These days, middle school teacher Matthew Sanchez happily spends much of his waking hours in the classroom, but back when he was a teenager, school just didn’t work for him.
Sanchez recalls the early ’90s on St. Paul’s West Side as a tumultuous time. There was a growing gang presence, drug use and rising crime in his neighborhood, and most days he felt like school was pointless. Some of the things he witnessed — including close friends who were victims of violence — were traumatic, and at the time, he said, some teachers at Humboldt High School didn’t offer the support and encouragement he needed to thrive.
“I ended up dropping out at the end of 11th grade,” Sanchez said. “I just didn’t find connection in the curriculum that year.”
Eventually, Sanchez graduated from St. Paul Area Learning Center, a program designed to help at-risk or struggling students earn their high school diplomas. One teacher there understood just what Sanchez needed. “He would sit down with me and talk about things,” Sanchez recalled. “I felt heard. I felt like educators could have a real impact on people.”
For several years, he worked odd jobs until he eventually found a position at a bank. While he appreciated the opportunity the bank job provided, Sanchez felt he was missing the opportunity to give back through his work. “I remember hearing the negative comments from people who worked alongside me at the bank about people who lived in the city,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘They’re a lot like the people I grew up with. They don’t understand.’”
Sanchez had been thinking about earning an MBA, so he went to a career fair. There, he was drawn to Metropolitan State University’s table. The school offered an MBA, but it also had an urban education program. Something clicked, and before he left the career fair, Sanchez knew what his next move would be.
“I decided I would get into teaching,” Sanchez said. “This was a way I could give back to the community.”
‘I have to catch kids early on’
Middle schoolers have a reputation for being difficult, but Sanchez knew from the start that he wanted to work with kids at that age. He knew firsthand about the thorny emotional challenges that come with puberty and he believed that this age group was where he could have the biggest impact.
His first teaching job was a part-time gig at Ramsey Middle School in St. Paul’s Macalester-Groveland neighborhood. “Ramsey at that time was a difficult school that was making the news,” Sanchez said.
There had been reports about fights and concerned parents were pulling their kids out of the school. This was exactly the challenge that Sanchez was looking for. “I remember thinking, ‘This is what I want to do. I’m not looking for an easy gig.’ I wanted to go into a ground-zero type of school.”
Sanchez worked at Ramsey for a brief period. Later, he moved to a full-time position at Como Park Senior High. He loved this job, but realized that he really wanted to work with middle schoolers, helping them stay on track before it got too late.
One reminder of that desire came in the form of a student at Como who needed extra help to graduate. “He was a great kid, but he’d fallen behind,” Sanchez said. Life had been challenging for this young man, and he was taken aback when he realized almost too late that his diploma was on the line, Sanchez explained. “He needed the credits for a 10th-grade class. I had to step in and help him make them up.”
Sanchez managed to help the student earn the credits he needed, but the process also helped him realize he didn’t like doing this kind of cleanup work. He’d wanted to get in on the ground floor, helping to solve problems before they grew out of control. “I decided I have to catch kids early on,” he said. “It can’t be when they are seniors.”
When a middle school position opened up at Hazel Park Preparatory Academy, a public K-8 school on St. Paul’s East Side, Sanchez decided to give it a try.
“There’s a lot of energy in middle school,” he said, “but I know that I’m saying things to kids at that age that I didn’t hear myself. They need to hear things from their teachers so they can be confident with what they’re doing going forward, and I know I can do that for them.”
At Hazel Park, Sanchez teaches a “Foundations” class, a homeroom-like program where students start the day with a teacher-led check-in. The class’ focus is on social-emotional learning, or SEL, he explained.
“We have certain topics we’ll talk about that address things middle school students are in need of hearing, things like bullying or making sure you show up as your best self,” said Sanchez.
At Hazel Park Prep, 37.5 percent of students are English language learners and the majority are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Sanchez, who describes himself as a Chicano male, understands the challenges that accompany these distinctions. He said that the SEL approach is designed to get kids up to speed on important issues that can affect their overall development.
“Our district wanted us to make sure we are addressing that social-emotional need for kids,” he said. The curriculum addresses “anything that students might be wondering about, like how you connect with other kids. The kids who might not be too social get pointers on how to engage with their peers.” From the outside, he admitted, “these things might seem small, but for many of our students, it’s really important, really foundational.”
