Self-determination, SEL, and hating yoga

This is the story of why I won’t recommend that you do yoga.

I’ve spoken before about how trauma-informed teaching is not a list of strategies. One reason I go back to that idea, often, is that we need to remind ourselves that this work is slow, and sticky, and no strategy is going to “work” every time. A dimension of this is self-determination.

Healing from trauma can be a life-long endeavor, and it’s not straightforward: experience trauma, then heal from it. Wouldn’t that be simple? It’s not the reality: trauma is often ongoing. It compounds. It comes in waves. It adds all kinds of secondary adversities.

So healing is messy. Especially when we’re talking about students, who are still kids. They might not even have “healing” as a concept. They might just be in survival mode.

Given all of this, it’s important that we honor self-determination. This means that we respect that other people are going through a process. We can help, we can guide, but it’s their process and theirs alone.

Teachers, in particular, can’t enter into our work thinking “I’m going to heal my students.” We can only create the conditions within which students might begin or continue that journey. “Creating the conditions” looks like developing an environment where relationships are prioritized and safety is paramount. It also means offering strategies and opportunities for fostering wellness and self-regulation, but recognizing that students can and should determine for themselves whether, when, and how to use those strategies.

Giving up on yoga

I’ve struggled with anxiety for a long time. I cannot count the number of times that people have suggested yoga. Seriously, I grew to kind of hate the idea of yoga because people seemed to think it was some kind of magical cure-all. I tried a couple of yoga classes and felt pretty “meh” about it. Most importantly, it wasn’t the right thing to address my anxiety at the time.

The strategy didn’t work because it wasn’t the right fit for me. How often does this happen when we teach? All the time. We blame the strategy because it didn’t “work.” And we dig into our same two or three strategies because we just feel like they should work, despite our students showing us or telling us they aren’t. I hear this frustration from teachers after trying a variety of new things, like restorative circles or mindfulness.

What happens when the strategies don’t “work?” We often abandon them. I certainly did that with yoga. And for me, personally, abandoning yoga was the right choice at the time. In our classrooms, abandoning new strategies isn’t always the right thing to do. Implementing restorative circles, for example, can take a ton of time and practice to get right. New routines take time to build. But often, in the pursuit of building and implementing, we lose sight of self-determination. Do we make it okay for students to say, “you know what, this approach really just doesn’t work for me right now”?

The right suggestion at the right time

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My cat Charlie giving yoga a try

This month, I finally started doing yoga. Why now? My friend suggested a particular at-home video series I could try, and the conditions were right. There was a free way to try the strategy. I have a schedule that allows me to do this each morning with no time crunch. And more importantly, I just kinda was in the right space to do it.

Part of the reason it “stuck” this time was that the suggestion from my friend was not “try yoga, it will change your life,” but “if you feel like trying yoga, here’s a video series I liked.” The way she recommended it respected my self-determination. So the conditions and timing were right, and I finally tried yoga. To my surprise, yoga has really worked for me in managing my anxiety. I spent so long feeling resentful of how people pushed yoga at me that I genuinely wasn’t expecting it to “work.”

I hope it’s clear by now that I’m not recommending yoga to others as a way to manage anxiety. It might work for you, or it might not! Instead, I’m recommending something else: find balance in your teaching practice so that it’s okay for students to hate yoga.

Finding balance

As teachers, can we accept that our favorite social-emotional and wellness strategies might not be the right ones for our students, right now? How could we create an environment in which students feel free to try things out, but also feel free to say “this isn’t for me.” I only knew that I hated yoga because I tried it a couple of times. As an adult, I had the agency to just stop going to yoga. What does “hating yoga” look like in your classroom, and how might you encourage both the exploration of new things and the ability to say “I don’t like that new thing” and leave it on a shelf for now?

I’ll spare you the yoga metaphors, but balance really is essential. Flexibility balances with predictability. Our guidance and support as teachers balances with self-determination of our students as people.

What does this look like? If you offer mindfulness, brain breaks, self-regulation strategies, etc, provide opt-out alternatives. Explain the benefits of your strategies but don’t make blanket statements about how effective/ineffective they might be. Use your reflective practice to consider the complex dynamics at play between your own leadership and your students’ autonomy.

Exposing students to social-emotional tools is really important work. Equally important is the work of helping them reflect on whether, how, and why those tools might be helpful or not helpful in their own journey.

Most importantly, remember your role: you’re walking alongside your students in their healing process, not leading the way. You can create the conditions for growth, but don’t put yourself in the role of a savior. We can set the table, but we can’t make others eat. You can send me listings for my yoga studio, but you can’t make take the class. But maybe, one day when the time is right, I’ll give it a try – and be thankful that I had the freedom to make that choice on my own.

