Libby Bliss Whitman '11

After TPP, I taught at a Democracy Prep Charter School in Camden, NJ as a 9th grade Writing teacher in the founding year (2014-15) of Freedom Prep High School, under the direction of fellow Princetonian, Ron Brady, after he moved on from Foundation Academies. The experience was demanding, not simply because I was a first year teacher, but also because it was the first year of Freedom Prep's "turn around" - from a public school to a charter high school within the DP network. The relationships I developed with students, co-workers, and administrators made it a very rewarding experience. However, by the year's end, after teaching six days per week and logging 90+ hour work weeks, I found myself in need of a better work-life balance, especially as I began married life with my husband during the summer after that first year. I also needed time to do some soul-searching, having some personal difficulties with the "no excuses" charter school approach. As a result, I chose not to return the following year in a full-time capacity, although I stayed on in a part-time position as a curriculum developer for the 9th and 10th grade Writing curricula and as a home instructor for students on temporary leave from school. 

 My experiences as a writing teacher and home instructor gave me access to my students' lives that I may not otherwise have had, entering their homes and their most secret thoughts and memories through their writing. I was privileged to listen to the stories of many of my students and found myself in an unofficial counseling role on many occasions, which I saw as a sacred honor. As a result, when I left Freedom Prep, I chose to pursue my Masters in Counseling at Westminster Theological Seminary. I am now in my third year as a school-based therapist at a faith-based, non-profit organization and school, Urban Promise, in Camden, NJ. (Serendipitously, I was able to reconnect with several Freedom Prep students I previously taught who did not succeed under the "no excuses" model and found their way over at Urban Promise.) I work within the Wellness Center at Urban Promise, which was founded six years ago in order to reduce the impact of toxic stress experienced by many of our children, youth, and their families. In my position in the K-12 school, I train staff in trauma-informed approaches so that they can create physically and emotionally safe classrooms for students impacted by trauma and respond to students' social/emotional needs effectively. I develop an emotional regulation plan in each K-5 classroom, helping students identify the physiological signals of heightened anger/frustration and select self-regulation exercises to use in response to each signal. We compile this on a poster in each K-5 classroom, using a tool called a "Frustration Thermometer." I also work with every 6-12th grade student to create a personalized safety plan, which essentially achieves the same objectives: identify physiological signals of heightened emotion and create a practical, personalized plan to self-regulate. Every K-8 classroom has a "quiet corner" for students to access, and the high school also has a "Wellness Room," where they can go to self-regulate without questions asked by teachers. We are really proud of the work we do, and it has been so encouraging to see the results in our students, who learn that it is okay to feel their feelings and are empowered to use tools to manage those feelings, so that they can optimize learning time in the classroom. Our K-12 teachers have also been trained to use brain breaks and basic breathing techniques, although our K-5 teachers have been the most consistent with using these approaches as routine aspects of their lesson plans. The other aspect of my job - in fact, it is the primary work I do - is to provide individual and family counseling for students and parents impacted by trauma, providing referrals when available for long-term care. I am so lucky to serve in this capacity, and I love what I do.