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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
While these approaches aren’t specific to students with trauma, they support a school community where trauma-affected youth can thrive.
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.
Culturally Responsive Teaching, Anti-Racist Teaching, and Equity – trauma-informed practices need to be grounded in an overall equity approach. Find resources on the Educolor resource guide.
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 Schools Cause Trauma (Teaching Tolerance) – an essential perspective on how schools can perpetuate trauma and inequity, and how we might disrupt this
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
All Students Must Thrive (Tyrone C. Howard et al) – this is a fantastic text on the various factors that threaten student wellness and how teachers can disrupt inequality and oppression so their students can thrive.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
I hear a lot of conversations in educator spheres about “the power of relationship.” We all know relationship is important; we agree that caring about our students is essential if they are going to trust that they can learn safely in our classes. I’d love to see the conversation turn now to the how of powerful relationship with students. I’m lucky to work in a school where I have the luxury of time and a small ratio to get to know my students well, but I think anyone in any setting can build powerful relationship if they develop the skills to do so.
One small thing anyone can do is pay attention to her speech. How do your words line up with your stance toward students? Are students hearing in your everyday conversations how much you care about them? Here are some of my go-to phrases for aligning my walk with my talk.
Tell me more. I can spend all day trying to analyze, interpret and theorize what’s going on with my students, but I find that if I listen well enough, the student will tell me exactly what’s going on and what they need. Same with coworkers and staff.
I don’t know. Being in authentic relationship means being vulnerable. Whether it’s an answer to a math question – I really don’t know! – or an acknowledgement that I don’t know how it feels to be in foster care, in a fight with my step-dad, struggling with hunger – saying I don’t know allows me to be honest and allows my student to trust that I’m not just going to fake my way through our relationship. “I don’t know” is best followed up with but let’s figure it out together.
In response to a variety of questions, from “Can I take a break?” to “Can’t I just drop out of school?” to “Can I study medical marijuana?”: Yes – now let’s think about what that will mean – for you and for those around you. Starting with “yes” validates that what my student wants is valid, important, and ultimately, up to him, not me. Exploring choices is the meat of our work together.
I care about you. Not going to lie, it felt kind of weird the first few times I said the phrase “I care about you” that directly to students. But I think pretty much everyone deserves to hear loudly and often how much others care about them, and when I care about my students, I’m going to let them know and I’m not going to let them forget it.
I care about you but here’s how I was impacted by the choice you just made. There’s no such thing as a “good kid” or “bad kid,” just a kid with context who makes choices. I try to remember this in every moment I feel frustrated by a situation with a student, and then I try to say very clearly that I’m not dismissing the student herself, but hoping we can work through a choice she made. “I’ve seen you be kind to others before – so when you just called me a name, I was confused. Let’s talk about what’s going on.” Feels a lot better than “You can’t talk like that in here, go to the principal’s office,” doesn’t it?
You have value. If we are to prevent students from “falling through the cracks,” we need to remind them all day, every day that they have value and are valued by the community. Whether it’s recognizing a kind comment, strong academic work, increased effort, or even just showing up to school on a day they didn’t want to – these little recognitions add up to the message that you, yes you, have value here.
What are your go-to phrases, or best alternatives to “traditional teacher talk” that you use to help your students learn and grow, and to build positive relationship?