By Ayesis Clay
TW: Suicide ideation, self-harm, Cancer, trauma in schools
I remember very vividly the day I finally “broke”.
I was sitting in my car outside of my classroom door after 10 hours of working. As a high school theatre teacher and department chair at a Visual and Performing Arts High School magnet program, I was no stranger to long days at the school. This time though, I sat in the silence of my Camry, too tired to crank up the engine. All week I spent my lunches talking with a student about her self-harm. She had already been referred to the school counselor. Her parents knew. But she felt comfortable talking to me about it. There wasn’t much I could do or suggest. Inside, I felt like a fish out of water, but I was determined to be an ear for her.
This was not the first time I witnessed the emotional and mental weight my students were carrying. Before then, I had a student who attempted suicide in the school bathroom… and then came to my classroom door, bleeding. They had a change of heart and came to me because they trusted me. And just like that day, when I stopped teaching my class of 11th graders and rushed to their side to help, all I could think about that week with the student who self-harmed was, “I can help. I can fix this.”
But, this day, I sat alone in the silence of my car, emotionally and mentally exhausted. And that’s when I got the call.
I had just lost another student.
The third in my young career.
This time to cancer.
Calmly, I consoled the crying voice on the other end of the phone, an alumni of the theatre program, letting them know that I was there for them and that we would get through this loss. After several tearful minutes, we hung up the phone.
Then I was screaming. Crying. My chest felt too tight and I couldn’t catch my breath.
I felt so lost.
I felt like I had lost… that somehow I had failed.
This was not the burnout I had experienced off and on for years. This was something else.
I was grieving… but it was also something more.
This feeling had been welling up in me for years. With every trauma my students faced and shared, I found myself feeling the effects but never truly acknowledging the toll it was taking on me.
Sleeplessness. Anxiety. Dread.
It took a while after the day that I “broke” before I realized that there was a name for the weight that I was experiencing: secondary traumatic stress.
This weight wasn’t mine alone. Teaching in today’s society comes with many obstacles. With a worldwide pandemic that shut down our entire way of life for months on end, the toxic political landscape that serves as a battleground in the fight for education, and a sharp increase of violence and disengagement in schools, students and educators are experiencing trauma in ways we never have before.
Exposure to trauma can have a significant impact on individuals, especially those who work in challenging environments like education. Secondary traumatic stress, an empathetic response to others’ trauma, manifested in my anxiety and sleeplessness, and plagues so many of my colleagues and teachers all across the country.
Finding My Healing through Creative Resilience
But amidst the whirlwind of trauma and emotional fatigue, I discovered a beacon of hope—creative resilience. Art, my lifelong companion, became my sanctuary. It began with writing. I started writing about my journey in education and all of the wonderful students who helped me create magic on the stage and in the classroom. The joyous, affirming moments and the dark, trying times. I wrote down bits and pieces of conversations, funny moments that still bring wide smiles. I wrote about my heartache and my fear. I wrote poems about the days when the work seemed endless and my patience was thin. I wrote paragraphs about my frustrations but also about the pride I felt watching my students grow. The connections that still remain, even to this day.
I crafted those writings into a solo show—a tale of joy and darkness, a mirror to the emotional impact of teaching. Through digging deeper into my journey as a teacher, I found healing. When I found myself deep in the throws of secondary traumatic stress, my first love, THEATRE, saved me yet again.
Vulnerability then became my strength and I began sharing my solo show at conferences and school districts across the country, offering a roadmap to healing for fellow educators who may be walking similar paths to mine. To date, my story has been seen on the stage of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, and served as the opening address for the 2022 Educational Theatre Association’s National Teaching Conference in Los Angeles, CA.
I built an educational consulting business, offering professional development and residencies to boost emotional wellness for students and educators. I created what I needed—an avenue for amazing teachers to cope with the emotional weight of the classroom and rediscover their own joy through creative resilience.
If you are struggling as an educator, know that there are ways to heal. You don’t have to stay in the emotional spiral.
Seek help from a professional, if needed.
Get curious about how you can stay empathetic while keeping yourself whole.
Explore your story and find your own path to creative resilience.
About Ayesis Clay
Ayesis Clay is a distinguished educator, Theatre practitioner, and nationally sought-after keynote speaker. Her critically acclaimed keynote has been delivered in schools across the United States, has been seen on the stage of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, and served as the opening address for the 2022 Educational Theatre Association’s National Teaching Conference in Los Angeles, CA.
With over 20 years in education, she has written and developed curricula for public school systems, the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, and many educational theatre companies. She has held school and district leadership positions, including department chairperson, Mentor Teacher, Co-Chairperson for the Prince George’s County Public Schools Theatre Advisory Board, and Co-Founder and Co-Director for the PGCPS Honor’s Theatre Ensemble.
Through her residencies and professional development series, Ayesis provides creative and transformative SEL support for schools, leading to an increase in teacher satisfaction, retention, and student engagement. She continues to strive for an increased spotlight on educator emotional wellness and how creative reflection can serve as a catalyst for change on school campuses.