Wellness: A Guide for Teachers

 

To sustain our work as teachers, we need to take care of ourselves. Wellness as a whole is important, but it’s also essential to look at specific elements of wellness that are all equally necessary to sustaining when the going gets tough.

Coping strategies

These are the tools and skills we need to make it, on a basic level, through a tough day. Coping strategies can be big or small, but we need to have a variety in our toolbox so we can access them as needed. These might be things you do in the middle of a stressful class, during a small break in your day, or right when you get home and need to transition from one part of your day to the next. Many of us have fall-back coping strategies and might benefit from expanding on them – sometimes it takes a little practice.

Examples:

  • Focusing on breathing
  • Drinking a cup of tea
  • Stretching, yoga, other physical movement
  • Texting a supportive friend
  • Looking at a funny comic or silly cat picture online

These are just a few tiny examples, but coping strategies are essentially anything that can help you manage a strong emotion and get yourself regulated. It’s important to remember that not all coping strategies are healthy ones, and it depends on the person and situation (example: eating a snack might be a good coping strategy for someone, but might be problematic for another person). The essential thing is to develop your own list of strategies that are right for you.

Coping strategies are also great to model for students who are having a hard time. If I normalize stopping class for a minute to take a few deep breaths, my students can begin to internalize some healthy coping strategies of their own.

Self-care

Rather than disparate strategies, self-care to me is a more general frame that I am doing things that help me stay well and sustain me as a person. Self-care helps me fill my cup and stay connected to who I am as a person, not just as a helper. Self-care looks different for everyone, but here are some common areas of self-care: 

  • A physical activity practice (running, yoga, cycling, team sports)
  • Spending time with animals or living things (gardening, taking care of fish, snuggling your dog)
  • Spending meaningful time with friends and family
  • Reading, watching TV or movies you enjoy, doing puzzles
  • Making and creating – music, crafts, projects

Self-care requires ongoing attention to balance, and committing to spending time that fills up the well rather than draws from it. Self-care isn’t selfish; instead, it’s what allows us to be of use to others. You can’t give others energy you don’t have, and self-care is what allows us to generate that energy.

Making meaning

This is one area of wellness that often gets missed in our narrative about taking care of ourselves. In addition to coping in the moment and self-care in an ongoing way, making meaning is required when we’re faced with challenging work. When something intense happens, whether it be a challenging class period, a student blow-up, a conflict with a coworker, or at tragedy in the school community, we need to not only cope with our emotions, but to make sense of what happened. Making meaning is the act of grappling with how challenging experiences fit into our sense of self and our worldview, and how they change us and change our work.

As an example, if a student explodes at me in class and ends up hitting me – I will need to cope in the moment, for sure. Beyond that immediate moment, though, I’m likely to be shaken up as a person, and coping alone doesn’t address that core disruption. I will need to use self-care to help me stay grounded in my sense of myself as a whole person. And I will need to make meaning of the big questions that come up from intense experiences: why did that happen? What does it mean about my student? What does it mean about me? What does it mean about my sense of safety at school – and my student’s sense of safety with me? How should I proceed? It takes time, introspection, and support to think through these questions.

Some supports that may be helpful in making meaning:

  • Meeting with a therapist, counselor, or clergy person
  • Supportive coworkers or supervisors
  • Journaling or reflective art practice

Wellness is ongoing

Wellness isn’t something we work on once and then say it’s done. We can’t attend one training and get certified in wellness; we can’t develop a wellness routine and expect that it will hold through all of life’s changes. However, when we put in the work – when we attend to coping, self-care and making meaning, we give ourselves the gift of wellness – a gift that requires maintenance and reinvention, but that gives us the vitality to sustain ourselves in the service of those we help.

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.

Getting started with trauma-informed teaching

Hope

This post is intended to be a jumping-off point for those seeking to become more trauma-informed in their education practice. It is not meant to be an exhaustive list of resources, but rather a collection of accessible places to start to get familiar with concepts and strategies.

I would love to add onto this list, especially in some areas of intersection: trauma informed and… (specific populations, identities, and settings). Please be in touch or comment below if you have resources to share!

Start Here

The 12 Core Concepts (National Child Traumatic Stress Network) – this is a fantastic resource to give you the foundations of knowledge you need for working with students who have experienced trauma. This is also a great resource to share with coworkers, parents and other caregivers to start developing some common language and understanding of these concepts.

The Basics: Understandings and Strategies

These posts and videos will help you get a “Trauma 101” understanding of the major background information you need to start with trauma-informed practice. 

8 Ways to Support Students Who Experience Trauma (Edutopia) – initial strategies for the classroom

Helping Students Who Have Experienced Trauma (Edutopia) – more strategies and some bigger-picture concepts

Learning Brain vs. Survival Brain (Jacob Ham) – short video describing what’s going on in the brain of a trauma-impacted kid

10 Things About Childhood Trauma Every Teacher Needs To Know (WeAreTeachers) –  good overview of some important points about trauma

Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators (from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network) – more comprehensive (while still being succinct and clear) guide around understanding and supporting students who have experienced trauma. Send this one to your principal!

