“Now I’m crying,” she continued. “I can’t pretend it’s all peachy because we do burnout sometimes, you know? It happens.”
Sometimes during lunch—the lunches when she’s not meeting with any of her students—she will close her door and meditate for a couple of minutes. Sometimes, she runs home to spend 10 minutes with her golden retriever, Texas.
“I need this time for myself to make it through the day or to make it through the week,” she said.
Shannon Frye, a kindergarten teacher at Whitewater’s Lincoln Elementary School, said she takes care of herself by spending time with her family at sporting events. Her work through her church, First United Methodist, also keeps her grounded. She likes to travel and read, too.
Lassity Sullivan teaches fifth grade at Lincoln. She loves traveling with her two kids and hiking. She said her co-workers are some of her best friends, and their support eases the stresses of teaching.
“That makes everything a lot easier,” Sullivan said.
Lanora Heim, director of pupil services for the Whitewater School District, has seen the trauma students are bringing to classrooms today—homelessness, neglect, suicidal thoughts and more.
But she also knows supporting teachers, who are taking on more and more to care for their students, is “a real critical mission” for the district. More support could also keep teachers from leaving.
“There’s a lot of turnover in education right now,” Heim said. “We want people to go into the teaching profession and know that they’re going to be supported and cared for and valued. And that’s not always the case right now in society.”
To Martinez, her job of nine years is incredibly rewarding, but at times it’s overwhelming. Frye, herself in the profession for 18 years, gave a similar answer: Being a teacher today is “amazing and exhausting all in one.”
Metaphorically, Frye said, her bucket is filled every day watching her kindergartners grow and learn. But the consuming worry is emptying her, too. Did one kid get on the right bus? Did another’s wet clothes get taken out of his backpack? Is another getting fed?
Some interviewed for this story said children are suffering from more trauma in 2019 than they used to. Some said it’s possible trauma is just more in the open today.
Martinez said she is having to fill out more reports of child abuse. Heim said Whitewater has more homeless students than ever before. She also said during an Aug. 26 school board meeting that district students have historically struggled with depression and suicide.
Sullivan, who has been teaching for 29 years, said she will take students in need and sometimes their siblings under her wing. On weekends, she’ll take them to Madison for the farmer’s market, to a pancake breakfast or to the aquatic center, for example.
But the success with those efforts has been mixed. She said one student she taught years ago took his own life last year. Another former student approached her at her other job as a waitress and said he was been doing well but was concerned for his brothers.
The Whitewater School District is part of a Zero Suicide group aiming to strengthen suicide prevention efforts in the district and beyond.
Even though some former students are now in their 20s, they still seek out someone who once listened to them, Sullivan said.
“And I’ll tell you that I’m not the only teacher in the district that does this,” she said. “It’s just really hard to be in the class every day and see these kids and not want to help them.”
Because Martinez has served as a liaison of sorts for the Hispanic community, families come to her in times of crisis, sometimes before they go to the police, she said.
In 2018, Martinez said she took in two district students who lost their parents to a murder-suicide. She said the students called her the moment they feared something was wrong, and Martinez kept them in her care for nine months before reuniting them with family out of state.
“I’m glad I was their trusted adult and that former teacher they could count on in those moments,” Martinez said.
Teachers go well beyond grammar and geometry. They work well beyond 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
“Our jobs don’t end there,” she said.
Teachers, Heim said, are the district’s biggest asset. They’re a large majority of the budget, “and they are the most important resource we have.”
So what is being done to support them?
Heim spoke highly of the Compassion Resilience Toolkit, which has 12 modules for people who care for others. It includes lessons on self-care and setting boundaries, for example.
She said the program had a “really big impact” early on when teachers told her they felt more refreshed.
Staff go through professional development on trauma-informed practices. Heim said the district brings in nationally known speakers to train staff.
Martinez mentioned an employee assistance hotline. There’s also a wellness committee, which adds opportunities for meditation and yoga.
All of the district’s schools have a “sunshine committee” or similar group, Heim said. They step in for celebrations of something positive, such as a marriage or new child, and provide support during something negative, such as a funeral.
The committee acts behind the scenes and arranges for co-workers to attend events, buy flowers, get cards or show support in any way. She said these groups have existed for at least Heim’s 19 years in the district.
“I personally have had tough moments in my life,” she said. “To have that piece has been such a comfort.”
A lot of times, teacher support is collaborative and informal—ranging from venting to co-workers, picking others’ brains about problems or filling in for the teacher across the hall so they can go to the bathroom.
“My biggest piece … would be to never try to do it all by yourself,” Heim said. “That’s too great of a task. That’s a big burden.”
