Three ways to say no and set boundaries at school

The first year that I took on a leadership role at my old school, I stopped eating lunch. 

I’m not a person who thrives when I’m hungry. The term “hangry” seems like it was coined just for me. But I stopped eating lunch for months that year. Every day felt like an emergency. I was in charge, I thought, so I had to say yes to every request that came my way. Crisis support. Class coverage. Tech troubleshooting. Yes, yes, yes, I said into the phone. Yes, I texted. Yes, I said as I opened the door to my office two seconds after I sat down. 

As you might guess, this wasn’t very sustainable. To develop healthier habits at school, I relied on my supportive supervisor and great colleagues, but there was also a very important tool I learned to use: boundaries. Boundaries are how we protect ourselves and others and how we stay centered in our roles. They are one of the best ways to combat burnout. 

I’ve been thinking and writing lots about boundaries lately, but for today I want to talk about one of the fundamental aspects: saying no. Specifically, how might educators practice setting boundaries and saying no with our students and our colleagues? 

Did you just have an immediate reaction to the idea of saying no at work? In Laura van Dernoot Lipsky’s book Trauma Stewardship, the author identifies a set of signs that you may be overwhelmed with the work of supporting people who are experiencing trauma. One of these is the “sense of persecution,” in which we feel that we have no options and no personal sense of agency. This ties directly into a martyr narrative where we believe we must sacrifice ourselves in order to do good work (a narrative which is reinforced through media stories of self-sacrificing “hero teachers”). 

If you find yourself thinking that you cannot possibly say no or set boundaries, you may be experiencing stress manifesting as a sense of persecution. Lipsky recommends that we recognize the reality that we may truly be overworked or exploited, but that “there is often a clear path around our obstacles if we allow ourselves to back up, untangle ourselves from the brambles, and find another way.” For me, saying no is a way to do this untangling.

The following examples are just a few ways to practice boundaries. Consider how you might start small, carve out even a little space for yourself by saying no. That small space can provide an opening for you to enter a more sustainable way of navigating work. 

Just saying no

The simplest way to say no is just to say no! This can just look like literally saying no, or can include setting a limit, clarifying our role, or reminding people of context. For example, in the student-focused sentences below, you can remind students of your role or of “time and place” for some conversations alongside limit-setting. 

When it feels scary to say no, remember that “no” is clear communication. Nedra Glover Tawwab, author of Set Boundaries, Find Peace, writes: “let’s assume that people only know what you tell them, honor only what you request, and can’t read your mind.” If I say “maybe” or “I guess that’s fine” or “I can make that work,” I have to remember that others have no reason to disbelieve me or read between the lines. To be heard saying “no,” I have to actually say no. 

Saying no to coworkers or administrators can sound like: 

  • “No, I can’t take that on right now.”
  • “My current role focuses on _____. I don’t have room on my  plate for that.”

Saying no to students can sound like:  

  • “No, I don’t accept friend requests from students.” 
  • “No, I can’t have students in my room for lunch today.” 
  • “I’m here to help you learn ___, so I am not going to talk about ___ with you right now” 

Of course, saying no isn’t actually simple, because we have to be prepared for the consequences of saying no. Tawwab cautions that “there is no such thing as guilt-free boundary setting.” Sometimes people will be unhappy when you say no, or push back. If your boundaries matter enough to state, they matter enough to stick with. 

Slowing it down

Sometimes I get nervous to say no and set a boundary. I feel pressured to give a response in real time. Often when I say “yes” to something I wish I had refused, it’s because I panicked in the moment. So try slowing things down to give yourself time and space to truly consider a request and then say no. You may even find that creating space to slow down helps the other person rethink their request, or helps you recognize when things actually are doable. 

Slowing down with coworkers or administrators can sound like: 

  • “Can you tell me more about how you see that fitting in with my other responsibilities?”
  • “I’m potentially interested but I’m not sure how that will fit into my current workday. Can we discuss?” 
  • “I need to check my calendar,” “I need to assess my capacity for that,” “I’d like to consult our contract.”

Slowing down with students can sound like: 

  • “Let me think about it and I will follow up in class tomorrow.”
  • “Thanks for asking me about this. Let me check with the principal and I will give you an update at the end of the week.”

After you slow things down, remember to follow up with your “no.” Pushing off conversations indefinitely isn’t helpful, so make sure to close the loop with clarity. 

Bridge-building

Boundaries aren’t necessarily just saying “no, I can’t do that.” They sometimes require us to also say “but this is who can.” Seeing yourself as a bridge-builder can help you say no, especially when you walk across those bridges alongside students. 

To create the conditions for a bridge-building “no,” understand who is in your students’ “village.” What are the resources within your school and in the community? Who are the support people in your students’ lives? Do your homework ahead of time so that you feel more prepared in the moment to set boundaries and build those bridges. 

Similarly, understand the roles of yourself and your colleagues. If you’re not sure about the difference between the role of the counselor and the social worker in your building, ask! If roles have gotten fuzzy on leadership teams or PLCs, put some conversation time on your next agenda to suss it out. When you know who’s in the village, you can feel more confident in calling in those connections to support students and teachers. 

Bridge-building with coworkers and administrators can sound like: 

  • “That doesn’t fit within my current role. It sounds like a good fit for _____ to take on in their role, however.”
  • “It sounds like you’re asking me to create X resource. I wonder if something like that has already been created by XYZ Community Group so we don’t have to reinvent it.” 
  • “I appreciate you thinking of me for this, but I don’t have the right training/expertise. Can I loop ___ into this conversation so they can help you find the next step?” 

Bridge-building with students can sound like: 

  • “I want to help you get support but I’m not the right person for this conversation. Let me introduce you to…”
  • “I’m so grateful that you trusted me to share this. I have to tell you that I can’t give you the support you need, but I will help connect you to…”

The biggest pushback I get when I suggest bridge-building is when teachers say, “that’s well and good, but what if there actually is no one else to take this on?” This is a legitimate concern. For example, many schools actually don’t have enough counselors or social workers to meet student needs. At the same time, just because someone else can’t do it doesn’t mean you should. And indeed, sometimes when we take on work outside of our role, expertise, or training, we can give a false sense that the community has the resources to meet the need, or worse, we can do harm by stepping into work that’s not ours to do. Tawwab writes, “The more you appear to handle, the more work you’ll be expected to handle.” Be honest about the limits of your role, and if possible, push back with a group of colleagues for more fair working conditions and workloads. 

