Learn with me this spring

The students who fall through the cracks and get pushed out of their communities need us to change how we approach our work with them.  This change can happen when we take the time and space to self-reflect.

I believe that self-reflection is one of the most important things teachers can do to improve their support of all students, the challenging ones especially. We need to identify our hidden beliefs and emotions to understand why some students feel more frustrating than others. We need to find ways to transform our experiences into meaning and align our philosophies with our practice.

This spring, I’m teaching a graduate course through the Castleton Center for Schools to help teachers take the time for this self-reflection, focusing on trauma-informed and strengths-based approaches to working with challenging students. The course meets face-to-face twice in Winooski, Vermont, to allow us to build community and dive into thoughtful conversations about our practice and our beliefs. In between those two meetings, we’ll read, reflect and discuss online, applying new learning directly to our current classroom environments.

At the end of the course, you can expect to walk away with concrete strategies, problem-solving approaches, and many resources to explore. I also hope you’ll walk away with more questions than answers, and a willingness to carry that inquiry into your work.

Please join me to create a learning community that will help you build your skill set to support challenging students.

Register at the Castleton Center for Schools site. 

Unlearning

In education, obviously we talk constantly about learning. That’s our job here, right? Fostering learning, assessing learning, innovating learning experiences, understanding learners.

But as teachers, we have a lot of unlearning to do, too, especially when it comes to how we “manage” our classrooms. Many educators replicate the systems of classroom management that they themselves experienced, without often pausing to wonder whether the underlying philosophy of this “classroom management” is the right one.

I recently read Alfie Kohn’s book Beyond Discipline  for the first time. I’ve been familiar with Kohn for a while and my previous school was heavily influenced by his philosophy, but reading his book was invigorating. I highlighted approximately half of every page. Kohn’s overall premise is that a focus on compliance in our schools harms children and adults, and we can do better by developing community instead: “the more we ‘manage’ students’ behavior and try to make them do what we say, the more difficult it is for them to become morally sophisticate people who think for themselves and care about others” (p. 62).

It sounds great in practice – but it takes so much unlearning for educators who have spent their whole lives in systems that value compliance. So many teachers are also in positions where compliance is demanded of them every day by administrators, state decision-makers, federal laws. Kohn quotes de Charms: “When teachers are treated as pawns, they don’t teach, they become drill sergeants.” Teachers need not only to unlearn how they were taught, but also actively swim against the tide of compliance that is the reality of many schools.

So how do we unlearn? First, I think we need to connect to the big picture. For me, this could look like reading books from my favorite educational philosophers, or books that challenge my understanding of the status quo, or seeking out articles from diverse perspectives. I need to expand my worldview, and in doing so, take apart and discard the parts that don’t serve me or my students anymore.

Connecting to the big picture can also look like dreaming together with other educators – whether that’s attending a conference, and Edcamp, or simply talking with a teacher friend over dumplings about the dreams we have for our students.

Unlearning also takes practice. I’ve been thinking about both/and – we need to think about and talk about the big picture, but we also need concrete ways to test things out. In thinking about unlearning “classroom management,” a couple of concrete ways to try it out include the CPS model and restorative circles. I find that when I commit to trying something concrete, I can practice not only the actual strategy, but managing the feelings of frustration and uncertainty that come in the midst of a change of philosophy.

Unlearning is difficult, especially when everyone is telling us that the “way it’s always been” is the way it should always be. But as Kohn says, “to create a classroom where students feel safe enough to challenge each other – and us – is to give them an enormous gift” (p. 77). Unlearning compliance and embracing a messier version of community is the foundation of a healthy democracy. That’s the direction I want to move with my students.

a path on a mountain

The trauma-informed toolbox (and mixed metaphors)

I’m looking forward to teaching a workshop this October on the teacher’s trauma toolbox. The goal is to help teachers get started with trauma-informed teaching and learning. I hope teachers will walk away having developed their understanding of child trauma as well as jumpstarted their thinking on trauma-informed strategies for their classrooms.

