Creating space for the emergent

One thing that is for certain in an uncertain time: crises will happen this school year. Personally, locally, nationally, and globally, disasters large and small will occur. There will be gun violence, unjust action from lawmakers, death and grief, and conflict. This is not pessimism talking, it’s reality. 

In this reality, how do we plan for a trauma-informed school year? I want to recommend just one practice for this upcoming school year: create space for the emergent. I use the term “emergent” here to mean all that emerges unexpectedly, whether that is a big crisis or a small but disruptive drama among classmates. Abundant resources exist for teaching “on the day after,” but when we anticipate the many days after we can more smoothly address them as they come. 

Slowing down, feeling and healing 

Scholar Samira Rajabi writes that “Trauma makes it so the constructed world no longer makes sense to the person who suffers.” When personal and collective trauma occurs, we lose our bearings. To process, feel our feelings, and ultimately heal, we need to slow down. We need space to notice and name our experiences. We sometimes need to hear others acknowledge that things are not okay. But none of these things are built into the typical structure of school. More often, students and teachers are expected to carry on with business as usual, which often compounds and worsens trauma. 

When we pretend that a crisis won’t happen, and plan for an uninterrupted school day and school year, we are doing ourselves and our students a disservice. We are setting ourselves up to scramble. But we can choose to build in structures that are responsive to unpredictability. When the next local or national crisis occurs, will we launch into our own crisis mode, figuring out what to shuffle, how to make space, whether/when to talk about it, or will we thank ourselves for proactively creating the container? 

When I already know that there is a space that can be used to address emergent needs, my focus shifts from scrambling to planning. I no longer have to worry about shifting timing around, introducing conversation norms, or coaching my students to talk about hard topics if we’ve been practicing from day one. I can’t know the details and complexity of how I will approach each situation ahead of time, but I can trust that space exists in which to do the work. My students and I can still experience routine in the face of disruption, and in that predictability we can be vulnerable together. 

Creating space for the emergent with students can look like advisory, community circles, or a check-in routine. In its most simple form, space for the emergent just means “regularly scheduled time we use to address whatever is coming up for us today.” 

The most important resource is time, of course, but teachers also need support in learning how to facilitate hard conversations, respond to student emotions, and honor personal agency in meeting students’ needs. These are complex skills, but thankfully there are many fantastic resources available, particularly in the field of restorative practices. adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy is also a great resource for embracing change and facilitating through the emergent.

I want to talk about a less-common structure: creating a space for the emergent with school staff. Part of teaching is emotional labor, or the process of managing our emotions to fulfill our job duties. In teaching, we do this when we attempt to project a calm and grounded presence to our students even when we don’t feel that way internally. We do this because we know that children need to feel safe to learn, and that the grounded presence of adults helps to create that sense of safety. Teachers need support in order to do this complex work in the face of crisis. A regular space for teachers to address the emergent can support how we show up for our students. 

Morning Meeting: a routine to support staff

 At my old school, the container for emergent needs was a ten-minute morning meeting before students arrived. Most days, morning meeting was just announcements and greeting other teachers. If something emergent happened that day, we could use morning meeting to process, strategize, and make sure we all felt ready for the day. Sometimes, a particular school social worker or administrator would briefly share a plan: “Student X had a rough night last night, here are the basics of what happened and here’s what they need today.” Other times, it was a more loose check-in: “Did everyone see the news last night? Who needs help with how to respond when students bring it up?” 

From morning meetings, I learned a few things about creating space for the emergent, which I’ll map to my four priorities framework:

  • The space should be predictable. The purpose is to create a container that is there regardless of the crisis, so that no one has to figure out how to create the space on the fly. My anxiety about teaching on the day after a crisis was calmed many times because I knew we had morning meeting. 
  • The space should be flexible. On some days, morning meeting was two minutes of saying good morning and “remember that Kyle is getting picked up early today.” Another day, we circled up to briefly process our reactions to the death of a student’s parent so that we could support his needs rather than project our own feelings about grief. The school social worker reminded us of a previous professional learning session that would help us find the words we needed that day. Morning meeting flexed each day to help us meet emergent needs.
  • The space should be connected. I loved the brief moment of community connection at morning meeting, to greet one another as people and check in before the rush of the day. Sometimes we did a structured check-in, but more often we just chatted. This was just one of many ways we built strong relationships at school, and these relationships were essential in being able to sustainably respond to crisis. Morning meeting wasn’t just about responding to student crisis or current events, but could also help us be responsive to one another’s needs. When a coworker’s partner was going through a prolonged medical emergency, we could check in to see if he needed any particular support that day. The space allowed for creating community care.
  • The space should foster empowerment. Morning meeting wouldn’t have been effective if it were purely a space for administrators to read announcements or if it were a one-way email to read. I felt empowered by morning meeting because teachers were invited into problem-solving, processing, and to show up as our full selves. I facilitated morning meeting the day after the 2016 election. Most of us were surprised at the election result, worried, and deeply aware of the vast political spectrum of our student body and their families. I didn’t have any answers that day, so during morning meeting I simply opened the conversation. “How do we want to show up for our students today?” A supportive space to respond to the emergent recognizes that no single person holds “the answer” to unexpected and complex problems. Instead, the space taps into the wisdom of the room. This also ensures that it is not just up to one person in power to determine what the crises even are. Open space allows anyone to bring a concern to the group and receive support. 

Morning meeting may not be the particular structure that works for your school, so it’s up to you to adapt, create, and imagine one that meets your unique needs. Use the four priorities (predictability, flexibility, connection, and empowerment) to guide your decision-making. And start where you are. If you can’t create space every day, create it once a week or even once a month. And remember that when we create space for the emergent, it won’t just capture crises: you’ll also be creating space for joy, growth, and celebrating one another. 

Being proactive

Trauma-informed practices must be proactive. Before the crisis is the best time to plan for the crisis. Open spaces like circles, advisories, or morning meeting create space to slow down and be responsive, while also strengthening community. So ask yourself: when the crisis comes to your door this school year, will you scramble, or will you be grateful you planned ahead? Let’s start planning. 

Photo by Josephina Kolpachnikof on Unsplash

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