Some thoughts on pushing back and speaking up

Deep gratitude to Dulce-Marie Flecha, Christie Nold and lizzie fortin for being thinking partners on this piece.

Over the past week, I facilitated four online workshops on trauma-informed practices  for hundreds of caring educators. I’ve also been talking to many more teachers on Twitter and in my messages, and texting with educator friends. I keep hearing over and over: “I want to focus on relationships, but I am getting mandates about academics from my principal.” “I want to slow down and take care of myself and my family, but the pace of work is unsustainable.” I’ve also heard from friends of mine who are parents about the unrealistic academic expectations sent home by teachers. 

We are in a crisis. Nothing is normal right now. It’s been about three weeks that we’ve all been at home so some things may start to feel routine, but routine does not mean normalcy. And we’re also only at the beginning of this crisis. More people are going to get sick. You will know people who will be hospitalized. You will probably know someone who dies. This will continue to be a crisis. 

In a crisis, we need to focus on community care. I know that teachers and school leaders are getting pressure to “keep teaching” right now. But the reality is that everyone is making things up as we go. State leaders, district leaders, and school leaders are making decisions with very limited time and limited information and resources. As Chris Lehmann writes so clearly, this means we need to just focus on making the least bad decisions. I said on Twitter recently that people feel like they aren’t doing things right or they aren’t doing enough. The truth is that right now there is no “right.” There is no “enough.” 

So how do we navigate this incredibly messy situation? What do we do when the mandates that come from above seem to be harmful and not helpful? 

Here’s what I want to say to all of us right now (and I’m saying this for myself to hear, too): speak up. 

Policies and procedures made in a crisis aren’t meant to last. But the practices that are being put into place for educators right now will last if we comply with them silently. If you don’t tell your principal or administrator that the policy isn’t working, they won’t know. If it seems to be “working,” it will stick. 

We know that learners need timely and relevant feedback on their work. School leaders are learners right now as they try to navigate this mess. You, as teachers and as parents, are the ones who need to provide the feedback. I know that a culture has developed in some schools where it’s not OK to give feedback to the top. Let go of that for now. Your leaders need to hear from you. 

The other thing I’d encourage folks to consider is to just…not participate in policies you know are harmful. John Warner wrote about this in his piece If It Doesn’t Make Sense, Refuse. Warner is writing from a higher ed perspective where the dynamics can be a little different, and I also acknowledge that power dynamics make the threat of job loss very real especially for teachers of color.

Beyond the immediate threat of losing your job, there’s also your emotional and spiritual energy to consider. Many teachers of color have carried the burden of providing feedback on equity for years. It must feel exhausting to face this situation and consider whether you can emotionally manage the toll of this, yet again. Your safety comes first and you know best whether you are in a position to make waves. 

With that in mind, I’d encourage people to consider, really consider, whether you’re letting yourself off the hook when you say “I can’t do anything about this mandate.” Are there are ways for you to be “creatively non-compliant” and push back? Is there collective action you can take with colleagues or other parents? If you’re in a union, unions were created for exactly situations like this. Use your collective power and refuse to do what’s harmful to your students.

If we don’t speak up and if we don’t push back, we pass along the harm to our students. For example, some are being asked to continue to give letter grades to their students right now. I don’t believe in letter grades anyway, but in the current situation it’s very clear that what you are grading is not academic achievement or effort, but access to resources and support, which kids have no control over. If we comply with a directive to give letter grades, we are directly harming kids by putting permanent marks into their transcripts that reflect nothing about them as a learner. Even if you didn’t come up with the directive, you are responsible for that.

If you are in a position to speak up

Compliance isn’t your only option. You can be creatively non-compliant in a way that Warner suggests by simply giving every student an A. If your school refuses to implement pass/fail grading, just do it yourself and give every student an A. You can refuse and just not enter grades – even better if you do this in coordination with colleagues and take it on as a collective action. And you can push back and send your school’s leaders feedback that helps them understand why the directive needs to change.

Here are some conversation openers you might use in offering pushback, where X is the harmful or unjust policy or practice:

  • “I was surprised to see the email about X. It surprised me because I know that our school really values Y, and X policy doesn’t really align with that. Can you explain a little more of your thinking with this?”
  • “I’m writing about X. I’m very concerned about how this is going to impact our students, particularly those without internet access or a safe place to do work at home. I think that for these students X could be harmful.”
  • “Could we discuss X as a faculty? I know that the intent behind X was to promote Y and Z, but I thought you’d want to know that for me as a teacher, it feels unsustainable. I am worried about our ability to care for ourselves and our families if X continues.” 
  • “I am writing to let you know that I cannot do X and in coordination with my grade-level team, we are going to do Y instead. Here’s why, and I would encourage a faculty-wide discussion about whether it makes sense for anyone to be doing X right now.” 

