On moral neutrality

As teachers, we are told not to push our politics on students, and not to use our classrooms to further our own agendas. Be neutral. We are told to be role models, to stay positive. Don’t focus on the negative.

We are told: Spread love, but don’t talk too much about hate. Embrace diversity, but don’t talk too much about racism. Be resilient, but don’t talk too much about trauma. 

In reading Dr. Judith Herman’s classic text, Trauma and Recovery, I reflected on the parallels between therapists and teachers in taking a neutral stance. Dr. Herman writes:

 “‘Neutral’ means that the therapist does not take sides in the patient’s inner conflicts or try to direct the patient’s life decisions. Constantly reminding herself that the patient is in charge of her own life, the therapist refrains from advancing a personal agenda.”

I’m sure this approach resonates with many teachers: we want to provide students all of the relevant information and skills to think critically, and not simply impose our own opinions. We support students’ autonomy and power when we remain “neutral” in this sense.

But there are areas where we cannot, and should not, be neutral. Herman continues:

“The technical neutrality of the therapist is not the same as moral neutrality. Working with victimized people requires a committed moral stance. The therapist is called upon to bear witness to a crime. She must affirm a position of solidarity with the victim.”

For which crimes do your students call you to bear witness, through their words or their actions?

Do you bear witness to the crimes of racism, homophobia, transphobia, religious discrimination? Do you bear witness to the injust systems that create generational poverty? Do you bear witness to the pain of sexual and gender-based violence, to child abuse?

Do you bear witness to the crimes committed through inequity in your own school, in your own classroom? By your colleagues? By yourself?

When you bear witness, do you affirm your solidarity? Clearly, unequivocally, firmly positioning yourself alongside your students, together with them in their pain, always in their corner?

Or do you remain “morally neutral?” Do you say, “there are two sides to every story?” Do you ask, “well, what did you do to bring this on yourself?” Do you wonder, “did that really happen?”

Herman further explains:

“This does not mean a simplistic notion that the victim can do no wrong; rather, it involves an understanding of the fundamental injustice of the traumatic experience and the need for a resolution that restores some sense of justice.This affirmation expresses itself in the therapists’ daily practice, in her language, and above all in her moral commitment to truth-telling without evasion or disguise.”

Educators cannot say we are trauma-informed and also remain silent on the injust systems and conditions that cause trauma. We need to be truth-tellers, “without evasion or disguise,” when it comes to addressing injustice.

Teaching is political. As Shana White puts it, “Our words, curriculum decisions, who we advocate for and why, disciplining, opportunities we provide, and our pedagogy [are political]. Working with and facilitating learning for other human beings will always be political.” Jose Vilson says, “we are agents of the state, so in fact, we are political even if we’re not partisan.”

Whether we like it or not, teachers are the face of institutions, and with that institutional position comes great power. We can use our power to position ourselves in solidarity with our students, or we can hide our fear and indifference behind a mask of “neutrality.” In remaining morally neutral, we abandon our students at the time they most need us, and we ensure that trauma will continue to perpetuate through generations.

But if we choose to bear witness, to act in solidarity, we empower ourselves and our students. We say, “It is so wrong that this happened to you.” We say, “I believe you.” We say, “I’m here for you, and I will fight for you.” And we go beyond saying these things and put our power into action: teaching the truth about injustices in history and in our time, challenging unjust policies, advocating against unjust laws, working to dismantle the systems that harm our students and our community. We can take the first step toward creating a more just world.

So: what will you choose?

An Essential Read for Trauma-Informed Educators

Paul Gorski has a new article out called Avoiding Racial Equity Detours. If you are interested in trauma-informed education or consider yourself a trauma-informed teacher, this is a must-read. Trauma is not the focus of the article as a whole, but he touches on trauma-informed education in his discussion of the “Deficit Ideology Detour.” Shawn Ginwright’s piece on Healing-Centered Engagement is an excellent paired text to Gorski’s work. I highly recommend reading both pieces and considering what they mean for your work, and how we might all work together to ensure a trauma-informed lens isn’t just another deficit-based buzzword.