District Administrator Mark Elworthy said everyone involved in the school system needs support, including teachers. Staff members who are happy, he said, are staff members who are productive.
This year, the Whitewater School District has added a handful of mental health professionals. Here are what those positions do and how they will have a “very large" mental health impact, as one administrator said.
The district this school year has added new positions to increase student access to mental health services—an elementary school counselor, a school psychologist, a behavior interventionist and a mental health therapist.
Perhaps if teachers are overwhelmed with the extra care needed by students carrying trauma, these new positions could ease that burden.
Some praised the new additions and the district’s support services for teachers.
Martinez said she is “absolutely” happy with the new additions. But she knows they didn’t appear by luck—“Those came because of what we voiced last year and what we demanded we needed. It didn’t happen overnight, but they were things that needed to be in place.”
Teachers, she said, have the roles of counselor, social worker and nurse, too.
Last year in particular was quite difficult. Before explaining that, Martinez paused to pick the right words. It was hard to share with the district how teachers need help because she said their days are centered on supporting students.
The number of homeless students in the Whitewater School District this school year so far is more than doubled since the 2015-16 school year—going from 31 then to 66 this year.
Nonetheless, she said support for teachers was lacking. Some students had “significant trauma” and came from “challenging households.” Efforts to help them eventually got “out of control.”
“It was a somewhat difficult year last year not only for me but for a lot of colleagues. We lost a lot of staff,” Martinez said. “So, yeah, burnout really happens.”
Last year, Frye said, she helped start a support group for teachers with UW-Whitewater graduate student counselors called Healing Path. Teachers could talk about vicarious trauma and learn how to better care for themselves like they care for others.
But the program “fizzled out,” was not well attended and is no longer running, she said.
Sullivan said the district tries to prevent burnout, but some years are just more challenging than others. How do teachers avoid burnout?
“It is a thing,” she said. “I guess I don’t have a magic answer for that.”
Despite last year’s stress, a new school year has Martinez feeling refreshed, she said.
“So I’m feeling good,” she said. “I’m feeling good for the beginning of the year.”
And she hopes that momentum carries “as long as it can.”
But Martinez’s journey will continue away from Whitewater. While emphasizing that she loves her job, she said she is planning to leave in November or December to be closer with family.
“My students, community and families are extremely important to me, and I’ve tried my best to be an advocate for them in and out of school,” she said in a follow-up email. “I mentioned that finding a balance is what helps keep things in order.
“I struggled with that sometimes.”
We’re calling it “This Week in Kindergarten.”
For the next nine months, we will be visiting Stacy Glowacki’s kindergarten class at Washington Elementary School in Janesville. We hope to show readers what has changed since they were kindergartners—in the classroom, on the playground and in educational science, where new developments are changing the way teachers address everything from behavior to learning.
Along the way, we’ll follow students like Liam, who dances through everything, even a trip across the room throw out his breakfast trash; Jonylan, who is destined to be a teacher; Alexis, who does a great imitation of a penguin; Joseph, who does excellent work tracing numbers one to five; and Miah, who told me, very discreetly, to pull up my pants.
My first visit to Glowacki’s class was Monday, Sept. 16, the 10th day of school.
This week’s topic: kindergarten math.
In kindergarten classes across the nation, students start their day by naming the date and the weather and counting the number of days they’ve been in school.
In Stacy Glowacki’s kindergarten class at Washington Elementary School in Janesville, students count the numbers out loud while a special helper adds a slash mark to the dry-erase board tally. Four straight lines plus an angled slash make five. Two sets of five make 10. This is their 10th day of school.
This is kindergarten math, and it goes far beyond rote counting. It is the beginning of numeracy or number sense, and researchers say it is crucial for students’ future success in math.
In Glowacki’s class, the special helper also gets to move a paper straw from one container to another for each day of school. When there are five straws, the helper makes a bundle of five. Two bundles of five make 10. This is their 10th day of school.
Yes, we know we’re repeating ourselves—but that’s the point.
“A lot of them can count to 10, but it doesn’t mean anything to them,” Glowacki said. “We’re trying to recognize the number five, and then we’ll try to write the number five.”
Not just five, of course, but all the numbers, zero to 10.
The classroom is filled with different representations of numbers: dots in frames, the numbers themselves and groups of items.
Much of the learning looks and feels like play. In one lesson, the kids stood in a circle and counted to five, one by one. The student who said “five” had to sit down. They found this really, really funny. Occasionally, a kid would get excited and sit down when his or her number was “four.”
But most of them knew.
“I got a four!” Liam exclaimed before nearly sitting down. It was a great moment of self-restraint for a boy with so much energy.