Try it out

Boundaries take time and effort to put into place and to sustain. Practice saying no to low-stakes things first: what does it feel like to say no to someone offering you food, or to say “I’d rather not talk about that right now,” or to step away from a venting session that’s stressing you out? Notice how you feel and use that awareness to help you with larger boundary-setting moments. You may also find it helpful to rehearse or role-play boundary-setting with a trusted friend or colleague. This is a skill like any other; don’t get discouraged if you struggle at first. 

And remember that boundaries require follow-through. It would be lovely if we were able to say “no” once and then never have to address something again, but sadly that’s not how it works. Recognize that boundaries require consistent communication. Treat yourself gently as you practice this, and celebrate small wins when you or others around you successfully set boundaries.

Solving my skipping-lunch problem didn’t happen in a day. I had to let go of my ego a little bit and recognize there were others who could help. I had to learn to delegate. I had to learn to discern what was truly urgent and what just felt urgent. This work was all worth it, though. I am a better leader when I’m taking care of my body and prioritizing self-care, and the leadership of those around me flourished when I stopped trying to be the only problem-solver. As you go through your school year, I hope that saying no allows you to experience true self care and community care, too.


Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash. Thank you to Chanea Bond and Rhiannon Kim for feedback.

What I wish teachers knew about “what I wish my teacher knew”

As the school year gets underway this fall, many teachers are wondering how to address the mental health repercussions of the past two years. How can we show up for our students with care at the center? How should we start to get a sense of the magnitude of trauma?

One activity that might be tempting to teachers is called “what I wish my teacher knew.” The activity went viral after a teacher asked her students to finish the prompt: “I wish my teacher knew,” and then posted the student’s responses on social media. Kids disclosed family struggles, personal interests, hopes and aspirations. The takeaway I saw from many educators was this: Wow, our students will share so much if we only ask them. 

To a degree, I agree with the spirit of the activity. We should ask students what’s going on in their lives and what they want and hope for in the classroom. We should position ourselves as listeners. Being a listener is different than being a trauma detective, though. We have to be careful about whether the activities we create to “get to know you” are actually invasive and might compromise the trusting relationship we are trying to build. The truth is that we don’t need to know the details of a kid’s hardships in order to show up for them with care. 

To unpack some of these dynamics, this post is about the specific activity in which students anonymously fill in the prompt “what my teacher knew.” editing to add: I heard from the originator of the activity and encourage folks to check out her book which sounds like it has a lot of similar nuance to what I write below. As with many viral teaching activities, this one has a life of its own and so my post may not reflect the version of the activity she intended, but rather the version that exists for teachers on TPT and social media.

You may be able to apply a lot of this to other activities where students are asked to share something deeply personal with teachers or the whole class. But as always, your experience is your own – take what you can from this post and I recognize I’m not speaking to every single teacher or situation.  

Building or breaking trust

How long do you need to know someone to tell them something personal about yourself? My guess is that for most people, the answer is “it depends.” Context matters a lot, right? What you share with a random person you just met at a party is probably different than what you might share with a new doctor, who is bound by confidentiality laws and practices. I would also venture to guess that you have learned hard lessons about trust throughout your lifetime. Maybe you shared something with someone too soon, and it impacted your relationship. Maybe you decided to trust someone who didn’t prove themselves to be trustworthy and broke your confidence. Maybe you didn’t share enough, and found that you built too high of a wall.

All of this is to say that trust is hard, and it’s even harder when we are considering disclosure of something really important to us. “Something really important” doesn’t have to mean trauma – it can also feel scary to share things we’re happy about, proud of. Now take all of that complexity and stir in developing brains, student-teacher power dynamics, and mandated reporting laws. Things are getting a little messy, aren’t they?

When we ask students in the first days or weeks of school, “What do you wish your teacher knew?” we’re essentially asking for a disclosure. The question itself implies a secret. It acknowledges that there are things that are hidden between student and teacher, things that aren’t shared for some reason or another. The question asks students to vault over those barriers and share anyway.

Why, though? What do students gain out of being asked to disclose personal things to someone they don’t yet trust? Shouldn’t we be helping students build skills such as  discernment and agency? Shouldn’t we help them make their own evaluations about who to trust and why, who to tell and when? Asking students to reveal personal stories early on reinforces an unequal power dynamic between student and teacher. 

This is not to say you shouldn’t ask students things about themselves in the first weeks of school. But be mindful that trust takes time. Diving too deep, too soon can have harmful repercussions for your relationship down the line. 

What will you do with the information? 

Picture this: you are a restaurant and your server drops off a piece of paper at your table. “Write down what you wish your server knew about you.” You write “I am deathly allergic to ketchup” on the paper. Your server picks it up from your table and walks away. On their next pass by your table, they drop off your appetizer, complete with a giant dollop of ketchup.    

When we ask for disclosure but then ignore the content of those disclosures, we can undermine trust and do real harm to students. If we ask for students to share their concerns, we have to then address those concerns. It can be deeply invaliding to ask for someone’s perspective and then blatantly ignore it. If you ask someone to disclose something, you are making a commitment to act on it. This gets complicated when you’re asking for anonymous disclosure in a classroom environment where you have a great deal of power over the students’ material conditions for a huge chunk of their time. 

Before you do an activity like “what I wish my teacher knew,” ask yourself what you will do with the information. You should be prepared with your answers to all of these related questions:

  • If a student discloses something they like or love to do, what will I do with that information?
  • If a student discloses something they hate or dislike, what will I do with that information? 
  • If a student discloses harm that is happening or has happened inside their home, what will I do with that information?
  • If a student discloses harm that is happening or has happened in school, what will I do with that information?
  • If a student discloses something that triggers my mandated reporting responsibility, how does that impact this activity and its purpose?
  • If a student chooses not to disclose anything, how does that impact this activity and its purpose?
  • What do other stakeholders think about this activity, including my school leader, counselor, and students’ families/caregivers? What are their concerns or questions? 