Ask Alex: Scaffolding Vulnerability for Peer Feedback

This is my occasional feature called Ask Alex, in which I answer questions on trauma-informed teaching, SEL or anything else! Send me a question at alex@unconditionallearning.org or on Twitter! 

Our question for today comes from Lorraine, who writes:

I’m coaching ultimate for the 7th year this spring at a local public high school. Ultimate is a sport known as being inclusive to many abilities, and many traditionally non-athletes find a home in the sport. I’ve coached teams that have had a fun mix of jocks, theater types, band geeks (aka me!), and someone always brings a tagalong friend that sticks around the whole season. Since I coach JV, it’s easy to get everyone play time. I like to think that I help foster an environment where kids can respect each others’ differences, and share the common goals of improving their skills, having fun, and winning games. (The teacher in me wants it to be more than just winning, but…they’re teenage boys, and that seems to always be their goal.)

This year, I want to challenge myself to facilitate more player-led feedback. On my tight, safe, college team, we had appreciation circles at the end of every tournament, offering the person to our left a piece of positive and a piece of constructive feedback. I think this may be possible for my kids, but how can I scaffold it? Any tips or other ideas?

This is a great question that on first glance, might not have anything to do with trauma-informed teaching. But if I could shout anything from the rooftops, it would be: trauma-informed practices benefit all students! This situation reminds me about the importance of intentionality: she could just blast right in, ask the students to give feedback to one another, and let the chips fall where they may. Instead, she’s seeking to approach this with intention: how can I best support this group of students to expand their focus beyond winning, and develop a community of players who give and receive feedback? So thanks, Lorraine, for this question and your dedication to your team!

Creating the Environment for Feedback

The trauma-informed connection here is about vulnerability and safety. Trauma disrupts both a sense of safety in general and a sense of safety in relationship. Often, traumatic experiences are tied up in ruptured relationships, either as a cause or effect of the trauma. Trauma-affected kids struggle with relationships for a plethora of reasons: developmental gaps, broken trust with adults and peers, negative self-concept, and more.

With all of these relational challenges, feedback can be dicey from both sides. On the receiving end, if we don’t trust our relationship with the feedback-giver, we might feel like critical feedback is a dismissal of our worth as people. And if we don’t truly believe that we are worthy to begin with, positive feedback is just noise and we can write it off.

On the giving end, if we don’t believe that our views have value, it can feel paralyzing to come up with feedback. Who am I to tell anyone else what to do, when I’m struggling with my own stuff?

All of this means that safety and trust are pre-requisites to feedback – as Lorraine knew from her “safe, tight” college team. It’s probably not news to many, but we might remind ourselves that just because our team (or class) trusts one another to complete a task – like winning a game – it doesn’t automatically extend to emotional trust and vulnerability.

Scaffolding Vulnerability

Perhaps because of our question-asker, I’m thinking of a metaphor here connected to the Vermont outdoors: the swimming hole. For those of you not familiar, the swimming hole is often a calm spot in a river, lined with slippery rocks. The current can be dangerous or calm depending on recent rainfall, and it can be hard to predict the depth of the water.

Building vulnerability is like picking our way across the slippery rocks. Am I going to fall? What is that squishy thing my foot just touched? Where is it deep enough to jump?Why is the water so cold? Is this safe? Is this safe? Is this safe? 

If you’ve been to this river a hundred times, you might leap right in, knowing that the rocks give way to a sandy expanse beneath you. You trust that the initial cold shock of the water will wear off and feel refreshing. You can accurately assess whether the currents feel faster than normal, and pull yourself out if need be.

Your JV team might be at a state where they’re exploring the terrain of vulnerability for the first time. You might start there: ask about the type of feedback they are expected to give in school, and what their previous experience with it has been. Get a sense of whether they are expert swimmers or newbies.