Teaching through trauma
Five and a half years ago, when Sanchez started teaching, many of his students had already faced their share of struggles. The pandemic, and the significant interruption created by more than a year of remote learning has only deepened that trauma for many of his students, he said. Parents lost jobs or put their health on the line as essential workers. Relatives have fallen sick and died. Some families lost their homes.
All this adds up to a student body on the edge, Sanchez said. “Holy hypersensitivity. It’s just been bananas, off the charts with what I feel our students are up against right now. COVID really rocked us. In our school community alone, we lost two teachers to COVID.”
During remote learning, Sanchez witnessed his students struggle to keep up. He saw their isolation, their stress and, in some cases, their hunger when they did not have easy access to school lunches. “When we were online, I had students who were taking care of siblings who were one or two years old,” he said. “No adult was there. They were responsible for their younger siblings, and they were expected to go to school.”
Since the return to in-person learning, Sanchez said he sees the lasting impact of trauma on his students in a number of ways. “There is so much gray area with my students these days. Some are able to do what you have set up for them. Others are more clingy. They want more from you. And there are those who are just quiet and don’t know how to engage with classmates or with their work.”
Sanchez understands the community is in a shaky period of recovery and now more than ever students and their families need to feel that school is a safe place for them. This requires a different approach to teaching, he said, one that’s more flexible and responsive to student need.
This school year, Sanchez said he never knows when he’ll need to pivot and change the direction of his class. “I’ll be up at my desk, teaching,” he said, “and a kid will come up and out of nowhere talk about this incident of encountering severe personal violence a few years ago.”
In a case like that, Sanchez understands that it’s more important to respond than to stick to his lesson plan. I’m just like, ‘OK. I have to drop what I’m doing because here this person is sharing something that was very much on their mind.’ I want to make sure I’m not just brushing it off. I see a lot more of this now. It’s so important that this is addressed and there’s space for students to process what they are going through. We want students to know that they are wanted and welcome in school.”
Ripe for study
When Sanchez earned his teaching degree, he set a goal to eventually earn a master’s in education. He’s been working on that goal at Metro State, attending night and weekend classes. Next month, he will present his thesis, “The Great Unknown: How do teachers recognize and respond to students who’ve experienced trauma?”
Dr. Yvonne RB-Banks, professor and department chair at Metro State’s School of Urban Education, has been working with Sanchez on his thesis. She said that his focus is timely and she appreciates his practical, even hopeful, approach to the topic. It’s a perspective that’s been embraced by faculty and students at Metro State, she said, and is one that she believes will aid the community’s recovery.
“We’re not denying that trauma is here but we’re not going to let that stop us, either,” RB-Banks said. “We push through by supporting each other, by having our classrooms open, having teachers that are ready and supporting students on the journey.”
She said that one of the things that makes Sanchez an effective teacher is the fact that he grew up in a community not unlike the one his students live in today. He understands what it feels like to struggle and his research is focused on giving students the support they need.
“I believe that his research was amplified by his own lived experiences,” RB-Banks said. “Being a student in an antiracist university like Metro also gave him a platform so he can be out there and really impact the students, the families, the community, the school.”
Sanchez explained that his research uncovered a range of strategies for teaching students who’ve faced high levels of trauma. He’s developed a more responsive, less rigid teaching style. His students need consistency, and he tries to provide that, not so much by making sure the trains run on time, but rather by consistently showing them he cares.
“I have so many students who are up against so much more outside of the building,” Sanchez said. “How do we accommodate students who are facing so many challenges? I like to think of my approach these days as client-centered. We have such a structured day, but I’m constantly, subtly asking, ‘What can I do to make sure I am providing the best service that I can for them?’ They need this right now and it’s something I can provide.”
RB-Banks said she believes that the world needs more teachers like Sanchez, highly trained professionals who are committed to helping their students face the challenges of today and prepare them for life beyond the classroom.
“I said to him,” she recalled, “‘You’ve got to get hooded. You have to walk across that stage. It is not about you. It is about those babies that you talked about in that paper. You’ve got to do this for them.’”