In short: if you open the door, you have to be ready for what comes through it. If “what I wish my teacher knew” is anonymous, how will you meaningfully follow through on the information you gather? I also don’t believe anonymity actually exists in a classroom setting. Consider the case in which you read something on one of the responses that triggers the mandated reporting process. You will likely need to figure out exactly which student wrote that response. What is the point of inviting anonymity if you can’t actually follow through on it? 

What I’m getting at here is that this activity actually sets you up to break students’ trust, not gain it. If what we’re seeking is trust, “what my teacher knew” isn’t the way. 

How will you prove yourself to be trustworthy? 

This brings us to the core question I would like teachers to consider in the first weeks of school: how are you proving yourself to be trustworthy? If the goal of “what I wish my teacher knew” is to help students share what’s important to them, consider this instead: how can I be the type of person who students would trust to share what’s important to them? Rather than, “I need this activity to find out what students typically don’t want to share with teachers,” consider, “why is it that students typically don’t share things with teachers, and what could I do about that?” 

When I reflect on how I’ve built trust with others, I think about a long, slow process. I think about how people showed me they could be trusted with little or insignificant stuff, whether that was showing up on time or remembering a minor food allergy when they invited me for dinner. Trust is also about how someone responds to you -whether they try to “fix” your pain or simply show up and acknowledge that you’re in it, whether they make things about themselves or hold space for others. If we want to authentically show up for students, we have to look at trust as a process instead of a given. When we push too hard in the first few weeks of school in the hopes that we can skip over the slowness of relationship-building, our efforts can go awry. 

The reframe: what I wish my teacher would

I was talking to the amazing Rhiannon Kim about this blog post and she dropped a pretty amazing reframe, which I’m including here with her permission. She suggested that instead of asking students to complete the phrase “I wish my teacher knew,” we could ask students to fill in “I wish my teacher would.” 

Now that’s a gorgeous reframe if I ever saw one. “I wish my teacher knew” requires students to offer up something personal in the hopes that the teacher correctly interprets what that means for learning together. By focusing instead on what we need from one another, we can build trust. If a student says “I wish my teacher would be more flexible about deadlines,” I have an opportunity to demonstrate that I am worth trusting. I can do what I can to meet their needs without requiring a payment of information in exchange. 

Rhiannon also suggested adding on “I wish my teacher wouldn’t“ and using these prompts as a jumping-off point to co-create classroom culture. She said: “This practice can generate the type of learning space that will be co-created by the youth and the educators. While not every hope or wish can be honored; it is honoring that we will take time to listen to what is needed from the people we are in a learning community with.”

A few more thoughts on start of school get-to-know-you activities

Here are a few more assorted thoughts about get-to-know-you activities for the start of the school year. The goal here is to do these activities in ways that support student agency and self-determination. 

  • Be transparent about information sharing in your classroom. I write about this a little bit in my book, but some quick tips: be clear with students about the difference between secrecy and confidentiality. Explain your duty as a mandated reporter and what that means for students. Give examples of the types of information that you won’t/shouldn’t keep to yourself, and who you might tell (for example: “sometimes as a teacher I need support to best help you all. I might occasionally talk to the principal about what you tell me so she can help guide me. But I promise not to share things with other teachers without your permission.”) It might also be relevant to help students understand what their parents can and cannot access/request information about, and what information does/doesn’t go into their academic records. Essentially, help your students become informed so they can make their own choices about what to tell you. 
  • If you want to create a space for students to share things they wish you knew, do it in relationship. Do not give students an anonymous slip of paper or anonymous Google form. These leave you with no way to acknowledge and connect with students about what they shared. If what you’re asking is for students to share what they wish you knew, then it needs to be reciprocal. Here are two ways you could do this:
    • Write students a letter sharing some things about yourself, ask them to write you back, and then respond to each letter.
    • In a start-of-the-year survey, include an open-ended question like “Is there anything I should know about you as a learner to help you be successful in this class?” Embedded in the question is the purpose of the information-sharing, which helps students make choices about what to share.
  • When planning group activities in which you’re asking students to share things about themselves, or read one another’s “I am from” poems, for example, consider how you are building emotional safety. Please read this fantastic piece by Kate Bowles on safety during classroom community-building. It has some great pointers about trust and agency.
  • As you set up activities, name that students can “choose their vulnerability.” Don’t require students to share something deeply personal, and be mindful of the types of examples you give. If you share something deeply personal on day 1, students may feel an implicit pressure to do the same. 
  • Never, ever, ever share student responses to these types of activities on social media.  If you want to prove yourself to be trustworthy, do not share students’ private words for public consumption. 

Weaving it in throughout the year

Curiosity about your students’ lives isn’t a one-and-done! Build in opportunities for students to share things with you on a regular basis. In the classes I teach for undergrads, they fill out a weekly survey reflecting on their learning from the week, giving me feedback on how I did as a teacher, and adding anything else they want me to know. I frequently check in with students and have other community-building practices. A Google Form isn’t the only way that students can communicate with me, and I make sure they know that. Whether it’s circles, check-ins, or small conferences, find a way to regularly build relationships. Small, meaningful moments of connection are way more impactful than a single flashy activity at the start of the year. 


Photo by Paper Textures on Unsplash

Thank you to Dulce-Marie Flecha and Rhiannon Kim for being thought partners on this post.