Then, work from there:

  • Start with building the habit of sitting in a circle and talking. Whether you do this in a formal restorative-circle way or an informal sports-team-huddle way, get the players comfortable with this time spent as a group
  • Build group trust by making sure each player is seen and heard. Again, the tools of restorative practices are helpful here but you can also do something as simple as a rose and thorn. (You could do a variation where players give their rose and thorn of the game- this practices reflection on the game and vulnerability of one’s own areas for improvement, without the added emotional risk of directing this reflection at others)
  • Begin with whole-team feedback and then zoom in on smaller groups. Start by asking players to come up with something the whole group did well and that the whole group could work on next time (you probably already do something like this). When this feels comfortable, put players into smaller groups (maybe by position) and ask each group to give another group feedback. When this has become routine, they may be ready to move to individual level.
  • Don’t forget to explicitly teach the skill. Have a discussion about what makes feedback helpful and what makes it hurtful. Create sentence stems that players can use (“You helped our team by ____,” “Next time I wonder if you could try ________.”)
  • Reflect, reflect, reflect. Give students time to think about how feedback feels. Build the self-awareness at the same time as the skill practice.
  • Give it time. Just like picking our way across the slippery rocks, sometimes it just takes multiple visits, practice, and the confidence that the last 10 times we did this, it worked out OK. Building trust is slow – don’t worry too much if you don’t get there this season. There’s always next time.


The Big Picture

“Resilience” is the new buzzword connected to trauma-informed education, and I can understand why: it feels like the antidote to trauma, the protective factor that will help kids bounce back.

I sometimes feel that the focus on resilience feels too intangible. What does it actually look like? How do we help kids build it, rather than just insisting that they need it?

Lorraine’s scenario is a great example of how and when we might help build resilience. As she moves through this process with intention, her students are going to practice building trust, maintaining relationships, and handling critical feedback with grace. Those are essential social-emotional skills that foster resilience.

Thanks for this question, and I’d love to hear in the comments about other ideas to develop a safe and supportive culture of feedback!

P.S. If you’re interested in the connections between coaching and educational equity, especially connected to Ultimate, I highly recommend following Chris Lehmann!

Two Resources for Understanding Survival Brain


When you look out over your classroom of students, what do you see? Students talking, students writing, students texting, students wiggling, students with their heads down, students staring at nothing.

Which of them are ready to learn? And which of them are just trying to survive?

There’s no way we can get inside a student’s brain, but we can look at students through our trauma-informed lenses. One key concept in our trauma-informed work is the understanding of the stress-response system. Our bodies and brains react to danger in order to keep us safe. But childhood trauma can make this system less effective, causing our stress-response system to activate whether or not real danger is present. And real danger is often present for students, whether that danger comes from an abusive adult, the impacts of racism, or the stressors of poverty.

Much of the information about survival brain can get technical, exploring the neurological systems behind the stress response system. That’s important to understand, but it’s also essential to consider the lived experience of our students.

These are two stand-out resources on survival brain that help to develop an empathetic understanding of what it feels like to exist in survival brain:

Learning Brain vs. Survival Brain: in this video, Jacob Ham illustrates the differences between a calm state for learning and a brain attuned to survival. This is a wonderful visual for introducing this concept.

What Survival Looks like: these incredible handouts detail what it might look like and feel like for students to go into the various modes of survival: fight, flight, freeze, or submit. Reading through these will help develop your empathy for students who enter into survival mode at school.

How might you take this knowledge and make some changes so that your classroom fosters learning brain? What might you do to help your students develop a sense of safety and belonging? Check out these resources, and then let me know what you think!

