Teachers need counseling, too. One Oakland school shows the way

A man sits on a leather couch, speaking across a low table to a woman in a chair.
Lance McGee, trauma-informed wellness consultant at Frick United Academy of Language in East Oakland, meets with a teacher in his office.
(Lance McGee)

This is the Feb. 14, 2022, edition of the 8 to 3 newsletter about school, kids and parenting. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox every Monday.

In last week’s newsletter, I wrote about the growing number of K-12 schools creating so-called calming rooms, where students can take a break when they’re feeling overwhelmed or out of sorts.

As I was reporting that story, I learned of a similar setup at a middle school in East Oakland. What’s unique about this room is that it’s dedicated to the well-being of teachers and staff.

Technically, the room is the office of Lance McGee at Frick United Academy of Language. McGee’s official title is trauma-informed wellness consultant. He’s a trained therapist who spends most of his day meeting with teachers in his office, which is intentionally designed to calm the nervous system. It’s decorated with warm browns and oranges, plants and water fixtures, all cast in soft light and imbued with the scent of burned lavender.

McGee meets with 15 or so staff members each week. He waits for the knock on the door, welcomes them in and offers them freshly brewed tea. “Would you like to start with a check-in or a mindful moment?” he asks.


I was excited to learn more about McGee’s role, because I had never heard of anything like it and also because there’s a clear need for such efforts to support the mental health of educators.

Teaching was stressful before the pandemic. Now — coming off prolonged months of distance learning, the relentless fight to keep schools open during the recent Omicron surge, and the challenge of teaching a roomful of kids who aren’t used to being in school — teacher burnout is at an all-time high.

The California State Teachers’ Retirement System reported a 26% increase in teacher retirements in 2020 when compared with 2019. Of those surveyed, more than half cited the challenges of teaching during the pandemic as their main reason for leaving. And a national survey published this month by the National Education Assn. found that 55% of teachers planned to leave their posts earlier than anticipated, up from 37% in Aug. 2021. Anticipated retirement was highest among Black (62%) and Latinx (59%) educators.

McGee’s role was created in 2015 by the East Bay Agency for Children, whose behavioral health programs aim to help Oakland Unified students and families recover from trauma. The position was made possible through a grant from Kaiser Permanente that funded initiatives to build stronger school communities. The money expires this year, and the future status of McGee’s job is unclear.

“When we got the grant, we thought, we’ve got the kids pretty well covered. What can we do for teachers and staff?” said Julie West, chief development officer at the East Bay Agency for Children.

McGee’s mandate was to give teachers the tools for self-care and trauma-informed classroom management, as well as weave mindfulness practices into the school’s culture. The idea stemmed from the understanding that teachers are asked to take on an enormous amount of work, and most of it is focused on academics. But the research is clear: Unless students feel comfortable, safe and heard in a classroom, it’s hard for them to learn.


As a school-based counselor before his time at Frick, McGee saw a pattern in how teachers would respond to students who were being disruptive in class; instead of asking what was going on with the pupil, their first impulse was to punish them.

“If teachers understand what traumatized behavior looks like,” McGee said, “their approach to supporting the student is very different.”

But to get to that point of empathy with their students, teachers first need to understand themselves.

“Teachers aren’t given much training on how to manage their trauma triggers that come from their personal histories,” McGee told me. “We want them to be able to show up for the kids in a way that’s not re-traumatizing for that kid at the moment, to give the teacher permission to stop and think about what’s happening in their own reactions.”

Frick’s students are predominantly Black and Latino, with nearly every student receiving free or reduced lunch, a common metric for measuring a school population’s economic status. East Oakland was hit hard by the pandemic; many students lost family members to COVID-19, and they continue to struggle with job loss and food insecurity. They’re coming to school with social anxiety and yawning gaps in learning.

McGee said many Frick teachers were experiencing vicarious trauma, otherwise known as “compassion fatigue,” which arises from “hearing [people’s] trauma stories and becom[ing] witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured,” according to the American Counseling Assn. McGee helps teachers process how their students’ trauma is affecting them, as well as other pandemic-caused stresses like school safety protocols and staffing shortages.


Simone Delucchi, Frick’s restorative community school manager, meets with McGee weekly. Delucchi is an administrator but was asked to teach science for the first two months of the year because Frick was shortstaffed. She also teaches an advisory period every day and two leadership classes. This comes in addition to her regular duties, which include designing social-emotional learning curriculum and coaching teachers on how to implement it. At one point, she was so exhausted that she would get home from work, eat dinner and then fall into bed.

One day in the fall, DeLucchi broke up a fight between a group of seventh- and eighth-grade boys. She was thrown around so badly, she had a bloody nose. And then she had to teach a class. “They were all upset, angry and hurting each other. They were out of control,” she told me. “Normally I can get them to calm down and listen to me, but that day they wouldn’t. I felt so sad, like I was failing.”

She met with McGee later that day. “He reminded me of the bigger picture of the work we do, of all the other good things we’re doing, and that this is just one moment in the day. With him, I can just be in my feelings for a second.”

McGee also helped DeLucchi recognize that, as a Black woman and lifelong resident of East Oakland, her reaction to what happened wasn’t just about the incident itself.

