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

I’m not a therapist, but I don’t need to be: let’s unpack “trauma-informed” vs. “trauma-specific”

I regularly hear the phrase “I’m not a therapist/counselor/social worker” in discussions of trauma-informed education and social-emotional learning. This is most often uttered by stressed-out teachers who are rightfully tired of new expectations being placed on their jobs. Indeed, it’s hard to process any implication that teachers should be doing more in a society that underfunds and harshly criticizes schools and teachers, 

At the same time, trauma is real and it influences students, educators, and the systems and structures of schooling itself. Because of this, we have a responsibility to be responsive to trauma’s presence. And caring educators everywhere have embraced the movement for trauma-informed schools as a way to accomplish this.

As I’ve said elsewhere, one of the joys of the trauma-informed schools movement is that it’s decentralized. There’s no single authority or curriculum to buy.  This means we can make trauma-informed education relevant and authentic in our unique settings. The challenge, of course, is that we don’t always agree on terms. Concepts related to trauma and education can be muddy and cause confusion.

In the spirit of deepening our understanding, let’s tease out some conceptual clarity together. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between trauma-informed and trauma-specific, and what the difference means for our role as educators.

Trauma-informed vs trauma-specific

According to a report by DeCandia, Guarino and Clervil from the American Institutes for Research, “trauma-specific services are clinical interventions, whereas trauma-informed care addresses organizational culture and practice.” Let’s unpack this in the context of school.

The phrase trauma-informed in schools refers to the universal and proactive shifts we make across an entire school, informed by our understanding of trauma. While definitions of trauma-informed education vary, most rely on a framework that includes aspects focused on creating safe, collaborative, and connected environments. Trauma-informed education recognizes that all people are impacted by trauma in various ways. Implementation includes classroom-level and school-wide shifts to meet the social, emotional, and academic needs of the entire school community in ways that are informed by what we understand about trauma. 

In my book I invite readers to ask “how is trauma present in our school?” as a way of seeing and acknowledging the many ways that trauma impacts us. Answering this question allows us to notice not only the impact of trauma on individuals, but also the ways that trauma influences organizational structure and culture, and the history and present concerns of our communities. 

As frequent readers may know, I don’t often map my work to the Multi-Tiered Systems of Support model (more on that in a minute), but if that’s a helpful frame of reference, trauma-informed approaches would largely fall under “Tier 1.”  

Trauma-specific refers to healing modalities that are designed to help a person or a group of people move through trauma. I am intentionally here expanding on the language quoted above which defines trauma-specific as a “clinical intervention.” If we understand trauma through a social model, and specifically include Indigenous perspectives in our understanding, then healing from trauma isn’t purely a clinical or psychiatric pursuit. 

Trauma-specific modalities might include: particular forms of therapy that are intended to support trauma survivors, group support, culturally specific healing practices and ceremonies, or wraparound support. Trauma-specific services, interventions, or supports are typically led by a qualified or experienced individual or group, such as a licensed clinician, a community healer or elder, or a faith leader. 

In schools, trauma-specific approaches might be used within the greater context of trauma-informed education. For example, all students attend an advisory block that focuses on social-emotional learning, and some students opt into a trauma-specific group facilitated by the school counselor. Trauma-specific services also might occur in a school where trauma-informed education isn’t being implemented on a broader scale. Students might be referred or identified for trauma-specific services that take place inside or outside of school. 

 Students, teachers, and other members of the school community may also be engaging in trauma-specific work completely outside of school, and they may or may not choose to share any part of that work with school staff. For that reason, I wouldn’t necessarily call trauma-specific approaches a “Tier 2 or 3 intervention” because this erases the many ways students may access trauma-specific services or community. The language of tiers can also erase the fact that teachers and other school staff may need this support as well. 

Trauma-informedTrauma-specific
Whole-school organizational culture and practicesModality of services and supports
Everyone benefitsIdentified individuals or groups opt in
Everyone can lead and play a partLed by qualified or experienced individuals or groups (clinicians, healers, etc)
Proactive as well as responsiveResponsive 
Teacher role is to create a safe and supportive environmentTeacher role is to participate by invitation
Recognizes that trauma is omnipresent and emphasizes a shared responsibility to mitigate the impactCan be beneficial for individuals and/or groups seeking specific therapeutic approaches and/or for specific trauma-origins (e.g. natural disaster survivors)

Why the difference matters

Let’s return to the phrase “but I’m not a therapist.” When we understand the distinction between trauma-informed and trauma-specific practice in schools, it becomes clear that teachers actually don’t need any particular clinical knowledge or expertise in order to implement trauma-informed education. In fact, we become more clear on the fact that teachers actually shouldn’t be leading trauma-specific work.