Also remember the humanity of the people to whom you’re giving feedback. Leaders are overwhelmed right now and doing their best to survive under immense pressure. We need each other’s grace and flexibility right now.

If you are in a position of leadership

I know you are doing the best you can. I know you are making the “least bad” decisions you can make right now. Let one of those decisions be to prioritize caring for your staff and listening to their feedback. I know from my own experience that as a school leader, you often hold context and information that leads you to decisions and it’s sometimes hard or impossible to fully communicate this context to your staff. You are under so much pressure and facing public critique for every move you make. It probably feels impossible.

At the same time, recognize that you have an incredible resource in your teachers. Help them step up and help you. Share with them the parameters of the problems you face and invite their problem solving. Be vulnerable about your uncertainties while you’re also being clear about your expectations. Here’s how that might look:

  • “I am currently considering how to approach X and could use all of your input and help. The parameters I have gotten from the state include Y and Z. I’m also thinking about our budget and considering Q, R, and S.  Please let me know if you have creative ideas about X. I need to make a final decision by end of day tomorrow.”
  • “For right now, we need to all be on the same page about X so I am asking all of you to do X. I know that this is problematic for Y and Z reasons. The reason I made this decision is that I need to prioritize Q and R in the next 3 days, but I promise to revisit X on Monday. Join me on a call at 2 on Monday and we’ll revisit X.”
  • “Just a heads up that right now we have no policy for X but I know we need one. I am gathering examples to bring to the leadership team. If anyone has seen examples from other schools on social media of how they are approaching X, please drop them in this shared folder.”

When you invite feedback, remember that you need to be open to the responses. Thank your team for their ideas and suggestions, recognizing the potential risk that teachers are taking on by speaking up. If you feel reactive in the moment, remember to pause and not pass that reactivity along. Examine your own responses and ask yourself whether you see patterns in your responses to teachers based on racial identity or gender identity. Do your best to lift up the voices of marginalized people within your community, and prioritize the needs of your most vulnerable students and community members.

I also invite you to give yourself permission to slow down where you can. I know that in a crisis everything feels urgent. Use your team to help check yourself on whether there are things that can wait, priorities that can be revisited later, and opportunities to pause. Take breaks so that you can hear the feedback. I see you and I appreciate you. Keep fighting the good fight.

For everyone

There are two things that are both true right now. 

One: The most important thing is to take care of yourself and keep yourself safe and healthy. 

Two: The most important thing is to take care of one another and keep each other safe and healthy. 

These two truths come into conflict when taking care of others means draining ourselves. For teachers and parents (and really, everyone) who are running on fumes while trying to care for children, it can feel like way too much to then also think about creating conflict in your workplace. But if we hold both truths together, this conflict is part of how we demonstrate our care for students. Using our positions of power and influence in service of those more vulnerable is the ultimate act of community care.

I don’t pretend to know the answers to any of this, and like most of you, I am struggling to do what’s right by my students while also taking care of myself while also navigating the institutions I’m connected to. All I can say in closing is to repeat that there is no “right” and there is no “enough,” except that you, as a person, are enough. It’s okay to just focus on what you need to do to survive. Wishing you strength and with you in solidarity.

Resource Round-Up: Mindfulness in Schools

Are you thinking of implementing mindfulness, breathing, yoga or other wellness-focused social-emotional learning in your classroom? These practices can be powerful ways to develop self-awareness and wellness tools for life, but beware: these practices can also be unhelpful or even harmful, too. As with any new practice, we educators should think critically about mindfulness, breathing, yoga, or wellness practices before implementing them. Here are some of my favorite resources to help with this critical analysis:

First, read Paul Gorski’s piece on Equity Detours and check that you’re not using social-emotional learning as a racial equity detour.

Next, Christina Torres on how mindfulness won’t save us, but fixing the system will. We need to balance supporting kids to cope with addressing the conditions that require them to cope in the first place.

When offering students wellness strategies, we need to make sure we’re not just forcing students to use strategies that work for us. Here’s a piece from me on self-determination and SEL.

Turning to mindfulness specifically, it’s important to understand that mindfulness activities can actually be triggering for trauma-affected students. Read more from Katrina Schwartz here.

Speaking of which, this is a fascinating piece on why “take a deep breath” isn’t always good advice.