Trauma-informed teaching isn’t something you can master after a one-day workshop, or a semester class, or even many years of intense study and practice. It’s an ongoing process to support students who have experienced trauma, because every child is different and every response to trauma is different. Moreover, being in relationship with people with traumatic experience can be difficult, and requires regular checking in with ourselves and recalibrating so we can sustain the work.

The trauma toolbox

We can best prepare to serve students with traumatic backgrounds by developing our own toolbox. Not every tool will work for a given job, but if we maintain a diverse set we are more likely to have what we need when we need it. Some tools will work for many situations, while we save others for a very specific project. When using trauma-informed strategies, the range of tools is essential because one student’s response to trauma will never be exactly the same as another’s. This is especially true when “challenging” behavior comes up; I may need to try a dozen different tools before I find the one that works.

As most handy folks and homeowners also know, sometimes our own toolbox isn’t enough, and it’s essential to know when to call the plumber or the electrician. An essential aspect of our trauma-informed toolbox is knowing when to call on others – whether they be school counselors, psychologists, or social workers, or your local mental-health or child welfare agency. There’s also something to be said for the home-improvement show, youtube video or internet forum where we can get a refresher on how to use the tools we already have, or get unstuck when we’re frustrated.

Where the metaphor falls apart

a path on a mountain

While your home toolbox may be used to fix broken stuff, we aren’t “fixing” students and they certainly aren’t broken. Here I’ll use a different metaphor for our role in supporting students who’ve experienced trauma – the hike.

Ever been hiking with someone who hasn’t really been hiking much before? You’re both walking on the same path, but maybe it’s slightly easier for you, because you have more practice. You don’t need to tell your hiking partner how to walk, because they already know how to do that, but you might make some suggestions if there’s a tricky uphill scramble.

As you walk, you’re paying attention to the other hiker, and guiding the way, but the two of you are also connecting, together, and noticing, together, what’s going on in the woods around you. While the less experienced person might need your help at times, you might also need them and rely on their expertise as you cross obstacles together.

You might need to prompt your hiking partner when to stop and take a break and drink some water, but it’s also essential that you pay attention to your own needs, as well. Supporting our students through trauma is something we do together, walking side by side, while ultimately respecting the autonomy of the journey.

The path through healing from trauma can be difficult and complicated, and we do best when we walk it together, whatever the metaphor.

I hope you’ll join me on October 7 in Keene, NH for the Teacher’s Trauma Toolbox workshop. Can’t attend? Check out resources for getting started with trauma-informed teaching or get in touch to schedule a workshop at your site.

Social-emotional learning can be simple, part 2

In follow-up to this post, I wanted to share a quick strategy that is deceptively simple yet sets the stage for social-emotional learning:

Edutopia recently shared this video about Peace Corners:

 

It’s simple, right? Set up a comfy corner, invite students to use it to take a break, add in a little reflection sheet. Yet, there are so many layers to how this can help students:

  • Honors and respects students’ autonomy by choosing when to take a break
  • Gives students a safe and non-shaming “out” (since it’s open to everyone in the class)
  • Encourages reflection and development of self-knowledge through reflection sheets
  • Creates space within the classroom community rather than asking to students to leave the classroom community completely
  • Provides sensory tools for self-regulation
  • Helps students internalize self-management skills that are transferable across settings
  • Communicates care and a whole-school commitment to social/emotional support

Peace corners – or any other name you choose to call this self-regulation space – are a simple, visible way to incorporate social/emotional support. It’s a trauma-informed strategy that benefits all students. I’m trying one this year with a mixed-elementary age extracurricular class – I’ll update on how it goes!

The Stories I’ll Never Tell

In a little less than two weeks, I’ll walk out of my school for the last time. After eight years, I’m moving on from the therapeutic school where I’ve worked as a teacher and leader. I’m happy with my decision and excited about the projects and adventures ahead of me – but I’m also deeply sad to leave the community that’s been my home for the better part of a decade.

It’s a funny thing to try to write about my experiences from this school. Because it’s a therapeutic school that provides counseling as well as education, we’re covered not only by educational privacy law and ethics, but also by health care law and ethics. Even if I weren’t bound by law, I’d still want to respect that the depth of counseling we do requires the trust of a confidential space. So while I can and do write a lot about the strategies, tools and stances of our teachers, I write very little about specific students. When I do, it’s only in the broadest of terms. But the true depth of my work has been in getting to know these complicated, amazing humans and maintaining solid connections through all the ups and downs. This means that the most impactful work I’ve experienced is work I can’t really write about, at least not in a meaningful way. Without the context and specifics of each student, the stories are just sketches. 