Survival adaptations and moving forward from here

Scrolling TikTok the other day, I saw a fantastic post by comedian and veteran Patrick Loller. In it, Loller draws parallels between their experience as a veteran struggling to reintegrate to civilian life and people struggling to adjust to “post-pandemic” life. Some of the key points in the TikTok:

  • There were public health campaigns about staying inside, distancing, etc, but not parallel campaigns about how to reenter the world 
  • People often process trauma after the crisis is over, so some may be processing/struggling now in a way they weren’t a few months ago
  • Humans adapt well to traumatic situations, but those adaptations don’t just go away when the crisis is over

I really appreciate the way that Loller puts this so clearly, and it’s got me thinking a lot about adaptation, trauma, and where schools go from here. What adaptations have we made to cope with the pandemic, and how will we let those go as we enter post-pandemic (or at least post-vaccine) life? 

Adapting to the pandemic 

Even as I write this, I notice one of my own adaptations to this collective trauma: an unwillingness to plan ahead to “post-pandemic” school. When the world so rapidly changed in March 2020, and restrictions and case counts continued to fluctuate, I adapted by narrowing my focus. I didn’t plan too far ahead, and focused instead on what I could do today or this week. I wrote “post-pandemic” and immediately felt that adaptation’s tug. Don’t get too comfortable, my survival system tells me. We may not be out of the woods yet. It’s going to take some time to unlearn that instinct, to truly feel safe, and to focus more on the future.

Educators adapted to pandemic teaching. Our students have adapted to pandemic learning. And we’ve all adapted to pandemic survival. We’ve learned to be hypervigilant, constantly scanning our environments for cues of threat and danger. We’ve learned that being physically close with people isn’t safe. We may emotionally distance ourselves because we’ve adapted to being alone. We might not ask for help from peers because we’ve been figuring it out ourselves. These are just a few examples. What adaptations have you made?

Unlearning, shifting, and how things are now

As the world changes yet again this summer and fall, a few things feel important to me. First, to recognize that we aren’t “going back” to anything. Things are shifting to something new. The goal isn’t to shake off adaptations and go back to an old way, but to find adaptations that help us live with how things are now. Within this, let’s acknowledge that the pandemic isn’t over, even though case counts are lower in many places. Indeed, some people may find themselves more stressed or leaning more heavily on survival adaptations now that most states have ended systemic safety guidelines.

Second, recognize that things have changed. Our adaptations helped us survive a pandemic, but survival isn’t the whole story. We might feel we learned lessons or new skills. We might be worse for wear. We carry grief and trauma from the act of surviving, and the fact that so many did not. Adaptations to stress can permanently shift how we interact with the world. Don’t expect yourself or your students to have the same patterns or personality that we did before.  

Third, we can recognize that the work of unlearning our survival adaptations isn’t simple or easy. We have to recognize our patterns, evaluate whether they still serve us, and practice other ways of being. For me, some of this work will take the form of mindful noticing and self-reflection. We can also lean on friends, family, and other support systems to process and make sense of change. This can be as simple as a quick conversation: “I went into the store without a mask today, for the first time since this all began. Here’s how my body felt during those five minutes.” “How did it feel to hug your sister?” “I’m trying to decide whether to stay virtual for this workshop or go in person. How would you decide?” As we build our self-awareness, we can make choices about where to go from here. 

Supporting students 

For educators supporting students, we should remember that this process is personal, it’s messy, and we can’t necessarily dig into the details with each of our students. We can foster moments of self-reflection, but we can’t unpack everything. Students may need or want to lean on their own support systems. And just because the pandemic crisis is abating (in some places, at least) doesn’t mean that crisis is over in general. We don’t know what students are going through, and more crises are sure to come. As some students work to let go of pandemic adaptations, others may still be actively in survival mode every day for unrelated reasons.

This means that we need to show up for students with flexibility and care. Survival adaptations aren’t “disruptive,” “inappropriate,” or “disobedient,” even though that’s how we might label them at school. They are behaviors and actions that literally keep us alive. 

The best we can do for students is the same we try to do for ourselves: build self-awareness and make choices about where to go from here. Just as we reflect with our own colleagues, friends and support system, we can offer moments of reflection for our students. 

I recommend that teachers find ways to do this that are not connected to a grade or evaluation (don’t make it worth “points” or anything!), keep it private, keep it optional, and have a plan for connecting students to additional support if needed. Building self-awareness can look like simple prompts: how do you feel today? What does your body feel like when you walk into the school building? What are some of the ways that you cope with hard times? 

You can also model this for your students by commenting on the moments you notice your own adaptations: “oh wow, I just noticed that I keep inching away from you while we’re talking. It’s not about you; that’s one of the things I started doing during the pandemic to try to stay distant from people.”

Remember: there is no timeline for healing, and it can’t be rushed. Some students may be able to establish a sense of a “new normal” relatively quickly, while others will be impacted for a long time. There is no moral value to how fast you adapt, so we need to unconditional create space for how all of our students show up any given day.  

Striving for safety 

We can’t let go of survival adaptations until we are actually and truly safe. Teachers cannot create true safety for our students, because no one can define safety for someone else. But we can do the work of striving for safety, especially through systems change. We can advocate for our schools to follow public health guidance, to adequately staff and fund our classrooms, and to support families. We can push back against the current wave of harmful laws being passed in many states, banning discussions of race in schools and dehumanizing transgender children. 

We must take up this structural work with the same vigor and enthusiasm as we bring to creating our cozy corners, bulletin boards, or classroom check-ins, because true safety can’t be accomplished within our individual classrooms alone. When we do this systems-level work, we move closer to the possibility that schools are a place where students (and teachers) can do the hard work of adapting to something new.

I think again of Loller’s TikTok: people struggle when we leave them to their own devices to adapt to a changed world, and it doesn’t have to be that way. As we approach the fall, let go of “back to normal” or “learning acceleration” and embrace the mess instead. Let’s join alongside our students and view this next school year as a transitional time, and support everyone to adapt to what’s next. This is how we move forward: with care, together.


Photo by Stefan on Unsplash

Navigating the anniversary of collective trauma

The anniversary of the “lasts” will start to roll by during the second week of March. The last time I taught in person. The last time I sat in a room with teachers. The last meal at a restaurant with loved ones. I picture lights in the windows of a tall building, turning off one by one until the whole thing is dark. Mid-March will mark one year since COVID-19’s impacts cascaded in the United States, isolating most of us at home as the world seemed to shut down. 