Zero tolerance and the college classroom

My colleague Emily recently asked me about how to build more trauma-informed college classrooms. Emily and I both teach at a community college, and trauma-informed classroom environments couldn’t be more essential in this setting. While we certainly don’t ask for or collect any data about our students’ experience of trauma, I can infer that a large percentage of our student population has survived adverse experiences. In a typical semester, my class includes:

  • Students who came to the United States as refugees
  • Students who are currently or have in the past served in the military
  • Students who are in recovery from substance use
  • Students who don’t have enough money to meet their basic needs
  • Students who are currently or have in the past been homeless

Using my trauma-informed lens, I know that it’s essential for me to create a safe and supportive environment for these students to thrive. While the adult learner may have gained more coping strategies and self-regulation skills than an elementary school student, adult brains are still impacted by trauma. My adult learners still need relationship and respect to thrive and succeed.

The “how” is not that different from what we know about trauma-informed K-12 environments. I know that a trauma-informed classroom should prioritize connection, empowerment, predictability, and flexibility. I can build all of these things into my syllabus and the way that my classroom runs day to day.

One thing I do want to highlight is the flexibility piece. In a trauma-informed environment, we recognize that context is key, and the same interventions or responses don’t work for every student. In a K-12 setting, this often means looking at school-wide disciplinary policies or behavioral responses. Most experts on trauma-informed education recommend drastically decreasing or eliminating zero-tolerance policies within schools.

Zero tolerance in the syllabus

In a college classroom, I believe that many teachers impose zero-tolerance policies in the name of learning, and we can do better. These policies come up around grading and attendance. They even come up around students’ use of email.

I recently saw a well-known professor share a piece of her syllabus language. It stated (paraphrased): “You must begin your email to me with a salutation, such as ‘Dear Professor.’ Emails that do not include a salutation will be ignored. Seriously, I won’t reply to those emails.'”

This is a zero-tolerance policy: you mess up, and without regard to context, I will not respond to your attempt at communication.

Unwritten messages

Now, I have no idea if this particular instructor actually enforces this policy, or how she might respond given the context of the email. It’s worrisome if she does: often, the instructor is one of the only points of contact a student has on campus (especially true in community college where students don’t live in dorms). Imagine that I am the only trusted representative of the college for a student, and he reaches out through email, writing: “I am really struggling with some mental health stuff. I won’t be in class tomorrow.” He didn’t write “Dear professor.” Do I really ignore the email?

Let’s give the professor the benefit of the doubt and assume that her humanity trumps her policy. I’m still worried about the presence of the policy itself. When I read the policy, I understand: “How you communicate is more important than what you communicate. My preferences for email are more important than what you need.”

That take-away message might prevent students from building a relationship and reaching out when they need help. It might perpetuate a feeling of a power imbalance. And it might contribute to an overall feeling, especially among community college students: “college isn’t about what I learn; it’s about meeting all of these rules – different ones for each professor! I can’t be successful.”

High expectations with care

So what’s the alternative? Maybe you’re reading this and thinking to yourself, “Okay, I get this, but I still want students to use proper email etiquette.”

Me too! This is where we practice the balance of trauma-informed teaching: holding high expectations and communicating care at every step along the way.

Here’s how I do this around email in my classroom:

The first assignment of the semester is to read a short article about how to write professional emails to college instructors. Just google “how to email a professor” and there are several options to choose from. I used this one last semester.

The second half of this assignment is to send me an email, using the tips from the article. I ask students to introduce themselves to me in this email, tell me something awesome about themselves, and share the last book they read. This serves several purposes: I can assess whether they understood the content of the article, and I also start to build relationship. I reply to each of these emails, making a connection about what they shared, and if necessary, giving feedback if they didn’t follow the email format from the article.

This assignment alone does 99% of the work for me. I’ve found that over the semester, most students follow the format, most of the time. If I get any particularly egregious outliers, I respond to the content of the email first (“Hi Andrew, I’m sorry to hear that you’re sick. Please check Moodle this afternoon for next week’s homework”) followed by any feedback about the form of the email (“One more thing – your email was a little hard to follow. If you scroll back up to our Week 1 assignments in Moodle, you can reread the article about how to write professional emails. Thanks!”).