Big Picture Approaches

While these approaches aren’t specific to students with trauma, they support a school community where trauma-affected youth can thrive. 

Lives in the Balance/Ross Greene: essential resource working with behaviorally challenging kids (and many kids who experience trauma exhibit behavior challenges at some point). Check out his book Lost at School as well. 

Restorative Practices (International Institute for Restorative Practices)  – when thinking about trauma-informed practice, “discipline” must be reimagined, and restorative practices is a great path forward.

Teacher Self-Care and Wellness

It’s essential that educators take care of themselves while they take care of others. These resources highlight the “why” and the “how.” 

When Students Are Traumatized, Teachers Are Too (Edutopia) – information on vicarious trauma and teacher strategies for addressing it.

Wellness: A Guide for Teachers (on this site) – a breakdown of the different aspects of wellness and suggestions for incorporating each

Secondary Traumatic Stress for Educators: Understanding and Mitigating the Effects (Jessica Lander on Mindshift) – overview and resources on secondary traumatic stress in schools

Background Information/Learn More

Ready to dig deeper? These resources will help you build on your basic knowledge and hopefully provide some avenues for your next steps in learning. 

ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Study (CDC) – foundational research on the impact of experiences which may be traumatic. You can also watch this 5-minute explainer video about the ACE study

Beyond ACEs  (this site) – now that you know about ACEs, learn about why we need to be careful when using the language of ACEs to talk about trauma

Addressing Race and Trauma in the Classroom (NCTSN) – a guide to the intersection of race and trauma with practical tips for educators

Toxic Stress (Harvard Center on the Developing Child) – simple explainer (with video and visuals) on the concept of toxic stress. For more on the impact of racism as it relates to chronic/toxic stress, see this article in The Atlantic by Melinda D. Anderson

The Paradox of Trauma-Informed Care (Vicky Kelly) – TEDx talk on the basics of developmental/childhood trauma and its impacts on the brain and decision-making

Helping Students with Trauma, Tragedy and Grief (Edutopia) – collection of Edutopia resources on a variety of topics related to trauma.

Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom (Kristin Souers and Pete Hall, ASCD) – excellent and easy-to-read book covering the fundamental elements of a trauma-informed classroom.

For School Leaders

Resources to guide you as you guide your school.

Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative – download both of the free reports to learn more about whole-school approaches and how to implement a change process toward trauma-informed practices.

Trauma-Informed Teachers Need Trauma-Informed Administrators (this site) – some tips and ideas for school leaders as they consider the social-emotional needs of their teachers.

Image credit: 
Steve Snodgrass, flickr Creative Commons

 

 

Breaking the script after conflict

After something tough happens between ourselves and our students, breaking or testing the positive relationship we’ve built, it’s essential to be intentional in our next steps. This is especially important when the hard situation feels personal, for instance when a student calls me a name, breaks something I own, or otherwise targets me. In these moments when I am feeling overwhelmed or personally attacked, it would be easy to act from a place of reactivity and blame. However, these are the moments where it’s most important that I take the opportunity to “break the script” with my student and work through conflict in a different way.

The script my students expect:

Student: *does a “bad” thing*

Teacher: *reprimands student for doing bad thing*

Student: *feels shame and either gets defensive and reactive or shuts down*

What can I do instead of reprimand or drop negative consequences down on my student? After we’ve taken a moment to cool down and re-regulate our emotions, here are a few ways I try to break the script with a student who has somehow damaged our relationship.

    1. Time in instead of time out. Just when I want to avoid my student or take a break from them might be the right time to spend even more time together. This shows my student that I care about them enough to sit with the discomfort and work through it together. Maybe we spend a lunch period together or work together on a school beautification project after class. Especially for children with insecure attachment styles, time in reinforces my role as a caring adult who won’t give up. 
    2. “I bet that did NOT feel good. Are you okay?” Kids do well if they can, and so most of the time when a student has made choices that negatively impact others, I wonder what is getting in their way of doing well. When in doubt, start with empathy. When I remember to start with my genuine care for my student, we can often skip past the minutiae of the conflict and get instead to the heart of the matter. 
    3. “Oh wow, what could I have done differently to support you before we got to that point?” Whenever I ask this question, I’m surprised by the insight and thoughtfulness of my students’ responses. I almost always learn something new about the way I was structuring a class, phrasing a request, or explaining a task, and how my choices did or did not support my student. Additionally, it really breaks the script for me to ask what I could have done differently instead of jumping to what my student could have done differently.

These are just three ways to break the script and move toward collaboration instead of blame and shame. This is opening for a restorative approach to conflict, and an invitation to work through instead of stay stuck.

The most challenging part in all of this is letting go of my own feelings of hurt or defensiveness. When I struggle to do so, I try to remember the richness of the work when we let down our walls, set aside our emotionally-laden roles of “teacher” and “student,”  and open ourselves to the beauty that lives in messy, true human connection.

The Way Through

When people ask me what subject I teach, I never know how to respond. My teaching license is in English Language Arts. My master’s degree is in educational technology. In the past five years I’ve taught science, social studies, art, physical education, and more at our small school, where every teacher flexes to meet our students’ needs.

