Rethinking holidays in schools

Schools are social institutions, agents not just of academic education but of socialization and transmission of cultural norms. We must be intentional, critical and reflective when we make choices about how we carry this responsibility. Holidays are just piece of a broader puzzle about inclusion, cultural responsiveness, and equity, but I’ll use this time of year as a good opening for conversation.

Every school should approach holidays and celebrations differently based on the particular community it serves. Here I’ve generated some questions that might serve as a starting place for conversations within your setting about looking at holidays with a critical eye and making some intentional decisions about how to move forward. Honest, vulnerable conversations are the first step to increasing equity, inclusion and a sense of belonging for all.

Questions to ask ourselves, in no particular order:

  • Which religions’ holidays are acknowledged at my school? What are the ways they are acknowledged?
    • Are these acknowledgements intentional, or are they just “what we have always done?”
  • Which holidays are celebrated by the school as an institution? Are we spending money and/or time as a school on some holidays? Which ones? Who chooses? Why?
    • When thinking about money and time, consider: decorations, special foods, parties/dances/celebrations, special class materials, etc
  • Are students, staff and faculty supported to observe holidays in ways that are meaningful to them?
    • Example: what do we do as a school to accommodate people who are fasting for a religious observance?
  • Which religious and/or national holidays merit a school closing? Why? Who makes those decisions?
  • Who makes decisions about which religious and/or national holidays are acknowledged/celebrated? Do we have a “default” set of holidays that we all assume we will celebrate?
  • How often are we disrupting our school’s routine in order to celebrate or acknowledge holidays? Why? Is the disruption in routine worth the benefit? Is there a benefit?
    • Example: do we have holiday parties, assemblies, or special schedules? Are classes doing activities unconnected to their learning goals around holidays?
  • Which holidays, celebrations and other times are important to our students, our families, our staff and our community? Have we asked this recently?
  • How do we balance honoring and celebrating students/families/teachers and their cultural and religious values with a commitment to inclusion for all and not preferencing one culture over another?
  • How are teachers incorporating holidays into classes? Are teachers incorporating this in an educational and culturally responsive way, or do they perpetuate a preference for the dominant culture’s holidays?
    • Example: math word problems themed around how many Christmas presents Timmy can buy with X amount of money, vs. an educational piece around how Christmas is celebrated in different cultures and what that means in reference to our learning goals
  • Is our school participating in tokenism and/or perpetuating surface-level or incorrect understanding of holidays?
    • Example: if our school acknowledges Hanukah but not Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur, we likely do not have a good understanding of the significance or meaning of different Jewish holy days.
    • Example: are we asking students from non-dominant cultures to take on the responsibility of educating their classmates, while assuming that students from dominant cultures don’t need to educate or explain things to others? Why?
  • Do we acknowledge the increase mental  health and wellness challenges that occur around Christmas/winter holiday time? What are we doing to support students, families, teachers and community members who may experience increased challenges during the winter?
  • Have we examined seemingly non-religious holidays such as Halloween and Valentine’s Day from different lenses? Have we examined whether those days actually do carry religious and cultural meaning? Have we questioned whether there is value in acknowledging/celebrating them, or do acknowledge/celebrate them unquestioningly?
  • How are we talking about holidays, especially Christmas? Are we using language that includes or excludes – and I’m not talking about saying “Happy holidays” instead of Merry Christmas.” Are we using conversation prompts like “What was the best thing you ate for Thanksgiving?” or “What was your favorite Christmas/Hanukah present?” or even “Did you have a great break?” that make assumptions, or are we using neutral questions that allow students space to share any experience?
  • Do we have our own rituals, routines and celebrations as a school? How do we support students to build community with one another in ways that are not connected to religious or national routines, rituals and celebrations?

 

I would love to see some additional questions to add to this list – add them in the comments! I would also love to hear if anyone thinks through any of these questions, on your own or at your school – let me know in the comments or link to your own post!

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.

 

 

 

Parents are Students Are Parents Are Students…

It’s been really disheartening to me lately, especially in my role doing online engagement work with Edutopia, to see educators type things along the lines of “I really care about each and every one of my students. Those parents, though…” Another common one is “I can only do so much but those parents need to…those parents should…those parents shouldn’t.” It’s disheartening because I strongly believe that when we make a commitment to support our students as “whole children,” we commit to supporting students in their family and home context. This means pulling family members closer to us instead of writing them off, engaging caregivers even when they frustrate us, and doing everything we can to see past old excuses and blame-based commentary. Saying we support “the whole child” but giving up on parents we perceive as “not involved” is giving up on the child themself.

Our students’ parents are the same humans as our students. Sometimes this is literal: our students grow up and have children and we educate those children, or our students have children while they are with us and we educate those children. Sometimes, this is figurative: our students are human members of our community, and their parents and family members are human members of our community. If our goals in education center democracy and citizenship, we must model a respect and inclusion of all community members. This means seeking understanding and building connections. It means talking about the parents of our students as if they were in the room with us. It means checking our assumptions, examining our biases, and seeking to educate ourselves on cultural differences so we can build stronger relationships. Being in community with humans- our students and their caregivers and families – means actively advocating for change and dismantling the systems that oppress the humans in our communities.

This isn’t easy work. But to quote the Talmud: You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

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When I’m interacting with a student’s family and I feel defensive, annoyed, frustrated, angry, or scared, that’s a clue to me that I need to take some time to check my own emotions and get some perspective, often through checking in with trusted colleagues. I need to re-center the student and re-commit to unconditional positive regard for the entire family. I must evaluate whether I’m playing into a negative script or whether I’m writing new one, collaboratively with the people with whom I’m trying to connect.

I wrote some practical tips and conversation-starters for a community post on Edutopia: click here to read more. Bottom line? Empathy is everything, and it’s essential especially when it’s not easy.  Our students are the community is our students are their parents are our community and on and on. Let’s do our best to empathetically engage with them all.

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.

Getting started with trauma-informed teaching

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Steve Snodgrass, flickr Creative Commons

 

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 intended 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.

Concrete Strategies and Day-to-Day Tips

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

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

20 Tips to Help De-escalate Interactions with Anxious or Defiant Students (by Katrina Shwartz on Mindshift) – anxiety/defiance are fairly common presentations for students with a trauma history. Some nice preventative and responsive strategies here.

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.

Bigger Picture Approaches and Frames

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.

Background Information/Learn More

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

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

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

Oakland Elementary School Uses Tupac’s Poetry to Help Children Deal with PTSD (Jamilah King on Mic) – this looks at a specific school’s approach but also gives a great summary of the impact of exposure to violence for youth.

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.

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.