I also encourage students to email me often. In my experience, reaching out for help is the difference between a student who fails or drops the class and a student who struggles but still passes. I want students to reach out, even if they don’t do it “right.”

Finally, I never ignore an email from a student.

Embracing the “both/and”

Trauma-informed teaching is often about the “both/and.” We can both hold high expectations and communicate care. We can both treat adult learners as adults and recognize that “being an adult” doesn’t mean going it alone.

To build a trauma-informed college classroom, I encourage instructors to critically look at how they might decrease zero-tolerance policies and seek to prioritize relationship. Learning is messy; so is healing from trauma. Embrace the mess and we can all be a little more human together.

Trauma-Conscious Teaching Microcredential: Spring Dates

Along with my colleague Robert Black at Antioch University, I’m pleased to continue offering this rigorous microcredential in Trauma-Conscious Teaching. The goal of this program is to help teachers build a strong foundation from which to create trauma-informed learning environments. Each experience is designed to deepen your understanding and also give you practical tools for your classroom and your own reflective practice.

Trauma Conscious Teaching

We’re pleased to now be offering all of the pieces of this microcredential online! See below for spring/summer dates, and click through for descriptions. Get in touch if you have any questions!

Teacher’s Trauma Toolbox

Two webinars: May 8th & 15th, 7:00-8:30pm EST

Book Study: Fostering Resilient Learners

Online book group: April 15th through May 3rd, asynchronous, with a Zoom meeting 4/30 at 7pm EST

Book Study: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog

Online book group: July 8th through August 9th, asynchronous, with a Zoom meeting 8/6 at 7pm EST

Preventing and Addressing Vicarious Trauma

Webinar: January 30th, 7:00-8:30pm EST OR June 12th, 7:00-8:30pm EST

Trauma-Conscious Pedagogy & Reflective Practice

Mini online course: April 1 through April 26th, asynchronous 

Introduction to Mindfulness and Heart Practices (taught by Robert Black)

Webinar series: Feb 26, March 19, April 9, & April 30 (all at 6:30 to 8:00 pm EST)

Learn with me: spring course information

This spring, I’m excited to be teaching an online class called Beyond the Buzzword: Deepening Knowledge & Practice of Trauma-Informed Education. It’s a 3-credit graduate course, fully online with three real-time video calls so we can connect and talk about our learning. 

In this class, I’m hoping to push past the “101-level” understanding of trauma-informed education and think critically about questions like these:

  • How does identity intersect with trauma?
  • How do we talk about trauma and does it matter? (For example -should we say “trauma-sensitive” or “trauma-informed”? Why?) 
  • Can a school emphasize compliance and also be trauma-informed? 
  • What can we learn from experts in the clinical field who have been doing this work for a long time? 
  • What does trauma-informed school policy look like? 

I’m not the end-all expert on trauma and learning, and a lot of these questions don’t have straightforward answers. I’m hoping to cultivate a learning community through this course, developing our understanding together.

We’ll be guided by two excellent (and very different) texts: 

Troublemakers by Carla Shalaby will help us explore the connection between trauma, compliance, and freedom.

The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog by Bruce Perry will help us face the grim reality of child abuse and neglect and teach us about the connections between trauma, attachment, mental health, and the brain. 

I’ll also be sharing from the collection of articles, research, blog posts, and other resources I collect on various aspects of trauma-informed teaching. 

I hope that you’ll consider joining me for this learning experience, or passing this information along to an interested colleague or friend. Feel free to email me with any questions! 

Trauma-informed teachers need trauma-informed administrators

Trauma-informed teachers need trauma-informed school leaders.

Teachers need support in order to support their students.

A trauma-informed school isn’t a collection of individual classrooms implementing a series of unconnected strategies. Trauma-informed work is about relationships, and relationships thrive in a healthy community where everyone has a sense of belonging and worth.

Administrators are key in setting the tone for this culture, and there are concrete ways you can do this. Here are some areas for school leaders to consider as they work toward a trauma-informed school environment.