We should also consider the question “who gets to be well?,” posed by Dr. Angela Rose Black. She created Mindfulness for the People to center the voices and experiences of People of Color in the mindfulness movement and this interview with her is a great read.

If you have additional resources or insights to share, please leave a comment!

This post is a write-up of a Twitter thread – you can find the original here.

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

Spring graduate course: registration open

Registration is open for my spring online graduate course: Beyond the Buzzword: Deepening Knowledge & Practice of Trauma-Informed Education.

This class is designed for educators who already have a “trauma 101” level of understanding. Maybe you’ve been to a workshop, read a book, or browsed a few articles about trauma-informed education. This class is designed to help you dig deeper, both in understanding the research and concepts of trauma-informed practices as well as their practical application in your setting.

We’re going to dig into questions like…

  • How do we balance individual interventions with systemic change?
  • What can educators learn from the clinical research about trauma?
  • What school structures and systems should we reconsider through a trauma-informed lens?
  • How can we combat racism and other forms of oppression that cause trauma?
  • What changes can I start making, today, in my role?

…and much, much more.

I offer this class 100% online on Canvas, with three Zoom video calls so we can make connections in real time. You can earn 3 graduate credits from Castleton University.

Please reach out if you have any questions, or follow the link above to register! We get started on February 3.

Recommended Reading: “No one noticed, no one heard”

While doing research for my book, I came across this report from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (in the UK): No one noticed, no one heard: a study of disclosures of childhood abuse. [Content note: the report contains discussion of multiple types of abuse and the impact of abuse on children and families.]

I have SO many swirling thoughts after finishing my reading of this report. If you work with children, take the time to read this. Here are some of my initial thoughts, but I know I’ll be processing this study for a long time.

This study looked at the experiences of young people (ages 18 to 24) reflecting on their disclosures of childhood abuse prior to age 18. Of the 60 young people interviewed by Debbie Allnock and Pam Miller, most (80%) told someone or tried to tell someone of the abuse they endured. Yet 90% of those who disclosed had a negative experience in their disclosure journey: they weren’t believed. They were ignored. They were spoken down to, or left out of the process. Sometimes disclosure made things worse, as when a teacher reported a child’s disclosure to her parents (who were the perpetrators of the abuse).

There were also moments of success and support, many involving disclosure to peers and friends. This made me think of how we talk to all students about supporting one another through hard times. Are we so focused on helping teachers become trauma-informed that we overlook one of the biggest resources our students have – one another?

Here are some of the big takeaways for me from this report:

  1. Believe kids when they disclose abuse. No matter what.
  2. Schools need to get crystal clear on the process of support and communication after student disclosure. It’s not just about complying with mandated reporting law. How are we communicating with students about the process in a way that empowers them? How are we explaining the process in a developmentally appropriate way? How are students supported after the legal boxes are ticked?
  3. Get to know your students. So many of the young people in this study wished that their teachers and other adults asked what was wrong. You can’t notice that something is wrong if you don’t know your students in the first place.

As I read, I also couldn’t help but think about the recent trend of schools asking students to fill out ACEs checklists. In Allnock and Miller’s study, young people shared the pain of disclosing their abuse only to have it ignored or minimized, or for there to be no meaningful follow-up. For those children who told someone about abuse while it was happening, fewer than half said that their disclosure led to the abuse actually stopping. Fewer than half. Youth in the study also shared that sometimes they weren’t ready to disclose to authority figures, choosing to talk to friends instead. I wonder about the experience of students prompted to fill out an ACE checklist, and whether there is meaningful follow-through on these disclosures. Why ask if we aren’t ready to truly hear, and to act? We need to take great caution as a field when considering the dynamics of disclosure as it connects to ACEs. Children wanted to be noticed and asked personally by a trusted adult if something was wrong. Schools need to carefully consider what all of this means in the context ofboundaries and role clarity.

These are just some of my initial thoughts, but I hope you can see what a powerful resource this is for anyone working with children. I encourage you to read the whole report for more recommendations and action steps from the authors.  The report contains the words of the young people themselves and there is nothing more powerful than listening to their voices. 

 

Image credit: Photo by Guillaume de Germain on Unsplash

Winter news & updates!

The snow is coming down outside in Vermont so I guess it’s officially winter! You may have noticed it’s been a little quiet on the blog lately. Here’s why: I’m currently working on my first book! I’m under contract with the fine folks at W.W. Norton and my book will be part of Paul Gorski’s Equity & Justice series. Due out in spring 2021, my book will focus on trauma-informed education through an equity lens. I am so excited about what I’m working on and can’t wait to share it with you all!