What I think I really teach, though, is how to get through. Conflict, adversity, anxiety – whatever the “it” is, I teach students to tolerate, regulate, and eventually move forward. Getting through is so much harder than going around, more complex, and ultimately a more necessary skill in life.

In the traditional public school, the response to conflict is “get out,” not get through. Leave the classroom if you’re disruptive. Take a suspension for a major breach. Thankfully, more schools are moving toward restorative approaches. Turning to inclusion instead of exclusion teaches students that it’s more important to work through as a community than to jettison the uncomfortable.

Working through truly is uncomfortable. Over and over, when my students get into conflict – with each other, with me, with their teachers – I hear “it’s whatever, I’ll just ignore it. I’m just done with this.” As most of us who have spoken similar sentences know, ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away. So I fall back on some tried and true approaches to helping students build confidence that working through is possible.

 

First, here’s what I say to my students as we start the process:

 

  • “I care about you.” Unconditional positive regard from teachers and staff is the foundation. When teachers approach conflictual situations with “I still care about you; let’s try this again,” students begin to build confidence in the resiliency of true and caring relationships.
  • “You don’t have to be friends.” I almost never ask students to apologize to one another; I never ask them to mend a friendship. Instead, I focus on the true bottom line: we are a learning community, and when we’re here we respect the right of everyone to access their education. While rebuilding a friendship can be a huge, insurmountable task, reestablishing roles as classmates can feel more attainable.
  • “You’re allowed to be mad. Let’s find some different ways to express that.” One surefire way to lose the trust of a student is to invalidate their feelings. When we try too hard to get back to neutral, we miss the opportunity to work through what it feels like to be mad, anxious, or sad. This is the feeling of “meta-okay” and it’s something I try to foster during the working through. Working with the actual emotion helps students find a way to safely express it without harming the community.

 

Once the student is in a place to start the work, we do a process we call “repair.” Not apology, not punishment, definitely not discipline. The idea is to help the student work through mending some of the rifts in relationship and community. What this process looks like varies greatly depending on the nature of the rift, the developmental stage of the student, and the strength of the peer group to help facilitate the process.

 

Some ways this has looked include these, used alone or in combination:

  • The student using social thinking strategies to reflect on the conflict (social scripting, filling in thought bubbles in a cartoon, etc)
  • Writing a letter to the individual or group harmed, and either delivering it or reading it aloud
  • Drawing a timeline of the events in a conflict and identifying points where different choices would have made the situation smaller, rather than bigger
  • Education pieces about bullying, conflict, communication styles, and so on
  • Creating or repairing something for the community (fixing a squeaky door, baking cookies to put out at lunch) as a way to put something positive back into the group
  • Bringing the family and school team together to look at any bigger picture supports needed
  • Prepping for a facilitated conversation between two students or a student and a teacher
  • Mapping out emotions during a conflict and where self-care or regulation strategies could have had a positive impact

 

The possibilities are endless – we just strive to create an authentic experience of reflection and repair that helps the student work through the conflict rather than just go around it.

 

So what are the outcomes?

 

Sometimes, I’ve seen this process fail completely. The student wasn’t ready to take ownership, needed more of a break after a conflict, or didn’t have enough trust in staff that it was safe to work through. In these cases, we go back to core strategies of building relationship and awareness and try again.

 

More often, I’ve seen students struggle through the beginning stages of this process and then land somewhere solid at the end. Students use the structure and tools we give them to take ownership and make an action plan. I’ve seen students make themselves vulnerable to teachers and say “I didn’t realize I had hurt you like that.” I’ve seen students say to one another, “It wasn’t okay how you treated me, but I’m willing to try again.”

 

Most amazingly, I’ve seen students get into conflicts over, and over, and over again. I’ve seen them using the tools I’ve given them to work through, and then start to not need the tools anymore. I’ve seen them adopt the language: “repair,” “make a plan,” “respect your right to learn.” Through the repetition of the process, I’ve seen students internalize the process and come to truly believe that it’s possible to work through.

 

When we finally believe that working through is truly an option, we are more able to express our thoughts without fear of losing our place in community. We can be vulnerable and trust that the process will carry us through. We can tolerate pain, anger, and anxiety knowing that there are steps to move us forward.

 

We build hope.

 

And that’s what I teach.

Supporting Students Who Experience Trauma

I’ve been getting more involved lately on Edutopia as a volunteer community facilitator. Here’s a post I put up a couple of days ago on supporting students who experience(d) trauma:

http://www.edutopia.org/discussion/8-ways-support-students-who-experience-trauma

It’s really astounding and heart-breaking to realize just how many of our students have or will experience trauma in their lives. As important as the strategies for supporting students are, I really want to emphasize my last point on there – taking care of ourselves.

When we are well, we can support our students well. When we take time to make sense of our own emotions, we can help students make sense of theirs. When we experience resilience, we help our students become more resilient themselves.

Trauma is real and present, but so is healing. When we provide safe and caring classrooms, we help our students move forward.