There are so many stories I’ll never tell: stories about children who have experienced more than most adults do in a lifetime, stories about teens who have everything in the world working against them. The deck is stacked against them when we meet and then something comes along and shreds every last one of the cards and throws it in their faces. The stories of these teens are always about resilience. They are about the depth of human suffering and the unimaginable strength it takes to change. They are stories about sharing the lowest moments and the most fantastic victories.

My stories are about building deep relationship with kids who really had no reason to trust me at all, and stories about how hard we both worked to build and sustain that relationship. There are a lot of tears in my stories. There’s a lot of swearing. There’s a lot of late nights not sleeping and wondering if my students hated me, if I could serve my students, if my students were going to be okay, if my students were at home sleeping or if they were missing or if they were alive.

Mostly the stories I’ll never tell are about hope. They’re about how sparkly and wonderful and brilliant and driven every single one of my students has been – even (especially) the ones who came to our school after another adult at another school said some version of “this kid can’t/won’t/doesn’t want to learn.” The stories are filled with parents who do the impossible every day for their kids even when they’re barely hanging on themselves.And my stories are filled with the giant beating hearts of teachers who dig deep within their souls and find the bravery to be the people our students need.

I won’t ever tell the full stories, the real stories about the past eight years. But I’ll keep writing about what I can in the way I can, and finding ways to talk about the themes and the lessons and the common experiences that transcend the specific and confidential details. And I am so comforted to know that long after I step away from that community, these beautiful stories will continue to unfold: in shouts across the parking lot basketball court; in songs sung along to the radio in cars on the way to internships; in whispers sitting on the floor in the hallway; between tears on the hardest day; between full-belly laughs on the best days.

In my next steps professionally, I’m going to be focusing on helping other teachers work through the challenges with challenging students. I’m doing this because I know that when you persist through the layers of frustration, when you can make it past all the roadblocks and the assumptions and the baggage, you can get to the other side and see into the shining heart of a kid, and see your own humanity reflected back to you. I want every teacher to carry around that story they can never fully explain, because the experience is too complicated for words. It can only be told to ourselves, over and over as we reflect back on what it means to work with complex and whole people. It can only be felt in the bones of a teacher.

So I have stories I’ll never tell – and I hope you do too.

Social-emotional learning can be simple

While the buzzword factor may loom large, it doesn’t have to be complicated to get started with social-emotional learning in the classroom. SEL “programs” or curricula may certainly be helpful in providing a common language or structure for educators across a school, but you don’t need to buy anything to provide social/emotional learning opportunities. It can be as simple as acknowledging emotions, making space to understand them, and reflecting on the intersection of academic and social/emotional learning.

I teach a community college first semester seminar. The goals of the course are around reading, writing, and research for college, and there’s an overarching mission that the course will help students start their college careers successfully. We learn good habits of college work and identify resources. I also incorporate social/emotional learning because I value emotional self-awareness as a key tool of college (and life) success.

Social skill-building in 5 minutes or less

In an ongoing way, we do a quick rose-and-thorn check-in at the start of each class. Rose- something good that’s going on for you. Thorn – something not so good. It brings everyone’s voice into the room (even if just to say “pass”) and it acknowledges that we’re all bringing things to the classroom that evening with us. It helps set the stage for our interactions with one another – if you shared about your really bad day, I can offer you some extra kindness. If you shared that you’re feeling good this evening, I can borrow some of your enthusiasm. It also provides a platform for creating social connections. I’ve watched students connect with one another over shared interests that they might not have known about if not for check-in. You have a two-year-old too? You also play soccer? You drive a motorcycle? Healthy social interactions are easier when you have a place to start, and this structure provides a platform for students to share something authentic with their community. It’s a really simple structure that takes less than five minutes, but the benefits are huge.