As you can imagine, I’m spending most of my writing energy on this project, so you can expect fewer blog posts over the next couple of months. That said, please stay in touch with me on Twitter @AlexSVenet as I’m doing plenty of tweeting in between writing sessions 🙂

I will also be reposting and sometimes expanding some work from the archies of my blog over the next couple of months. To start with, check out this 2016 piece on Rethinking Holidays in Schools. It’s a list of questions that would make a great discussion guide at your next faculty meeting to spark some critical thinking as we approach “holiday season.”

Be well and stay tuned for news and updates about the book, my spring online graduate course, and more! Thanks to everyone for your support!

Interview: Evolution of a Trauma-Informed School

In the past few years, there has been an explosion of schools starting to implement trauma-informed educational practices. Public schools across the country are learning about how trauma impacts kids and their learning, and adjusting their classroom practices and school policy to be responsive.

But what does it look like to sustain this work over the years? How does a school go beyond “trauma-informed 101” and build the core concepts into the fabric of their community?

Over the past year I’ve gotten to know Mathew Portell, principal of Fall-Hamilton Elementary School in Nashville. Mathew is the real deal: fully committed to transforming his school so that all kids can succeed. At the Trauma Informed Educators Network conference this summer, Mathew shared the video from the Edutopia profile of his school, filmed over two years ago. He made a passing comment about how some of the things in the video aren’t quite accurate anymore, because trauma-informed education is a journey, not a checklist.

Having been a leader of a trauma-informed school myself, that rang true. The journey includes a constant revisiting of our core values, aligning our practice with those values, and always asking: is this working? Is this helping? If not, how can we as the adults change and grow?

I wanted to know more about how Mathew and his school are navigating this journey. You can read the full interview on Edutopia. Thanks to Mathew for this great conversation!

If you are also part of a school that is moving past “getting started with trauma-informed” and into “sustaining our trauma-informed work,” I would love to hear from you! Leave a comment or send me an email at Alex@UnconditionalLearning.org 

Learn with me this fall: graduate course registration open

registration open!

Registration is open for my fall graduate course: “Supporting Challenging Students: Strengths-Based & Trauma-Informed Approaches.” Click here for more details and registration link! 

I love teaching this class. It’s designed around a reflective practice, case-study model. Teachers choose one student and work on building relationship with and better understanding that student, asking: “What can this student teach me about my teaching?”

We also dig in to two of my favorite texts: Fostering Resilient Learners and Lost at School. I pair these readings with other texts and concepts to help participants think about their practice in new ways.

This class is hybrid online and face-to-face. The two in-person meetings are in Montpelier, VT (exact location coming as soon as I confirm it). I hope you can join us!

I have some questions

No photo description available.I keep seeing this image, or versions of it, pop up on Twitter and Facebook, especially in trauma-informed education circles. “Students who are loved come to school to learn, and students who aren’t, come to school to be loved.”

I know it’s “just a quote.” I know it’s well-intentioned. But I have some questions:

 

 

 

 

 

  • Don’t all students want to learn? Aren’t all kids naturally curious?
  • Don’t all kids (and people, really) want to be loved?
  • Does this quote suggest that a teacher’s love and a parent’s love are the same thing?
  • Do kids have a choice about why (or whether) they come to school?
  • Are there really a whole lot of parents who don’t love their kids?
  • What effect does it have on my teaching practice if I believe my students’ parents don’t love them?
  • How does one tell the difference between a parent who doesn’t love their kids and a parent who loves their kid, but is overwhelmed or under-resourced and struggles to effectively parent?
  • How does one tell the difference between a kid who is loved at home and who isn’t?
  • Do loved kids always want to learn?
  • Should I lower my academic expectations for “unloved” kids because they’re just here to be loved?
  • Does trauma only happen to kids in “unloving” households?
  • Does being loved at home affect motivation for learning?
  • What am I, a teacher, supposed to do with this frame of understanding? How does it impact my practice?
  • What would my students’ parents think if they saw me tweet or post this quote?
  • Does this quote foster empathy or pity?

I hope you have some questions, too.

It’s “just a quote” but when we see enough of these quotes, they shape our worldview. Just like we teach our students: be critical. Ask questions. Don’t fall for pleasing sentence construction and confuse it with truth.

 

 

On moral neutrality

As teachers, we are told not to push our politics on students, and not to use our classrooms to further our own agendas. Be neutral. We are told to be role models, to stay positive. Don’t focus on the negative.