Teachers aren’t usually trained, licensed, or experienced to lead trauma-specific therapies or approaches. Even if you happen to be both a clinician or healer and a classroom teacher, our professional responsibility requires that we avoid dual roles that could cause confusion on the part of the young people we are trying to support. This means that while teachers may play an important role in the web of community support for a young person, we are not the ones creating, leading, or assessing a child’s healing process from trauma. That means that you, as a teacher, do not need to inquire into a child’s traumatic history, create a clinical or other therapeutic approach, or provide counseling services in order to be trauma-informed. 

Teacher roles in trauma-informed vs. trauma-specific approaches

In trauma-informed practice, a teacher’s role is to be part of the proactive community of support for all students, and to participate in the system shifts needed across the school. I write extensively about this in my book Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education. In a trauma-informed school, teachers are mindful of role clarity and boundaries. While we can and should engage in conversations about our own and students’ emotional selves as part of social-emotional learning, we also commit to emotional safety and avoid being “trauma detectives.”

A teacher’s role in trauma-specific supports for students is influenced by a variety of factors, but most of the time, it is to participate when we are invited to do so, following the lead of the person or people coordinating a young person’s plan (including the young person themself). Teachers are not leading the process, but may support the process from within our role. And as we participate in the process, we do not need to know all the details of a person’s traumatic experiences, detailed lists of triggers, or other private information. More relevant is what support is needed and how we can be helpful. 

Let’s walk through an example. Scott is a student at Fictional High School (FHS). Scott’s family’s home was destroyed in a recent natural disaster, and his entire family experienced this loss as deeply traumatic. As a family, they make use of a few trauma-specific supports in their community. Scott and his siblings attend a summer camp for kids impacted by natural disasters. Scott’s parents meet monthly with their faith leader to process their emotions and find support in parenting through trauma. And Scott has an individual counselor from the community health center who picks him up after school for therapy every Friday. In their time together, Scott’s counselor has the role of helping Scott to process his trauma and learn coping mechanisms. 

As part of their sessions, Scott and his counselor talk about his experience at school. They talk about some of the positive trauma-informed aspects of FHS: teachers use flexible pedagogy like project-based learning, which Scott enjoys. Student mental health is openly and proactively discussed, so Scott feels comfortable letting teachers know when he is having a hard day. And the school board recently revised their attendance policy to be more trauma-informed, so Scott won’t be penalized when his family prioritizes a restful trip to his cousin’s house for a long weekend.

They also talk about what’s stressful: Scott says that he feels overwhelmed by how big and noisy it is as FHS. Since the disaster, he feels overwhelmed during passing time, and the anxiety of the hallways lingers throughout each class.

Scott and his counselor decide that his teachers may be able to help. With the counselor’s support, Scott and his parents meet with some of his teachers. Together, they create a plan for Scott to discreetly leave each class five minutes early so he can avoid the busy passing period. Scott feels supported by this plan and his anxiety during the day decreases.

In this example, Scott’s teachers are participating in a trauma-specific approach at the request of Scott’s counselor, family, and Scott himself. This participation doesn’t require the teachers to know all of the details of Scott’s trauma or to be clinical experts. All it requires is their flexibility, empathy and willingness to actively listen to, believe, and enact the support Scott says he needs.

We need both 

As we consider how both trauma-informed and -specific approaches are implemented in our schools, we also must remember that healing from trauma is non-linear and may take a lifetime. Schools may play a role in a person’s healing journey – and/or school may be an unsafe place for students to engage in trauma-specific services. Some people heal from trauma without ever engaging with formal trauma-specific support. While teachers may choose to refer a student for evaluation or connect them with clinicians inside or outside of school, it ultimately has to be a person’s choice whether to engage with trauma support or not. We must respect individual children’s and young people’s choices. 

In a school and community’s ecosystem, we need both trauma-informed and trauma-specific approaches. All people, regardless of trauma experience, deserve an environment that is collaborative, community-oriented, and safe – the goals of a trauma-informed approach. And all trauma survivors deserve to have the option of high-quality, accessible, and culturally-responsive care that will help them heal. 

As teachers, we don’t need to be therapists or counselors. We do need to affirm our students’ humanity and unapologetically prioritize well-being in our schools. And we need robust, well-funded, and connected systems of support in our communities. When proactive and responsive support is accessible and universal, who knows what healing might be possible? 


