The classroom is briefly empty on today’s visit to Mobile’s George Hall Elementary School. While her students are in PE class, Carey Arensberg, Mobile County’s 2020 teacher of the year, has a 40 minute window and an empty classroom to talk with MB about her specialty, childhood trauma. She is an authority on the subject and a social media sensation.
In this rare quiet moment in her busy day, she spoke about her passion for children, concerns with student trauma and what it’s like having more than 400,000 followers on TikTok.
Did you always want to be a teacher?
“No, I started out wanting to be a meteorologist. I absolutely love science. But when going through school [at the University of South Alabama], I had a part-time job in an after-school program for children and liked it. I also come from a family background with a lot of kids and I am the oldest girl. I was the babysitter for the family. All of that made me realize, my love is children.”
Why did you chose elementary school education?
“This age group, fourth and fifth grades, is my sweet spot. They are old enough to be independent and have real conversations with you, yet they are still young enough to want to make you happy. To me, this is the best age to have.”
Tell us about your rise as a social media star.
[She laughs] “I don’t know about ‘star,’ but I started TikTok, not expecting my presence to grow so fast. I don’t post a lot of academic topics but instead discuss my passion for awareness around childhood trauma.
“I am a certified trauma and resilience practitioner and coach. I took my information and knowledge and condensed it so others could understand what their kids might need. We launched it on TikTok.
“The site had some viewers early on but really kicked up when sharing my classroom’s care closet. [The care closet is stocked with items children might need – socks, bows, ChapStick, snacks, combs/brushes and more.] When I shared the story of the care closet, my TikTok followers increased by the thousands. I started in the summer of 2021 with an audience of zero.”
How big an issue is childhood trauma and why address it in the classroom?
“A lot more children experience trauma than you might think. This is not exclusive to George Hall Elementary. Trauma has no boundaries. It is in inner city and affluent schools equally. As educators we must be able to identify and address trauma because a child cannot learn until such adverse conditions are reconciled.”
What types of trauma do children experience?
“There are three levels: Level one applies to a child experiencing a one-time traumatic event, such as a tornado. But it still leaves an indelible impression that might be triggered if remembered.
“Level two is a repeated incident, such as an alcoholic parent continuously wreaking havoc on a house. Level three occurs when the child is in a constant state of chaos in the home. Perhaps he / she was given inappropriate responsibilities or the child is a victim of abuse.
“I categorize students into three types. The Owl comes in cherry, light-hearted and happy. They are all about ‘Good morning, Mrs. Arensberg!’ They are happy, ready to learn and make good decisions. But there is also category two, the Meerkat: Things are a bit off. They are uneasy, and slow to speak. I intervene with, ‘Are you okay? Is there something I can help you with this morning?’ Pay attention to the Meerkat because he or she can turn into category three, the Tiger. The Tiger enters the classroom full of rage. The child releases pent up anger, generated from continuous trauma at home.
“Trauma studies show that kids who feel a heightened sense of fear cannot relax. The fear activates a stress response and deactivates the part of their brain that stores and comprehends new information. Learning cannot take place under these conditions.”
Your classroom, with care closet, a small tent and meeting areas, seems to seems to be untypical. Would you agree?
“The care closet is basically a student resource center, providing items the student might not have at home. It is like our community hub. Originally, the closet was stocked with items I purchased from Target. Now it is furnished primarily from the kindness of strangers – many from TikTok.
“In addition to being a fourth-grade classroom, we are a community. We teach students to be a team, to offer support and help.
“One of the topics I shared on TikTok was an emotional lesson taught in my class, “The Reflection in Me.” I asked students, ‘What do you love about yourself?’ One said ‘I’m good at math.’ But others may see him as a good friend, and good helper. He had no idea they felt that way.
“I had one girl who responded, ‘What do you love about yourself?’ with, ‘Well, I’m pretty.’ Classmates responded, ‘But you take care of your family! You are a good listener! You are responsible!’ The little girl replied, ‘All my life, I’ve only been told that I’m pretty.’ And she cried.”
What are some challenges in teaching?
“Nationwide we are working to close the gaps from COVID. Masks made it difficult to teach. Masks hid smiles, frowns, and expressions; you cannot ‘read’ the student and assess if they are ‘getting it.’ Virtual teaching was also difficult as many of our students do not have internet access, home computers or electronic devices.
I think we are excelling in focusing on closing the learning gaps, but kids can’t learn anything until they are emotionally regulated and feel safe in schools.”
The bell rings and the meeting adjourns as Carey Arensberg accompanied MB to the front office. Children say hello to their teacher, and she returns the greeting, knowing each by a first name. Carey is fond of her 10 years at Hall Elementary and the feeling is mutual.
“Mrs. Arensberg has always established a positive classroom community with her students,” says the school’s principal, Melissa Mitchell. “In recent years, our school began to focus on trauma-informed and resiliency practices. She is the embodiment of this practice in action.”
Carey and her husband, Matthew Arensberg, have two boys, Sullivan (9) and Clark (6). When not teaching, she enjoys singing, playing the piano, running, working with the mentoring program Big Brothers and Sisters and serving as a board member for Competing Against Cancer.
An elementary school instructor of reading, language arts, and science, she is a trained trauma and resilience practitioner, and certified trauma and resilience coach. In addition to her teaching degree at the University of South Alabama, she also holds a degree from Concordia University.
“Mrs. Arensberg has always established a positive classroom community with her students, In recent years, our school began to focus on trauma-informed and resiliency practices. She is the embodiment of this practice in action.”– MELISSA MITCHELL, PRINCIPAL GEORGE HALL ELEMENTARY
MB had time for one more question:
What are the rewards of teaching?
“The rewards are many. When I receive a gift bag of hot fries because the student knows I love hot fries or a young girl gives me a half-full bottle of perfume, that’s special. But the best rewards are watching these kids grow and not just academically.
“I teach the whole child. They learn to talk with one another, taking ownership of their actions. They learn that it is not all about me. I am not the only one. We try to teach them to become independent, helpful.”
Watching my students progress through the months I have them is so rewarding.
At the end of the year, it is hard to say goodbye.”
Take it to TikTok
Aresnberg creates TikTok videos on how to create a postive learning environment using trauma-informed principles and behavior management. Below are just a few examples of the content that she shares with others.
The care closet is open at set times each day. Students can take whatever they need: lotions, a comb, deodorant, hygiene products, lip balm and snacks. Arensberg models going to the closet without self consciousness by taking items from the closet for herself and doing her hair in the closet mirror.
Restorative vs. Punative
With a restorative approach to behavior management the focus is on accountability for actions and understanding how behaviors impact those around you. The goal is learning, growing and accountability instead of shame and punishment.
When children are acting out, they are often either hungry, angry, lonely or tired. By identifying the root of their actions, children learn to identify and share their feelings. In turn, teachers can meet their needs so that they can then learn effectively.
“No Bad Kids”
Arensberg emphasizes that children internalize being called “bad kids” and this leads to increased negative behavior. There are bad attitudes, choices and decisions, but never bad children. Separating children’s identities from their actions empowers them to make better choices.
Student Quiet Room
When children become emotionally disregulated, Arensberg offers a quiet area with darker lighting, soft pillows, ambient sounds, weighted blankets and sensory items. This creates a safe space where children can decompress and share their feelings.