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As told by Karen Tiemann, Program Director of the West40 Safe Schools

“In the 1990s, I was a U.S. history teacher and I was working at a middle school in Grayslake, Illinois. Everything was going according to plan. I loved life. My job, family, friends, school, church—they were all such gifts. Then my husband, James, was killed in a plane crash.

Nothing prepared me for the accident and subsequent months of searching for him. I did not have a set of life experiences that prepared me for the trauma that I experienced.

My school kids and community knew James, because he had become so involved with school events. As the search for the plane and James turned from days to months, I returned to work. The kids immediately wrapped me up in their care.

One of the greatest gifts I was given came from three students who said, ‘We’re going to teach you how to get through this.’ These three consisted of one girl who had witnessed the murder of her mother, a young man who lost his mother to cancer and another young man who was watching his family destroy itself in a divorce. These three kids asked to gather for weekly lunch meetings with me. They thought they could teach me how to live with the grief, loss and trauma. At the time, I was destroyed by the fact that my kids knew so much about loss. It was backwards. But meeting with those kids has made all the difference.

I’m a person of faith and have been active in church settings all my life. I had an adult brain that had the advantage of being raised by parents in a faith-filled, stable and loving home. And yet I slowly learned that this trauma had changed my brain, my body and every thought I had.

As I became their student, I learned about the depth of the students’ personal trauma, resilience and courage. I apologized to the kids and confessed that I just didn’t know these things had happened to them. Their reply was, ‘Now that you know, you’ll never stop seeing kids like us.’ Something changed at that moment.

These three master teachers were right: I never looked at another individual without listening and looking for their story. Kids sitting off alone were not loners; they were fragile and had reasons for everything they did. Kids that failed to turn in school work and fought with teachers and administrators were not rebels; they had reasons for their behavior. I started seeing things not through the lens of ‘What did you do?’ but ‘What happened to you?’ I realized that if you’re not safe emotionally, school doesn’t matter, because nothing matters.

The more I learned, the more uncomfortable I became with the ‘system’ of school. I saw the emotional needs of kids first and searched for ways to ensure those needs were being met. That took me on a journey away from Grayslake in search of something I could feel, but not find.

Soon, I attended a job fair for educators and signed up for a job interview. I stood in a line for about 45 minutes waiting to interview, but I couldn’t stop looking at a table with a sign that said ‘Safe Schools.’ I wondered why all schools weren’t safe. When I got to the front of the line, I realized I didn’t want to interview anymore. Instead, I walked up to the Safe Schools table and began the journey of finding what I’d been looking for.

Now in my twenty-first year of service at West40, I have been humbled by the teaching of kids. I still see ‘kids like us’ and realize why places like the Safe Schools are so important. Because our education system has so many demands. We organize around academics, schedules, adult needs, and other priorities that can make our schools ineffective spaces if they do not first provide for emotional safety of all.

In the West40 Safe Schools, we’ve been blessed to have year after year of kids with great promise sharing their needs and shaping our service. Honoring the kids’ voices inside these settings is so important. It’s critical to safety and the success of these programs.

In the end, it turns out that the master teachers are our kids. I attend their classes every day and it continues to make all the difference.”

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