Thank you to Helen Thomas for her thought partnership in expanding my understanding of Indigenous Knowledge Systems as it relates to this topic, and to Kate Dearth and Rhiannon Kim for offering feedback on a draft of this post.

Photo by Scott Trento on Unsplash

Critical perspectives on trauma-informed education: Resource Round-Up

If I had to pick a motto that guides my academic learning, it might be this “If you love something, critique the hell out of it.” I think trauma-informed education is incredibly powerful and I’m a huge advocate. But loving trauma-informed education, for me, comes with a healthy dose of critique and critical exploration. Any time educators take on a new model or paradigm, we need to do so with a clear understanding of its potential pitfalls. I love this question I first learned from Chris Lehmann: “what is the worst consequence of my best idea?” 

In my book Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education (learn more here), I dive deep into many critiques of trauma-informed education as I build a vision for what this approach could be. This reading list will introduce you to some of the same themes I discuss in the book, for you to get started with your own exploration.

 As with all of my resource round-ups (see the end of this post for more), this post isn’t intended to summarize all of those critiques or to be a complete bibliography. Instead, here are some places to get started. I selected a variety of perspectives that will help you understand some of the main themes of critique, particularly from equity and justice oriented educators.

Note: I mostly selected open-access articles below and tried to note where you may run into access issues. And at the end of the list, a few links for those of you with academic library access! 

  • The Future of Healing: Shifting From Trauma Informed Care to Healing Centered Engagement by Shawn Ginwright (full article). Let’s start with a classic. Ginwright’s 2018 article went viral for a reason. He powerfully writes about the potentially pathologizing impact of labeling students by their trauma, and makes the case for a healing-centered approach. 
  • As the world becomes trauma-informed, work to do (full text) by Kathryn Becker-Bleese. This paper is a great introduction to the distinction between individual versus systemic explanations for trauma, and how these explanations are tied to racism and oppression. Becker-Bleese charges readers to critically engage with models of trauma-informed care so that we are not merely reproducing the status quo.
  • Trauma-informed practice is a powerful tool, but it’s also incomplete by Simona Goldin and Debi Khasnabis (full article, may be paywalled). Following a similar thread as Becker-Bleese, Goldin and Khasnabis make the case that trauma-informed education must address systemic inequality. This article digs deeper on the same theme and introduces Goldin and Khasnabis’s framework for SysTip (systemically trauma-informed practice). While you’re at it, check out the entire issue of the Bank Street Occasional Paper series #43, which problematizes trauma-informed education and SEL. 
  • Why Our Trauma-Informed Teaching Must Be More Culturally Responsive by Helen Thomas (full article). This fantastic piece speaks to the intersection of culturally responsive teaching and trauma-informed practice, grounded in an Indigenous context. Thomas speaks about how a strengths-based approach works in concert with knowing the sociopolitical and historical contexts of your school community. 
  • If We Aren’t Addressing Racism, We Aren’t Addressing Trauma by Dena Simmons (full article). Dr. Simmons makes the case for understanding racial trauma and its harmful impact on all students, and why educators must not take a passive stance. Active anti-racism must be central to our trauma-informed approaches: “It is important to understand that we cannot trauma-inform away racism.” 
  • How Trauma-Informed Are We, Really? By Paul Gorski (full article, may be paywalled) I appreciate Gorski’s critiques here as they are grounded in powerful stories and examples from his work in schools. He shares three commitments that educators can make as they seek to implement trauma-informed practices in a transformative way. 

And here are a few favorite journal articles (you may need library access for these).

  • Interrupting the Weaponization of Trauma-Informed Practice: “… Who Were You Really Doing the ‘Saving’ for?” by Simona Goldin, Addison Duane, and Debi Khasnabis (link) 
  • Trauma informed practices in education and social justice: towards a critical orientation by Mark Boylan (link
  • From Producing to Reducing Trauma: A Call for “Trauma-Informed” Research(ers) to Interrogate How Schools Harm Students by Robert Petrone and Christine Stanton (link

Despite its sometimes-buzzword status, I really believe that trauma-informed education can provide a guiding framework for centering humanity and care in our schools. This is only possible if we implement that framework with a fierce commitment to equity and justice. I hope these resources help strengthen your critical lens and fuel your fire for this work. 

Looking for more resource round-ups? 


Photo by Mitch Gaiser on Unsplash

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.