 

“In the real world”

One of the most common lines of resistance when it comes to social-emotional learning in schools: “But what about in the real world?”

I’ve heard this objection over and over in response to social-emotional learning and support strategies in schools. “In the real world, there’s no such thing as a Peace Corner.” “In the real world, no one is going to sit in a circle and talk things out with you.” “In the real world, you don’t get unlimited chances.”

Let’s look a little closer on what it means to invoke “the real world” as a reason not to provide children with social-emotional support.

Real world versus…fake world?

The most obvious objection here is the implication that schools are somehow not “real.” When students spend most of their waking hours on school and school-related activities for at least 13 years, I don’t see how we can argue that this time isn’t “real.” Yes, children are preparing for adulthood – but all of the time they spend on the way to adulthood counts, and students deserve to develop skills and experience supports specific to their time in school.

It’s also essential here to remember that children’s brains are different from adult’s brains, and children developmentally need different support as they grow. Just as you use training wheels on a bike, you also need support as you develop skills to manage your emotions, develop healthy sense of self, and learn to connect with others.

The real world isn’t black and white

One of the common threads of “real world” objections seems to be that “in the real world, there’s no support.” Is this really true? In the “Peace Corner” video linked above, the strategy presented is essentially a way to support students to take a break when things are stressful. Don’t most adults find ways to do this during their work days? We go to the water cooler, we take a quick walk, we space out at our desk for a few moments, we linger on the way to the restroom.

In objecting to restorative practices or alternatives to suspension, the “real world” argument goes that “people aren’t that understanding in the real world.” While this one varies largely depending on context, let’s look at it from the lens of interpersonal conflict (which describes a huge portion of what ends up being “disciplined” in schools). Yes, it’s true that some behaviors may get you fired on the spot. But most of the time, when we mess up in the “real world” we actually do “talk it out.” We meet with our supervisors. We talk things through with our spouses. We get messy with conflict rather than receiving a harsh sentence from above. We need to be able to tolerate frustration, find ways to solve our own problems, and manage relationships.

Another one I’ve heard is, “in the real world, you don’t get do-overs.” Tell that to the many folks who have retaken drivers tests, reapplied for jobs or college admissions, or revised work assignments. Part of the real world often involves the process of evaluating our mistakes and incorporating that reflection into a new course of action.

Whose real world?

There are also cultural assumptions built into the “real world” objections. There seems to be an individualistic stance, an idea that in the “real world” we are all on our own. While this may be the dominant view of white Christian America, the reality is different in other cultures that emphasize connectedness, community, and mutual care. When we perpetuate the myth of meritocracy, kids suffer.

In many people’s “real worlds,” connections are how we survive and thrive. We need to support students to learn how to create and sustain healthy relationships – the “social” aspect of social-emotional learning.

Real world, or a better world?

Most importantly, we should stop talking about the “real world” because it keeps us from talking about a better world. If the premise of a “real world” argument is that the real world is harsh, why would we want to replicate such a world in our schools? From a developmental standpoint, exposing children to harsh conditions causes lasting neurological damage, whereas surrounding children with loving, supportive relationships buffers them from future trauma.

We need to surround them with more caring, not less. And when these children, raised with the confidence that they matter, enter adulthood, they’ll be more equipped to make change. They won’t merely be prepared for the “real world” – they’ll create a better one.

 

Photo credit: Emma Craig, flickr

Teaching Doesn’t Get Easier

Wasn’t teaching supposed to get easier?

Didn’t someone tell me that teaching would get easier? That working with tough kids would get easier? That balance, boundaries, pedagogy, content, all of it would feel easier someday?

I’ve learned so many skills. Doesn’t skill acquisition make it easier? I know now how to assess without a survey, teach without a whiteboard/pen/computer/book, build foundation without condescending, encourage voice and choice without judgement or expectation. I’ve learned so many things through observing teachers who are smarter than I am, through asking students what they needed, through collaborating with parents and families and caregivers. And I learned a lot of things the hard way, by messing up, by disappointing students, by missing opportunities, by reflecting, reflecting, reflecting.

Soooo…isn’t it supposed to be easy by now?

I’ve immersed myself in lenses and frames and tried to incorporate the best lessons to my students’ benefit. I’ve long since dropped the pretense that I know even a fraction of all there is to know, I’ve abandoned the belief that there are silver bullets in education, I’ve embraced the mess and complexity and journey of trying to be more inclusive, anti-racist, feminist, culturally sustaining, trauma-informed. I own that I will never be perfect at any of it. I wear my vulnerability and fallibility.

So I’m comfortable being uncomfortable. I’m okay not being okay. I’m at peace with the process. But like, can it get a little less challenging yet? Don’t I get something for all this work?