Trauma anniversaries mark the return of a date or season in which we endured trauma in the past. According to the National Center for PTSD, trauma anniversaries impact us because of the way that our memories store our traumatic stress. We can feel trauma anniversaries in our bodies even if we aren’t conscious of them in our minds. You may notice that you or your students have an increase in anxiety, or are flooded with memories of last spring. We can support ourselves and our students by acknowledging this anniversary and navigating it together. 

Although the pandemic has been a collective trauma, we experience it individually. Some are navigating acute grief following the death of a loved one, or many loved ones. Some are struggling with isolation, depression, or anxiety. We may reflect on growth, opportunities, or new possibilities brought on by all the shifts of the past year. And all of these may be present at the same time, bringing internal friction as we hold contradictory thoughts and feelings. 

We need to hold space for each individual to make their own meaning of the past year. The only wrong way to approach the anniversary of collective trauma is to ignore it. 

Reflecting on the year 

One way to honor a trauma anniversary is to slow down and step out of the everyday school rush to notice and reflect. In the classroom, this might look like journaling, creating a group timeline of the past year, or a discussion prompt in a community circle. 

This reflection can be hard as we sit with uncomfortable feelings including grief, sadness, loss, and uncertainty. Resist slipping into toxic positivity or requiring students to come up with something they appreciated about the past year. There are some seasons of our lives with no silver linings. Rather than seeing your role as a fixer or even a helper, see yourself as a witness to your students’ experiences. 

Slowing down may feel scary, because sometimes we cope with difficult emotions by staying busy. Be mindful that pausing to reflect may not be a welcome experience, and provide options for students so they can opt into reflection or not as they see fit. Don’t require students to publicly share their reflections, and make sure that all of your students know about resources available in your school or community for additional support. 

Rituals and memorials 

Rituals are one way to mark anniversaries and help students process and find meaning. Many cultures have specific rituals for recognizing loss, marking anniversaries, and transforming trauma. These might look like formal memorials, symbolic gestures like candle lighting, or creative expression like creating a community mural or other piece of art. Storytelling is also a powerful way to process trauma. Students might write, record, collect, or share stories from the past year – moments large and small, of pain or resistance or ordinary moments in a changed world.  

Ask your students how they want to mark the passage of this past year. Continue to hold space for the many experiences of students and community members. Some students may want to not want to partake in public activities at school, and we must honor students’ agency in choosing to participate or not.

It’s also important to balance any special events or activities with maintaining routines. As students remember the upheaval and disruption of last March, it’s natural for them to worry about the same thing happening again – and indeed, many schools are currently undergoing cycles of disruption as they open and close for in-person learning. Continue with routines that help students feel safe and connected.

Recognizing is humanizing 

When we intentionally acknowledge trauma anniversaries, we push back against a system that would prefer we just forget. Judith Herman wrote in the introduction to her classic text Trauma and Recovery: “The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable. Atrocities, however, refuse to be buried. … Remembering and telling the truth about terrible events are prerequisites for both ther restoration of the social order and for the healing of individual victims.” With over two million deaths from COVID-19 worldwide, untold millions are grieving the atrocity of the pandemic. Recognizing the collective trauma anniversary with our students is a way to stand in solidarity as we work together for a better future.


Photo by Sixteen Miles Out on Unsplash

Jar of marbles sitting on a windowsill

Problematizing PBIS: Resource Round-up

For those unfamiliar: PBIS, or Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, is a framework intended to support student behavior in schools. According to the website PBIS.org, which is the US Department of Education PBIS website, PBIS is “a way to support everyone – especially students with disabilities – to create the kinds of schools where all students are successful.” 

PBIS is so ubiquitous in American schools, especially elementary schools, that many educators don’t question its presence. After all, supporting all students’ success sounds like a worthy goal, right? It sounds so worthy that it almost seems neutral. But if you develop a critical lens on education, nothing is ever neutral. For PBIS, this becomes very clear when we look at where the program used in schools today originated – and what those origins say about our view of children.

The roots of PBIS can be traced directly back to behaviorism (Knestrict, 2018). Behaviorism is a school of thought developed by B.F. Skinner in the 1900s. Education researcher Alfie Kohn (2018) described Skinner as “a man who conducted most of his experiments on rodents and pigeons and wrote most of his books about people.”  

In the view of behaviorists, people have no internal motivation or self-determination. To change other people’s behavior, you simply reward what you like and punish what you don’t like. 

Building on this philosophy, PBIS provides “positive supports” for “appropriate” or desired behavior – rewarding what we like, in other words. Based on their (lack of) compliance to behavior expectations, students can be identified for additional interventions meant to change their behavior. But the concepts of “behavior,” “appropriate,” and “inappropriate” are not neutral. They are political, often rooted in ableism, and often centered in whiteness. 

Critical educators need to deconstruct these ideas if we want to create affirming classrooms and work toward social justice. Below, I provide some resources for developing your understanding of the problems with PBIS. Fair warning: many schools have put all their eggs in the PBIS basket (not to mention in some states it’s required by law), and pushing back isn’t easy. But if we care about justice and centering humanity in schools, we need to problematize PBIS. 

