Teaching Doesn’t Get Easier

Wasn’t teaching supposed to get easier?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Always Talk About Students As If They Were In The Room

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

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

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

Here are some questions I’d rather answer:

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting started with trauma-informed teaching

Hope

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) – some foundational research on the impact of experiences which may be traumatic

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.

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.

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.

A New Texture of Normal

I want to write a hundred books. No, maybe a thousand. Or just worm my way into books that are already on the shelves, dropping seeds like Hansel and Gretel wandering through the library.

The plot of these books wouldn’t matter. The protagonists? They can be anyone. What I’m interested in are the characters in the background, on the sidelines, minor characters who provide texture and contrast. I have a mission for these characters.

Right now when I read books, especially those for young adults, these side characters do a lot of things casually. They go to basketball practice. They stand at their lockers. They text their girlfriends. They drive beat-up cars. Whether a vampire or a witch or a high school student or all three, the side characters do what they do and blend into the background. They give us a backdrop of “normal” against which the protagonist shines.

So here’s my mission for these side characters. I want them to create a new “normal.” I want to see the side characters take their antidepressants with lunch. I want them to drive in their beat-up cars to their therapists’ offices. Text their social workers, go to their IEP meetings, name their anxiety.

I don’t want these routines to be the focus of these books. There are already books about struggles and hardships, about being an exception to the rule. Let the protagonists speak to the pain and drama of anxiety, depression, substance use, mental illness. They have something powerful to say.

What I want with the background characters is to create a new kind of a texture, a texture that goes unremarked and unexamined, one that creates a new “normal” backdrop for the stories our teens read. In this backdrop, it’s normal to talk about your depression meds, to go to an alternative school, and to work through difficult emotions with support from adults. If I wrote a thousand books with this new normal as a background, maybe a thousand readers would see a glimmer of their own lives and feel validated and heard. Maybe they would tell a thousand friends, and then a thousand more.

Every one of my students is different and faces different challenges. I think, though, that they would all be served by a community that accepted mental health challenges rather than shied away, by a society that embraced open dialogue about emotions rather than discouraged real conversations. How many lives would be saved if young people everywhere felt like it was okay to share what feels heavy and dark, to bring their thoughts and feelings out into the light?

The good news is that I don’t need to write a million books to get my message across. Maybe it would help, but I can save a lot of time (and paper) if you’ll help do your part. It’s not enough to tell the young people in your life that it’s okay to ask for and receive help. Model it. Show them it is. Express yourself in authentic ways to show young people that they can do it too. Hold your judgement when you hear celebrity or local gossip around someone’s mental and emotional health. Carry yourself with an accepting stance and make time to hear young people’s thoughts. It’s not always easy, but it’s essential.

So will we rise to the challenge? Will we create a new texture of normal? What stands in our way? How do you already do this in your life? I’d love to hear…let’s open the conversation.