Okay. I know. It doesn’t get easier. It doesn’t get easier because teaching is about being in relationship with humans, and more specifically, developing humans. In my case, even more specifically, developing humans who are facing immense challenges every single day. And humans are endlessly complex, and endlessly challenging, and endlessly amazing and resilient and wonderful. Humans are messy and get into conflict and misunderstand and hurt and hate and love and apologize and sometimes say the most astonishing things, like “thank you” and “I care about you” and “I’m proud of myself.”

Teaching will never be easy, because human relationships will never be easy, and that’s amazing. No amount of training or professional development or introspection will ever protect me from the ups and downs of being really emotionally invested in my students, and I don’t want to be numb to the process. I never want to lose the openness that allows for true relationships, those true relationships through which everything is possible.

So my new school year’s resolution is to let go of the idea of “easy.” Bye, easy. I won’t miss the idea of you. Let me embrace the mess and joy of the challenge, instead.

 

 

 

Always Talk About Students As If They Were In The Room

Unconditional positive regard doesn’t stop when my students walk out the door at 2:15.

True unconditional positive regard infuses all conversations about my students, because the way I talk about my students informs my practice when I’m with them.

Recently a comment of mine on an Edutopia post sparked someone else to write a post asking whether venting about students should be banned. This in turn is generating lots of conversation, a lot of which defends teachers’ rights to free speech and holds that venting helps teachers prevent burnout. But I think “should venting be banned” is probably the wrong question.

Here are some questions I’d rather answer:

  • How does my staff culture respect students whether or not they are in the room?
  • Where are my teachers getting emotional support for the challenging aspects of their jobs?
  • How are teachers understanding challenging student behavior? Are they left to make sense of this on their own, or are we using a trauma-informed approach, consulting and collaborating with social workers and mental health professionals, and contextualizing student behavior in our unique community?
  • Are teachers comfortable going to one another for problem-solving and support? Are my teachers willing and able to be vulnerable with one another? Are they in strong enough relationship with one another to offer feedback?
  • Do teachers feel ownership and influence over their classrooms? Their job as a whole? Are they blaming students and families because they feel powerless to make change?
  • What example is being set by school leaders?
  • Does my staff share the same values? Are we understanding one another’s positive intent, or do we question one another’s actual stance toward the students?
  • Am I talking about my students in the same way I would if they were sitting in the room with me?

 

These are tough questions, and in a tough job, sometimes it’s easier to vent and stay stuck than doing the hard work of problem-solving. There is no silver bullet for human relationships, so we are in a constant state of trial and error and more error and iteration and questioning and trying again tomorrow. When we engage one another in true conversation about these challenges, we help move one another forward; we build resiliency.

I can and do have these types of conversations about my students with my students in the room, and with them directly. I’ve said to a student, “I feel really stuck working with you lately, and I’m wondering if you feel the same way, and what we can do about it.” I’ve said to my students, “What you just said really pushed a button for me and I want to take a minute to take care of myself before we move forward in class.”  When I model vulnerability and taking ownership over my own emotions, I make it a little more okay for my students to do the same.

So, should venting be banned? Let’s ask some different questions. Let’s ask them in service of our students. Let’s ask them as if – and when – our students are in the room.

The teacher paradox: it is – and isn’t- about me

The core paradox of teaching is that the work requires us to be both confident and humble, self-assured and self-critical at the same time.

It isn’t about me – it’s about my students. What I need out of a learning experiences comes second to what my students need. Their needs as learners drive my pedagogy.

Yet, it is about me – I need to be a well and healthy person in order to serve my students. So I need to put myself first, find ways to fulfill my intellectual curiosity, and find joy in my day to day experience.

My student’s behavior isn’t about me – it’s about their patterns, their developing brains, their trauma, their mental health, their challenges. When my students disrupt or yell or kick over a chair, it isn’t personal.

And – it is personal. My student who says “I don’t f-ing trust you” – Did I give her enough reason to actually believe that she can trust me? My student who blows out of class again and again – did I create a classroom that was conducive to his self-regulation, or one that increased his anxiety? If I say “it’s not about me” and leave it at that, I’m letting go of my responsibility to meet each student’s needs.

My students’ growth isn’t about me: it’s about their amazing resilience, their families’ years of support, their community and culture and traditions and everything else that goes beyond the six hours a day I see them, and the years of their life they spend in my school. When they are my age, my students might not remember me, nor should I expect or need them to – what matters is that my students grow into the amazing adults I see them becoming.