Because it was the 10th day of school, “Zero the Hero” visited the class while they were out and left a present: an art project/worksheet featuring the number 10. Coloring and the application of stickers ensued.
All these exercises are about numeracy and developing number sense, explained Carmen Rivers, senior lecturer in early childhood education at UW-Whitewater.
“At a 5-year-old level, it’s really about understanding oneness, twoness, fiveness—what does five mean?” Rivers said. “It’s understanding it at a concrete level, as opposed to the abstractness of the representation of five. What does five mean? How does it work? How does it look? How does it feel?”
Think about it: As grown-ups, it seems innate to count by fives, round to fives, know that five is half of 10, calculate tips by using 10% of a bill and then adding half of it.
We understand that fives are not just a symbol, but kindergartners haven’t fully grasped that concept yet.
Students also played a game where they rolled dice and then traced the number that appeared on a worksheet. This exercise helps teach children to subitize, or recognize how many items are present without actually counting them.
“It could be five dots in a circle, it could be five dots in a line. We recognize that it is still five,” Rivers said.
They work on those concrete concepts in kindergarten to build the foundation for studying more abstract math, she said.
“Getting this early, understanding fourness, fiveness, is foundational,” Rivers said. “It all scaffolds from there.”
Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke’s recent vow to take away people’s AR-15 and AK-47 rifles raised one big question: How is it possible to round up the millions of such guns that exist in the United States?
The number of AR-15 and AK-47s in the U.S. is estimated at a staggering 16 million, creating logistical challenges to take them out of circulation. Many gun owners are also unwilling to turn over the weapons, and if the government offered to buy them all back at face value, the price tag could easily run into the billions of dollars.
O’Rourke’s pointed declaration during a recent debate—“Hell yes, we’re gonna take your AR-15, your AK-47”—stoked longstanding fears among gun owners that Democrats are less interested in safety or finding a middle ground and just want to confiscate guns. Even some gun control advocates aren’t so sure that confiscating firearms will work.
“In some regards, this horse is out of the barn,” said David Chipman, a retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and now the senior policy adviser for the Giffords group. “For years we’ve allowed these to be sold.”
O’Rourke’s remarks came in the wake of several high-profile shootings, including two in his home state of Texas that involved AR- or AK-style guns, which resemble military-style weapons and generally carry more rounds than regular rifles. A summer of carnage was marked by shootings in Gilroy, California; El Paso, Texas; Dayton, Ohio; and in a 10-mile stretch between Midland and Odessa, Texas. In all, more than 40 people were killed and about 100 were wounded in the attacks.
The prospect of significant gun measures has faded in recent weeks under the Republican-controlled Senate and President Donald Trump, and Democratic candidates have offered a range of proposals for what they would do on guns if elected president.
O’Rourke believes that most people would follow the law and turn their weapons in under his proposal for a mandatory buyback program and assault weapons ban. He also wants to outlaw high-capacity magazines and expand background checks.
Cory Booker has proposed a similar program that would involve civil penalties for those who fail to comply and hand in their AR-15s. They would not be subject to criminal offenses, however.
There is a precedent for the ideas proposed by O’Rourke and Booker, as difficult as they would be to implement.
The Trump administration recently banned bump stocks—devices that allow semiautomatic long guns to mimic fully automatic fire—and ordered owners to turn them in to be destroyed.
In 1994, then-President Bill Clinton enacted an assault weapons ban, at a time when there were an estimated 1.5 million of them in circulation. Existing owners were allowed to keep them, however, and once the ban expired a decade later, sales resumed and boomed.
Machine guns like M-16s were outlawed by Congress in 1986, but they can still be owned under a tightly regulated process. Small numbers remain in circulation, largely because of the restrictions.
Democratic candidates pushing gun buybacks have also pointed to similar moves in Australia and New Zealand.
However, the number of AR-style long guns in those countries pales in comparison to the number in the United States, and neither has gun rights enshrined in their constitutions.
Chipman believes an assault weapon ban should be handled similar to the machine gun rules, requiring they be registered and heavily regulated but not confiscated.
“I think it would be far more likely that we would find more of the weapons under comprehensive regulation by the government than sort of a forced buyback ban scenario,” he said.
There’s also the optics of the government taking away guns, presenting another challenge for the Democratic proposals.
The idea of outlawing and then rounding up firearms alarms many gun owners who believe it will not solve the problem of gun violence and would only serve to take firearms away from law-abiding Americans.
They point out that while AR-style guns have been used in some high-profile mass shootings, most gun deaths involve handguns.
Carol A. Condon
Richard E. Gilbertson