We are told: Spread love, but don’t talk too much about hate. Embrace diversity, but don’t talk too much about racism. Be resilient, but don’t talk too much about trauma. 

In reading Dr. Judith Herman’s classic text, Trauma and Recovery, I reflected on the parallels between therapists and teachers in taking a neutral stance. Dr. Herman writes:

 “‘Neutral’ means that the therapist does not take sides in the patient’s inner conflicts or try to direct the patient’s life decisions. Constantly reminding herself that the patient is in charge of her own life, the therapist refrains from advancing a personal agenda.”

I’m sure this approach resonates with many teachers: we want to provide students all of the relevant information and skills to think critically, and not simply impose our own opinions. We support students’ autonomy and power when we remain “neutral” in this sense.

But there are areas where we cannot, and should not, be neutral. Herman continues:

“The technical neutrality of the therapist is not the same as moral neutrality. Working with victimized people requires a committed moral stance. The therapist is called upon to bear witness to a crime. She must affirm a position of solidarity with the victim.”

For which crimes do your students call you to bear witness, through their words or their actions?

Do you bear witness to the crimes of racism, homophobia, transphobia, religious discrimination? Do you bear witness to the injust systems that create generational poverty? Do you bear witness to the pain of sexual and gender-based violence, to child abuse?

Do you bear witness to the crimes committed through inequity in your own school, in your own classroom? By your colleagues? By yourself?

When you bear witness, do you affirm your solidarity? Clearly, unequivocally, firmly positioning yourself alongside your students, together with them in their pain, always in their corner?

Or do you remain “morally neutral?” Do you say, “there are two sides to every story?” Do you ask, “well, what did you do to bring this on yourself?” Do you wonder, “did that really happen?”

Herman further explains:

“This does not mean a simplistic notion that the victim can do no wrong; rather, it involves an understanding of the fundamental injustice of the traumatic experience and the need for a resolution that restores some sense of justice.This affirmation expresses itself in the therapists’ daily practice, in her language, and above all in her moral commitment to truth-telling without evasion or disguise.”

Educators cannot say we are trauma-informed and also remain silent on the injust systems and conditions that cause trauma. We need to be truth-tellers, “without evasion or disguise,” when it comes to addressing injustice.

Teaching is political. As Shana White puts it, “Our words, curriculum decisions, who we advocate for and why, disciplining, opportunities we provide, and our pedagogy [are political]. Working with and facilitating learning for other human beings will always be political.” Jose Vilson says, “we are agents of the state, so in fact, we are political even if we’re not partisan.”

Whether we like it or not, teachers are the face of institutions, and with that institutional position comes great power. We can use our power to position ourselves in solidarity with our students, or we can hide our fear and indifference behind a mask of “neutrality.” In remaining morally neutral, we abandon our students at the time they most need us, and we ensure that trauma will continue to perpetuate through generations.

But if we choose to bear witness, to act in solidarity, we empower ourselves and our students. We say, “It is so wrong that this happened to you.” We say, “I believe you.” We say, “I’m here for you, and I will fight for you.” And we go beyond saying these things and put our power into action: teaching the truth about injustices in history and in our time, challenging unjust policies, advocating against unjust laws, working to dismantle the systems that harm our students and our community. We can take the first step toward creating a more just world.

So: what will you choose?

Summer learning opportunities

Here are a few opportunities to learn with me this summer:

Graduate course in Vermont: Taking Care

I am co-teaching this course with a colleague who is an art therapist, and we’re focusing on wellness. It’s not just bubble baths and deep breaths; wellness is a commitment to caring for our full selves. This graduate course will explore both the theory and practice of wellness for educators. We’ll look at how you can maintain your own wellness, especially when facing challenges at work, but also how you can foster wellness in your students within your academic content area. We’ll have a two-day retreat-style face-to-face meeting in Winooski, VT in July, then online weeks, and a final wrap up day in August.

More information and registration here.

Mini-Course on pedagogy, vicarious trauma webinar, plus a book study

I’m facilitating these three online opportunities this summer:

Trauma-Conscious pedagogy and reflective practice mini-course 

Preventing and addressing vicarious trauma: webinar

Online book study: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog

These pieces were formerly part of the Trauma-Conscious Teaching microcredential through Antioch. This the last time they’ll be offered through Antioch, as we’re phasing out the microcredential this fall. If you’re interested in taking any of these pieces but can’t join this summer, be in touch- they may be scheduled again later on as one-time workshops.

Late summer and fall professional development and consulting

I’m booking from August onward for professional development and consulting. See my services page and be in touch!