Recognize that your teachers have experienced trauma, too

77% of teachers are women. 1 out of 3 women experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. Sexual violence is only one of many types of possibly traumatic experiences, but looking at those numbers alone should make you pause to consider the experiences that your teachers carry with them.

When you facilitate or provide professional development for your teachers, remember that these same teachers may be at any point in the process of managing the impacts of their own trauma: they may experience no adverse impacts, or every day they may be struggling with mental health and emotional wellness. Administrators must be mindful that teachers are carrying these experiences with them every day at the same time that they are being asked to support struggling students.

Administrators should use the same best practices that they ask teachers to use with students: provide flexibility, choice, and voice. Approach challenges with curiosity and empathy. Place a priority on autonomy and self-direction. Create opportunities for teachers to take a break during an overwhelming day, or take a day off to rest without being judged.

In addition, administrators should be sure that teachers are aware of the internal and external supports available to them. Is there counseling provided through employee assistance? What resources are available through the school or union for teachers who need extra help? Do teachers know about community organizations that serve adults? Make this information available to all staff, and play your part in destigmatizing mental health support.

Acknowledge that trauma occurs at school

Vicarious trauma, or the so-called “cost of caring,” has been written about in depth and administrators should educate themselves on how teachers may be struggling with it. Vicarious trauma is indirect – it’s the consequence of bearing witness to someone’s struggle.

But teachers may also be directly experiencing trauma in your school. One definition of trauma is when dangerous events overwhelm our capacity to cope. A teacher who has witnessed or been a target of violence within the school may experience this as traumatic. They also may not – it depends a lot on the specific situation, the coping skills of the person involved, and the preventative or risk factors both inside and outside of school.

Pay special attention to special educators, teachers who help intervene in crises, or teachers working with children who get physically or verbally aggressive. When there’s a critical incident involving a student, make it a part of the follow-up protocol to touch base with the teacher to see how that teacher is doing and what he needs.

We can expect teachers to be professionals about the difficult parts of their jobs, but we need to also expect them to be human. Use your leadership to make it okay to respond like a human to a tough day, and provide empathy and care on those tough days.

Put your time where your values are.

It’s heartening to hear administrators talk about the value of self-care. But if we tell teachers “practice self-care!” without actually providing the supports to do so, we’re just victim-blaming (“Burned out? Guess you didn’t self-care enough”).

A trauma-informed school leader recognizes that teachers are whole humans, trying to show up in full humanity for their students, and this can be draining and exhausting. Instead of presenting a PowerPoint about self-care, a trauma-informed school leader makes time within the school schedule for breaks. They create time for processing and making meaning in small groups. They offer flexibility and encouragement for teachers to actually use personal days, take vacations, and go home on time.

Trauma-informed school leaders create a culture where care is communal, not just a responsibility of the individual on her own time.

Know your role

Again, the work here is parallel to what teachers should be doing in the classroom. Our job is not to be a “trauma detective,” but rather to provide universal supports to all.

For administrators: don’t be a trauma detective with your staff. Especially because you have a professional relationship, provide opportunities for social-emotional support for all your employees but don’t expect any of them to reveal personal information.

Provide opportunities for your employees to connect with you as a person, but let them choose the level of vulnerability. If you’re worried about the wellness of an employee, ask “Are you okay?” but provide multiple paths for the teacher to get their needs met. Maybe talking to you is appropriate, but going back to my previous point, this is where it will be helpful to be able to provide other resources.

Use your leverage

As an administrator, you are uniquely positioned to make a big impact on inequitable systems, unsustainable working conditions, and allocation of resources. Do your research about the systems-level changes that make a difference for students who experience trauma, and then use your position to advocate for those changes.

Ask your teachers what they and their students need. Let them know you will fight for them, and then do it. Instilling hope is an essential part of a trauma-informed environment – you can do this through your pursuit of justice. Now get to work!