Problematizing PBIS resources

  • #vted Reads podcast episode with Thomas Knestrict: this is a great introduction to the roots of PBIS. In the podcast, Jeanie Philips and author Thomas Knestrict discuss his book, Controlling Our Children: Hegemony and Deconstructing the Positive Behavioral Intervention Support Model. Their conversation will introduce you to some of the main philosophical problems with PBIS, and how PBIS can run counter to creating authentic learning environments. Check out Knestrict’s whole book if you want the deeper dive.
  • When SEL is Used as Another Form of Policing: this article focuses on social-emotional learning (SEL), not PBIS specifically, but will help build your understanding of how supposedly well-meaning initiatives around student behavior can end up harming the very students we say we want to support. 
  • Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes: Behaviorism is so enmeshed in American society that it’s sometimes hard to even see it. Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards is a thorough exploration of how behaviorism – and specifically positive behaviorism tactics such as rewards and praise – are embedded in society, despite the fact that it doesn’t work and can be harmful. Kohn’s website also has a variety of short posts on related topics- here’s a good one to start with.
  • Can PBIS Build Justice Rather Than Merely Restore Order? Researcher Joshua Bornstein looks at how PBIS is actually implemented, including the consequences on students who are identified as needing additional support within the PBIS framework. He argues that PBIS moves students from the deficit label of “disorderly” into a different deficit label of “disordered,” pathologizing students and pushing them toward labels of disability based on their noncompliance. 
  • The Pedagogy of Pathologization: Dis/Abled Girls of Color in the School-Prison Nexus: This book by Subini Annamma is a must-read for understanding the problems identified in the Bornstein article above. Annamma is one of the co-founders of the field of Disability Critical Race Studies, or DisCrit: “DisCrit shifts the questions that are asked from “how can we fix students who disobey rules?” to “how can pre-service teacher education and existing behavioral management courses be transformed so that they are not steeped in color-evasion and silent on interlocking systems of oppression?”(Migliarini and Annamaa 2016, p 1512). Seeing PBIS through a DisCrit lens is a powerful way to shift your thinking.

Alternatives to PBIS

After people hear me speak about the problems with PBIS, the first follow-up question is “okay, then what’s the alternative?” Sadly, I have no program, five-point plan, or checklist to sell you, because here’s the truth. There is no program or strategy that eliminates the complexities of being a person. The alternative to PBIS is fully embracing the complicated mess that is humanity. The alternative to PBIS is building relationships rooted in the idea that students are full humans who deserve our respect and care, and the right to self-determination. There’s no easy or quick way to create schools that honor that idea, is there? But that’s our work, as justice-focused educators. 

I hope this round-up was helpful, and let me know in the comments if you have other resources on problematizing PBIS to share! 

P.S. If you liked this post, you might like my book! Learn more here.


Photo by Jessica Lucia on Flickr

Teaching on the day after a crisis

This morning, thousands of teachers are walking into classrooms across the country, trying to show up for their students after a national crisis. A crisis within a crisis, really, as that “walk into the classroom” might look like logging onto Zoom. How do we show up for our kids when we feel shattered, too? How can we help others feel safe when we feel unsafe?

In my teaching career, there have been so many “mornings after the crisis.” National tragedies and personal ones, deaths of my students’ family members and friends, images on the news of horror far away or close to home. I want to share some of what I’ve learned, from a trauma-informed perspective, but let me first say this: there is no “right way” to do this. What I’m offering here, I’m offering with love and solidarity for teachers, and I hope you can use it. Don’t miss my last paragraph, but spoiler alert: you are enough, and just showing up for your kids is enough.

Check in with yourself.

How are you feeling? What support have you gotten around your own emotional response to the crisis? Slow down. This often feels impossible, especially since crises tend to make everything feel like an emergency. Take a moment to unpack the urgency you may be feeling. What is likely urgent: helping your students feel safe and supported. What is likely not urgent: unpacking the complex dynamics that led to the crisis. For example, the day after a terrorist attack, it might feel urgent to help students understand the global forces that lead to terrorism, or the danger of jinoistic responses. Those things are absolutely important, but they were important long before the crisis and they will remain important. What is actually urgent is showing up for your students with care.

Key actions:
  • Disconnect from the news and social media and take a moment to journal, talk to a friend, or move your body. Step away from information about the crisis so you can notice how you feel.
  • Collaborate with others. It’s a manifestation of savior mentality when we try to take on everything ourselves. Check in with your coworkers, school counselors, and others to plan for the day. 
  • Reach out to your own support networks. The day after a crisis may be a sprint, but this is just one day in the marathon of teaching. Don’t be afraid to let others know you need support.

Don’t rush to intellectualize.

The day after a student’s parent dies would be an inappropriate time to start a unit on death and dying customs in different cultures. You probably already know that, but sometimes we jump to do that same intellectualizing of current events without slowing down to consider their emotional impact. If you started a debate unit on gun control the day after a high profile school shooting, for example, you could be doing harm by forcing students to engage in academic activities about an event they haven’t processed emotionally yet. Put more simply, if students feel unsafe, anxious, or unsettled, they need to process and connect, not to watch a TED talk and write a position paper.

Key actions:
  • If your mind is spinning with curricular connections, write them down! These will be helpful later on, so capture your thinking, but then set it aside.
  • Resist directives to stick to your scripted curriculum or ignore what has happened. Your students are watching you to learn whether it’s okay to be human, or whether they must shove down their emotions to “do school.” 

Validate and offer choices for support.

When we see young people hurting and scared, we can feel the need to fix their emotions or offer solutions. Most of the time when people are hurting, they simply need to be witnessed. This video on supporting a grieving friend offers some helpful language around acknowledgement. Additionally, some students may not want to process in public, or may want to continue their routine for the day, or use distraction as a coping mechanism. Offer choices so that students can reflect on what they need and feel supported in getting those needs met. 

Key actions:
  • Jane Martin offers these choices to her students. This is a great way to center student autonomy after a crisis. 
  • Create space but put boundaries around it. It can be extremely overwhelming for students to go to school and talk about a crisis non-stop for the entire day, and this is likely not helpful. Routines can be very grounding. One way to put boundaries around processing time: “We’re going to do ten minutes of quiet drawing, reading, or writing. You can choose to respond to the prompt on the board or do your own thing. Then we’ll have ten minutes of open conversation time. At the end of that, each of you will be able to choose: work on our ongoing class project, take some additional quiet reflection time, or join the processing group that’s in the library this block.” Time limits and choices can help create a predictability to the day, and give both you and your students a break.

Model not-knowing.

Our role in the classroom may be “teacher,” but that isn’t the same as “all-knowing being.” Especially after a crisis, in which there are usually many unknowns that aren’t resolved for days, weeks, or months. Position yourself alongside your students as a questioner, rather than positioning yourself as an arbiter or sage. One way to do this is generating questions together, using a structure like the question formulation technique or simple prompts like Tricia Ebarvia suggests: “ 1) What I know, 2) What I think I know, & 3) What I want to know.” With the generated questions, assess what needs to be answered now and what can be set aside for another day. 