“I was 11 years old when I lost my first friend to gun violence, and I’ve lost so many more since then,” she told me. “I have a son now who’s 25, and a 17-year-old daughter. The work I do here is very personal; they’re my neighbors, my friends’ children. It’s very real for me when I see these young men and women making decisions based on their trauma responses.”

Through McGee’s guidance, DeLucchi can now identify when trauma is triggering student behavior, and when that behavior is dredging up her own stuff. To do her job well, she said, she has to start fresh with students every day. “I give them the space to be vulnerable enough to start over,” she said. “I let them know that I’ll still be here, that I’ll give them the chance to be their better self in this next moment.”

McGee also has been instrumental in making sure that DeLucchi is caring for herself outside of school — doing small things that bring her calm and joy, like stretching and running a bath. “As a Black woman, as a single mother, self-care was never something that was promoted as even permissible for me,” she said. “It was a revelation to learn that I can choose myself, just a little bit every day.”


McGee’s job is very rare, even in progressive California. Julie West of the East Bay Agency for Children thinks this is because schools are just now implementing programs that support the social-emotional needs of students. Administrators don’t always make the connection that helping teachers inevitably helps students, so allocating funding for teacher well-being isn’t often prioritized.

DeLucchi hopes more teachers will one day have access to a resource like McGee, for the sake of the kids and the profession that she loves.

“This kind of work,” she said, “is what will make public education more sustainable.”

Teacher exodus, new schools chief, eased mask mandates

As of today, L.A. Unified has a new schools chief: Supt. Alberto Carvalho. He has previewed a few elements of his 100-day plan, saying he would expand high-quality school choices so that every family would have access to the program they wanted without having to put their child on a bus. Other goals include selectively reducing class sizes for students most in need, providing students with access to technology, ramping up early education and expanding opportunities for advanced education for older students.

California officials are debating when mask mandates should be lifted for schools as the state prepares to lift those rules for vaccinated residents in indoor public places on Feb. 16 (the change doesn’t yet affect L.A. County). State officials did not announce what would happen in schools — though the CDC has said it’s too soon to shift federal masking guidelines in K-12 schools — and local officials are left speculating about the next moves in the long saga of shifting school pandemic policies, my colleague Howard Blume reports.

Black and Latinx teachers are disproportionately represented in the nationwide surge of K-12 educators leaving the profession. The pandemic has been harder on teachers of color, because many of them return to teach in the communities where they were raised and which have suffered the most, according to experts. Their exit is especially unfortunate because research shows that teachers of color improve educational outcomes for students of the same background.

The L.A. Unified Board of Education has taken the first steps toward a major expansion of remote learning — including creating as many as six new online schools that could enroll up to 15,000 students — in anticipation of thousands of Los Angeles Unified students who still may not be vaccinated this fall, reports Times staff writer Melissa Gomez. Nearly 90% of LAUSD students 12 and older are vaccinated against COVID-19, but even that high compliance rate translates to about 20,000 unvaccinated students. Unvaccinated students will be barred from campuses for fall 2022 under LAUSD policies.


A Riverside high school teacher who was recorded mocking Native Americans by wearing a faux headdress and chanting during a math lesson in October was fired last week after months of protest, according to Indigenous activists. Community members representing local tribes and others from out of state spoke at last week’s Riverside school board meeting and cheered when the board announced that an unnamed employee had been fired after a 4-1 vote in a closed session. “It was a victory for us, because it does show our voices were heard,” said Dee Dee Manzanares Ybarra, the director of the American Indian Movement‘s Southern California chapter and chair of the Rumšen Am:a Tur:ataj Ohlone tribe.

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What else we’re reading this week

Black and Latinx students in Los Angeles aren’t getting enough support, leading to lower enrollment and completion rates in college compared with their white peers, according to a new report by the Campaign for College Opportunity. During the first year of the pandemic alone, first-time enrollment in the Los Angeles Community College District’s nine colleges dropped 40% among Black students and 32% among Latinx students. EdSource

Unaccompanied migrant teens have unique and profound needs. They must quickly acquire academic skills most U.S. students have learned years before, master high-school-level content and learn enough English to enroll in regular classes. A teacher in New Orleans created a special school to help them. The 74

Oscar Caralampio’s family left their ancestral home of Guatemala at 4 years old and immigrated to northern San Diego County, where he and his family found work as field laborers. In 2020, at age 29, he ran for the Fallbrook Union High School District school board and won. Caralampio is the is only Latinx voice in a majority-Latino school district. Voice of San Diego

A top researcher says it’s time to rethink the United States’ entire approach to preschool. A decade-long study that followed Tennessee’s public pre-K program — taught by licensed teachers, housed in public schools — had a measurable and statistically significant negative effect on children. “One of the biases that I hadn’t examined in myself is the idea that poor children need a different sort of preparation from children of higher-income families,” said Vanderbilt University researcher Dale Farran. NPR


A group calling itself the National Parents Union has emerged, and their demands have nothing to do with critical race theory. The group started in 2020 as the pandemic upended schools. Nearly two years later, NPU is working to channel the frustration, anger and motivation of parents from coronavirus-related crises into district-level change. The group has attracted both praise and skeptics as some point to several of the group’s pro-school-choice foundation backers. The Hechinger Report.

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