But? It is about me. And I can take a few quiet moments here at the end of the year to pause and appreciate before I jump back into the work. Sometimes I do make a difference that I can see in the student: he can read more fluently than before, she can more confidently describe the emotions she’s feeling, they can say “I felt cared about this year.” I know I contributed to that and I can feel proud of our work together. And sometimes I make a difference I won’t see, and I can give myself some hope that the student who didn’t succeed while we worked together might carry away some small piece of me to use later when she needs it.

The work continues. We’re never done. It can be easy for the scales to tip into one side or the other, claiming ownership where we should center our students or playing martyr when we should center ourselves. But it’s a beautiful dance to stay balanced in the middle, where the growth happens.

An alternative to “tough love”

“Tough love,” as I understand it, doesn’t serve our students. However, there are valuable aspects to the concept of tough love, and I want to offer an alternative way to talk and think about these concepts.

The concept of “tough love” doesn’t have a single definition, but its connotations are common enough that Rusul’s comments really struck a chord with me:

“Tough love,” to me, connotes a combination of caring and accountability, but that accountability has a tinge of “no excuses.” “Tough” implies that accountability needs to be absolute, and that accountability must necessarily be harsh, forced or adversarial. I find that “tough love” also comes with a built-in power dynamic – people rarely describe a relationship with an equal as “tough love.”

However, the core idea of “tough love” does resonate with me – caring and accountability is a great combination.  I want to offer a different way to talk about this combination that I believe serves our students better: unconditional positive regard for the person with conditional response to behavior or choices.
Unconditional positive regard means “I care about you, you have value, you don’t have to do anything to prove it to me, and nothing is going to change my mind.” I expand on this concept a lot here:

Conditional response to the behavior or choices means: “I don’t have to agree with every choice you make, but I understand that a choice with negative consequences does not detract from your value as a human, and I will care about you no matter what choices you make. I will help you understand the consequences (positive, negative or neutral) of your choices, and if there are impacts on me, I will respond in an authentic way.”

Where tough love says: “you gotta get this done,” conditional response says: “looks like you haven’t done your work. Tell me why, we’ll work together, and I’ll tell you what you can expect if you miss your deadline.”

Where tough love is firm and “objective” and sometimes discipline-driven, unconditional positive regard with conditional response is person-centered, and responds with natural consequences. It’s not “anything goes,” but it also doesn’t rely on arbitrary rules or consequences. Rather, a conditional response is aligned with a person’s true impact on others.

Where tough love says: “I love you, but..” unconditional positive regard with conditional response says: “I care about you, and…”

Some of you may be using the phrase “tough love” to describe an approach more like unconditional positive regard with a conditional response to behavior/choices. Shifting our language (even though the latter is more of a mouthful!) will help us be more clear about our practice and align our talk with our walk.

Students benefit when we care about them and hold them accountable, but in ways that are truly person-centered and respond to the student’s need for clear expectations, and not our own need for control or compliance. Let’s unconditionally care for our students while we do the messy work of responding to the challenges, together.

Language Matters, or Why I Love Edutopia

So there are a lot of websites that have tips and resources for teachers. Why do I always refer people to Edutopia​? My answer lives in this story.

Edutopia has pages for different subjects, and one is mental health. Their description used to read like this:

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“Life in the 21st century is exciting but also stressful. Discover and share resources for promoting psychological well-being.”

As someone who works intensely with young people who struggle with mental health issues, this language rubbed me the wrong way. Mental health isn’t about “exciting but also stressful,” and I felt that the descriptor made light of those struggling with trauma, anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges.

Language matters, and I think these small messages all around us build up to influence our thinking. Our worldview is shaped by the narratives around us. Edutopia focuses on “what works in education,” and to me, continuing misunderstanding and stigmatization of those with mental health challenges is not “what works.”

So I said something about the page description to the team at Edutopia, like, hey, I don’t think this description is doing what you want it to do, and here’s why.

The response to my concern is why I will recommend Edutopia and its community to anyone who wants resources on what works in education. The team there could have ignored my feedback, or could have said, “well, it’s just two sentences on a page, it doesn’t matter.” Instead? They asked me for more feedback – how would I rework the language? They took things under consideration as part of their larger process. And ultimately, they made a change.

Here’s how the page looks now:

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“Find compassionate perspectives and evidence-based strategies to foster school environments that promote psychological well-being and support students experiencing behavioral, emotional or social challenges.”

That is language I can stand behind. That language validates the challenges and invites teachers into the process. More importantly, the change shows me that Edutopia not only recognizes the importance of language, but also the importance of feedback and evaluation, and the hard work it takes to consistently align our “walk” with our “talk” – our values with our actions. As an educator I hope I can capitalize on moments of feedback as effectively as I saw Edutopia do here. Reflectiveness, openness, and a willingness to grow – that’s what “works” in education.