  • Questions about facts or misinformation on the crisis can be answered by looking at trustworthy sources together, modeling for students how to find reliable information and investigating rumors. 
  • Questions about resources or mental health needs should be answered by connecting students to resources and validating. 
  • With more complex questions, you can set them aside with a commitment to revisit: “this is such a great question and I am looking forward to exploring it. I don’t know about all of you, but I find it hard to think about big ideas when I’m still feeling anxious. I’m going to look at these questions in a couple of days and plan for how we can explore them as a class. If any of you would like to help me plan, let me know.”   

Be gentle with yourself

Finally, please remember that you are enough. There is immense pressure on educators to “get it right” when talking about hard topics. The moments after a crisis can feel like a fleeting opportunity, an open door through which you have to run at full speed. In reality, there is no room on the other side of that door containing perfect clarity, safety, or peace. Crisis and trauma fundamentally shift our relationship to the world, and unpacking that can take a lifetime. Just showing up for your students on day 1 is enough. Just holding space for them and letting them know you care is enough. You are enough. 

Hypervigilance (and a free self-regulation resource)

I’ve been thinking a lot about hypervigilance.

In a slide deck for a recent training, I used this picture on the slide about hypervigilance:

That should give you some idea of what hypervigilance means: ears perked up, eyes wide open. Hypervigilance is that state of heightened awareness as we scan our environment for cues that we are either safe or in danger. It’s a state we go into when we feel threatened so we’re on alert too protect ourselves.

I’m worried about hypervigilance in the classroom this fall. By the time teachers and students walk into schools in August or September, they will have spent the past five to six months constantly hearing that being around other people is dangerous. That the air is dangerous. That touching things is dangerous. We are all on alert. We are hypervigilant because we should be: we need to keep ourselves safe.

But how can we feel safe, and learn, and teach, when we’re so hypervigilant?

In general, I believe that most schools should be continuing online until they can ensure safety for students and teachers to be in the building. With outdated HVAC, windows that don’t open, and myriad other problems, many schools simply cannot ensure safe operations. Yet, schools are opening. And even in buildings where the physical plant is up to the task, teachers and students will still be hypervigilant. We need to be to keep ourselves and each other safe.

So where does that leave teachers, who know that our own stress directly impacts the stress of our students? Where does that leave teachers who know they need to be grounded and calm in order to be their best selves in the classroom? This is what I’ve been worrying about lately. There’s no easy answer. It’s not right (or possible) to ask teachers to turn off their hypervigilance. Yet we need to support one another to find moments of groundedness, of calm, so we can be present for our students.

My colleague Carolyn and I co-taught a course on wellness for teachers last summer. One focus of our course was that individual strategies for being well work best in the context of system-wide policies and conditions that support wellness. In other words, you can’t self-care your way out of an oppressive situation.

But this is one of the “both/and” moments in trauma-informed education. We both need to fight for systems change, and we need tools on an individual, immediate level to help settle our minds and bodies so we can stay present.

With all of that as context, Carolyn and I created a resource for teachers to support their own self-regulation when they are in the physical building this year: http://bit.ly/ASVCCreg

We hope that you’ll use these tools as ways to slow down during your day. We chose strategies that you can do quickly, in a mask, and mostly unnoticed by those around you. We hope you’ll tape this to your desk or keep it in your binder, and when you notice yourself feeling especially hypervigilant, you’ll take a moment to slow down and get grounded.

This list of tools won’t fix the unsafe working conditions. It won’t end the collective trauma we’re in. But we hope it will provide you the moments of calm that you need to be present for your students and for yourself.

Thank you to teachers everywhere, whether you’ll be online, face-to-face, or some ever-changing mix of the two. You are enough, and you are amazing.

Is the pandemic a teachable moment?

The fall is fast approaching. Despite the lack of clarity about what school is going to look like, teachers are starting to prepare. One of the topics I’ve seen come up in teacher conversations: whether or not to use the pandemic as a teaching moment in our classrooms. Should you create math lessons using data about case numbers in different states, for example? Should students write pandemic journals? Would it be appropriate to do a unit on the 1918 pandemic flu?

Idil’s thread on pandemic math sparked me to write this post. She sums it up well when she says: “It’s a lot to ask to do a math lesson about this well. It is hard pedagogical work & hard emotional labour. We have a responsibility to speak to the moment, and it’s a pandemic and maybe folks aren’t ready to learn to do all of this at the same time.” 

This is really the “both/and” that lies at the heart of trauma-informed practices. Ignoring hard topics and pretending they do not belong in the classroom is to ignore our students’ (and our) life experiences. The truth is that it’s not possible to “leave it at the door” especially when, for many of us, there is no physical door to our classrooms anymore. When the “door” is a Zoom window, it’s really not reasonable to ask people to pretend that things can have any semblance of normalcy. At the same time, trauma-informed practice doesn’t mean we must (or should) directly engage with or unpack student experiences of trauma. It can be triggering and overwhelming to examine or reflect on hard times while we’re living through them. So we both cannot ignore trauma and hard times, and we shouldn’t focus on trauma and hard times in ways that do harm. How do we make sense of this?

As with most things when it comes to teaching, there is no single “right answer.” Instead, here are some guiding questions that can be helpful in navigating your decision-making about using the pandemic as a teachable moment.

Guiding question 1: is this lesson/activity/unit appropriate if one of my students, students’ family members, or colleagues dies from COVID-19? 

This question, for me, is the most important consideration. I’ve seen a few “cutesey” activities shared on Twitter and Instagram, including a journaling project called “I survived the pandemic!” In this project, students are supposed to write in the style of the Scholastic “I Survived” series. When I saw this, I couldn’t stop thinking about what it would feel like to hand this writing prompt to a student whose parent had just died from COVID, or who was worried every day about getting sick and not surviving. What is the value of this writing project for that student?