Incorporating emotional awareness into content

For a more focused social/emotional learning experience, I’ve been slowly transforming the section of the course that explores the concept of systemic oppression and privilege to incorporate emotional self-awareness as a key concept. We begin by reading Margaret Wheatley’s essay “Willing to be Disturbed.” We discuss the emotional barriers that can get in the way of hearing one another’s stories. Then, students read and dig in to the concept of privilege and write a reflection – not just on the content, but on their emotional experience with the content. They answer the question, “why is it so hard to talk about privilege?”

When students arrive in class to discuss privilege with one another, we start with a self check-in: what emotions am I feeling right now, and how is that going to impact my ability to listen? I use a chart with a list of common emotions arranged by intensity, and students reflect on how intensity of feeling might help or hinder your listening skills. I’m transparent when we do this activity: I know this may feel childish or unrelated to academics, but at the heart of academic discussion lies empathy. Our healthy emotional management supports our capacity for empathy, and our social skills support our capacity to build empathetic relationships. Students take this reflection seriously and bring the self-awareness into their conversations.

With all of these proactive steps, I’ve experienced an improvement in the depth of conversation, the risks students are willing to take when trying on a new perspective, and their ongoing growth as learners.

SEL is just like any other teaching strategy

None of these social/emotional learning strategies are complicated or groundbreaking. They don’t take a lot of prep work. They cost nothing. Social-emotional learning is an investment of time – but it doesn’t have to be that much time. It’s an investment of energy – but as with all new classroom strategies, after the first go-around it gets easier. It doesn’t need to take time away from content, but rather can enhance students’ ability to dive into content and skill.

So I see social-emotional learning more as holding a central value about how I see my students. We do this already in the classroom. If I understand my students to be emerging critical readers, I’ll make room for skill-building. If I understand my students to need practice with the writing process, I’ll build in opportunities to learn. When I understand my students as whole and emotional humans, practicing their self-regulation and social skills, of course I’m going to make time to attend to their needs. It can be that simple.

On going to heaven

A few times a year, I’ll find myself in a conversation with someone who doesn’t already know what I do for work, often a stranger or an acquaintance, and I’ll explain about my school, my student population, and my role. I’ll give a couple of examples of the challenges facing my students and the structures we use to serve them well.

Every so often, the response will be: ” “you’re an angel,” or “you’re going to heaven,” or “amazing! I could never do that.”

I don’t fault people’s intent behind these comments. I understand and appreciate the compliment, but (even putting aside the religious undertones) there’s something about these comments that rubs me the wrong way. The implication (and sometimes plainly stated message) is that “I could never do that.” There’s a sense that to work with challenging or high-needs students, there must be something holy about you. You need to operate at a higher level, be driven by a spiritual mission, or expect an otherworldly reward. There’s a connotation of sacrifice and goodness, of purity. Sometimes when I hear these “compliments,” what I really hear is, “thank goodness you’re doing that work so the rest of us don’t have to.”

In reality, working with challenging students, working with high-needs students, working with all students is a job for everyone. It doesn’t require holiness. It doesn’t require spiritual belief. It requires hard work, perspective, and empathy. It isn’t angelic; it’s messy, full of mistakes, and profoundly human.

We need boundaries, not martyrdom. We need a support system, not a pedestal. We don’t need to hear “I could never do that,” we need to hear “I want to do better for my students too, how can we work together?”

If you feel driven by spirituality and mission, that’s wonderful – many people draw on their beliefs to feel connected to their work. However, projecting these values on others may have the opposite effect of your intent. If you make an assumption about me – that I hold certain beliefs about God, heaven, and spiritual mission, or find meaning in a compliment related to those beliefs – it makes me wonder what beliefs you’re projecting onto my students.

If we’re not meeting in a context related to our shared spirituality, I’d prefer a compliment about my perseverance, creativity, or resourcefulness. I’d prefer you asking questions to better understand my experience. Instead of telling me, “I could never do that,” let’s talk about how you actually could – and help you get there.

Students with behavioral challenges, disabilities, high needs – whatever the label, they’re all children. They’re people. I’m not an angel – I’m a human, working with humans. Let’s see each other as people, as equals working together toward a common goal. Let’s talk about heaven another day – today, I’m doing the work here on earth.