If you’re considering using the pandemic as a teachable moment, remember this: the pandemic is not over. Thousands have died and thousands more will die before a vaccine is available. Students and staff in your school will lose loved ones or have lost them already. Students and staff in your school are afraid and anxious. We should not do any activity that makes light of the pandemic, treats it with irreverence, or fails to recognize the emotional gravity of the situation. 

Guiding question 2: Am I asking students to opt out or opt in?

For some students, engaging with pandemic-related academic content will be triggering, stressful, and overwhelming. For others, engaging with pandemic-related academic content will feel relevant and empowering. Some students might feel both ways at the same time. Choice is important. I sometimes hear teachers say: “well, if any student has a problem with it, I’ll just offer them something different.” Here’s the thing: that puts the burden on students to recognize they are having a hard time and then make themselves vulnerable in speaking up.  If you require the whole class to engage in a pandemic-related activity, it might be overwhelming for students to try to opt out or ask for an alternative activity. Because of the power dynamics in most schools, students may not even realize they can ask at all. Instead of asking students to opt out, provide multiple options from the start. 

Make it shame-free. Don’t say “this is the activity we’re doing, unless you don’t want to in which case you can do this other not-as-cool thing.” Create two (or more) equal options, or open-ended projects or topics. For example: “Today we’re practicing persuasive writing by creating public health messaging. Your task is to create a public service announcement. You can choose from this list of topics: eating vegetables, moving for 30 minutes a day, or washing your hands and wearing a mask.” Or keep the prompt wide open!

Elizabeth Dutro, in writing about trauma-informed literacy pedagogy, says that “making intentional space for stories of trauma is always posed as invitation, never as requirement.” This frame is essential whether we are inviting students to directly reflect on their experiences or to engage in academics connected to ongoing collective trauma.  

Guiding question 3: What’s the balance?

Engaging in pandemic academics will help some students process and make meaning of their experience. But making meaning shouldn’t be forced or required, and often it’s impossible to make meaning of a traumatic experience while the experience is still happening. Remember that your students (…and you, and your colleagues) may just be in survival mode until the danger has passed. If you have personally experienced trauma or grief, you likely know that meaningful reflections on those experiences often come months, years, or decades after the actual event. 

At the same time, creating space to process and check in can be powerful. Whether it’s a community circle, a rose and thorn check-in, or another structure, it’s important to make space for your students to bring their full selves to school. Witnessing one another’s daily triumphs and struggles is part of what builds a strong community. Students often look to their teachers to help guide their understanding of the world when the world feels complicated. Classrooms – virtual or in-person – should be centered around our shared humanity. To show up as full people, in all of our complexities, we need space to talk about what’s going on and what we’re feeling.

The key here is balance. It’s not helpful to remove all mention of current events from the classroom and ban all discussion of the pandemic. It’s also not helpful to spend all day, every day engaging in heavy conversations, with no break from the weight of the world. Make room for students to escape into unrelated topics. Make room for joy, fun, and silliness. Those moments matter. 

Guiding question 4: What do my students say they need?

As a final guideline, we need to remember that we’re not going to get it right all the time. It’s not possible to avoid every single potential trauma trigger in the classroom, or anticipate every person’s emotional reaction to any topic. You can only make decisions informed by the best information you have available. The bulk of that information needs to be your students’ and their families’ feedback and ideas. Find ways to build in regular, ongoing feedback from your students. You might use a simple Google form, send an email, or schedule 1:1 conferences. Ask about how things are going, what feels good about class, what feels challenging, what students and their families need from you. Adjust your practice based on what you learn. 

This year is going to be difficult. There won’t be any single answers to the complicated questions in front of us. I hope these guidelines can help you to embrace a “both/and” approach. Sending each and every one of you strength and support. Thanks for reading. 

Summer learning


*update: both of these classes are now full/closed. Stay tuned for future course and workshops! 

Professional development online mini-course

ReTURN to School with Trauma-Informed & Restorative Practices: I’m excited to be collaborating with Triad Restorative Justice for this mini-course for educators. Over two weeks, you’ll learn about the foundations of trauma-informed and restorative practices and put your learning into action by creating a plan for your return to school – whatever that may look like. I know that, for me, when times feel uncertain and I’m trying to figure out how the heck to teach, I return to my core values of trauma-informed and restorative practices. We hope to offer you a space to explore how these approaches can ground your work as well. 

Details and pay-what-you-can registration here. 

 

One-credit graduate course

Excited to share a new graduate course I’m teaching through Antioch University. This 1-credit course for teachers explores the four priorities of a trauma-informed approach, with a focus on how to apply this learning to the fall. No one has any answers about what the fall will look like, but what’s certain is the uncertainty and unpredictability for ourselves and our students. I believe that trauma-informed principles can help ground us and guide us through difficult times, providing clarity on what’s important for us and our students.

The course is four weeks long, mostly asynchronous with some live Q&A/community-building sessions on Zoom. I’m hoping to build a collaborative learning community so you can network, brainstorm, and dream with other teachers.

More details and registration here.

 

COVID19 & trauma-informed practice

There are no shortage of resources floating around about emergency distance learning and coronavirus and it can get quite overwhelming, so I’m not doing a comprehensive resource round-up here. Instead, I’m using this post to gather together some links related to my work from the past few weeks. I will update as I have more to add.

Thanks for everyone’s support and interest in my work lately! I’ll be continuing to offer a few additional PD opportunities over the coming weeks. Dates, information, and registration are all on Ticketleap.

Four Core Priorities for Trauma-Informed Distance Learning

This article is a write-up of a workshop I’ve been offering on trauma-informed practice guideposts for distance learning.

Trauma-Informed Practices & Distance Learning – Lunch & Learn Video and Transcript

If you missed it live, check out the recording and transcript of this Q&A I did with Life LeGeros. Some great questions were asked and I hope I shared some helpful answers!

Social-Emotional Support in the New World of Distance Learning

I wrote this piece for SLJ on social-emotional support in distance learning. Spoiler alert: it starts with taking care of yourself.