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.

 

 

 

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.

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.

Meta-Okay

Heading into this school year, a bunch of factors are creating an atmosphere of super-stress for my teachers, beyond the regular stresses of the job (and teaching is not a low-stress job). Beyond our giant and ever-present to-do lists, there are also elements of uncertainty – how will this work out? – and confidence – can I do this? Will we make it? 

Our students arrived at school today with many of the same feelings. Can I succeed this school year? How will things go? Will I make it through what feels impossible? 

In the midst of all of that, I’m tempted to say to teachers and students: “Don’t worry, it will all be okay.” “Everything will work out fine.” “Just you wait, it will get better.” 

It’s not a bad thing to be reassuring – but I wonder if instead I can try to foster the feeling of “meta-okay.”

I don’t remember where I first heard this phrase and I can’t take credit for it – but “meta-okay” to me means “It’s not okay, but that’s okay.” Meta-okay means accepting that things are actually not fine – accepting being the key word. 

I might more formally describe this as a type of frustration tolerance. It’s the ability to sit with things being unresolved, undefined, and still feeling alright in the midst of that. This skill takes lots of practice, and I don’t know if it ever stops feeling icky. Think of how you feel in the midst of a conflict with a friend or family member, while waiting for a phone call you know holds bad news, while grappling with a choice you wish you could undo. It takes self-regulation, mindfulness, and patience to tolerate “it’s not okay.” The more we practice, the more readily we reach for those skills when things are hard. 

I like the idea of meta-okay because it acknowledges that life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. When I say to a student or teacher, “don’t worry,” I dismiss their right to feel however they feel. I minimize that life is enormously difficult. I gloss over the fact that some problems are unsolvable and some questions unanswerable. 

I want to hold hope for my students, my staff and myself, and I do. Fostering the art of meta-okay is a way to strengthen this paradoxical hope: even in the tough times, we can use skills to be okay with the not okay. We can exist in the spaces between certainty and uncertainty. And in striving to live even just a little more comfortably in that space, we can begin to see a way through. 

This quotation from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet has been one of my touchstones for a long time, and I leave it here as a reminder of how I’d like to foster the meta-okay as we travel into this school year together. 

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Social/emotional skills, the feedback loop, and SuperBetter

What does it mean to be a friend? How do I manage strong emotions so I can meet my personal goals? Who am I? These are the questions my students explore at the therapeutic school where I teach. Developing social and emotional skills is hard work, and traditional talk therapy or skills work face-to-face does not reach every student. When maladaptive skills “work,” students may be less motivated to change. Finding a supportive community to explore these changes is hard, too, especially when a student’s family context is challenging. We need more creative ways to approach this therapeutic work.

We often hear hear about how online communities such as Facebook and Twitter are ruining our ability to communicate with one another. Teens get into texting fights, parents struggle to keep up with the latest form of communication, teachers try to balance technology integration. But what if we looked at online communities from a strengths-based perspective? How can online communities actually help people develop social and emotional skills? What are the ways in which we can use technology to our advantage in building our ability to have positive, meaningful relationships with others? There is not a large field of work on this topic, but I can offer some related thoughts and insights from the research and my own experience.

What can technology offer that face-to-face conversations or supports cannot? One of the most powerful uses of technology for social and emotional learning is the feedback loop. Thomas Goetz in a 2011 Wired Magazine article described the feedback loop this way:

The basic premise is simple. Provide people with information about their actions in real time (or something close to it), then give them an opportunity to change those actions, pushing them toward better behaviors. Action, information, reaction. It’s the operating principle behind a home thermostat, which fires the furnace to maintain a specific temperature, or the consumption display in a Toyota Prius, which tends to turn drivers into so-called hypermilers trying to wring every last mile from the gas tank. But the simplicity of feedback loops is deceptive. They are in fact powerful tools that can help people change bad behavior patterns, even those that seem intractable. Just as important, they can be used to encourage good habits, turning progress itself into a reward. In other words, feedback loops change human behavior. And thanks to an explosion of new technology, the opportunity to put them into action in nearly every part of our lives is quickly becoming a reality. (Goetz 2011)

The basic cycle of a feedback loop is data collection, meaningful feedback, consequences, and action. Say you want to impact your weight. You  might collect data about how many calories you eat each day. After collecting for a week, you turn this data into a chart of calories consumed – a chart that takes on emotional relevance through your ability to understand and relate to the data. The consequence of your actions become clear: maybe you need to eat fewer calories to lose weight, or you need to eat more to support your workout routine. Finally, you take action and adjust your behavior based on this new information. The feedback loop starts all over again.

Feedback loops are possible without the use of technology, but collecting, displaying, and interpreting data are much easier with the use of the supercomputers we carry around in our backpacks and pockets. Sites that use the feedback loop to positively impact social and emotional behavior could become powerful communities for change, especially with teenagers who often lament, “but how does this apply to me?” Inherent in the feedback loop is relevance, and relevance breeds motivation.

One such website I believe uses the feedback loop to its advantage is SuperBetter.com. SuperBetter was developed by Jane McGonigal, a game designer who created the game when dealing with suicidal thoughts after a traumatic brain injury. The game originated as “Jane the Concussion Slayer,” which she invited her sister and partner to play with her. When McGonigal asked her sister to play a game with her, it was “an easier way to ask for help” (McGonigal 2012). I think about my students and how difficult it is sometimes for them to ask for others to help them work on social and emotional goals, but how easy it might be for them to text or message a friend an invitation to a game.

“Jane the Concussion Slayer” grew into SuperBetter, a free online game (with a paid iOS app) that uses quests, power-ups, bad guys, and allies to help anyone get “superbetter” from anything. The game is customizable to a specific challenge, such as quitting smoking, or can be broad: you can set your objective in the game to “I’m just getting SuperBetter!” Once you create a “secret identity” for an avatar, you then specify your “Epic Win” – or why you want to improve. Behind each of these elements of the game is scientific research supporting how playing the game truly improves your health and wellness. Players can find this research distilled into easy-to-digest articles in the “Secret Lab” section of the website interface.

The game itself focuses on developing players’ resilience in four different research-based areas: emotional, social, mental and physical. Players use “power-ups” for small coping strategies, “quests” to learn new skills, and “battle bad guys” for reflecting on larger, overarching challenges. These categories are exactly the ways that we support students at my therapeutic school, but we do not use the feedback loop as effectively as SuperBetter. In SuperBetter, you gain points as you complete quests and power-ups in each area of resilience. You can go into your Secret Lab and view how your resilience has changed over time and the progress you are making in your well-being. SuperBetter collects the data from your actions in the game, presents it to you in meaningful ways through the gamification/”points” approach, and then you can make your decision on further actions based on how you see the activities supporting or not supporting you. The player then takes actions and the feedback loop starts over again.

However, the true power of SuperBetter is in the community it creates. You can do SuperBetter on your own – but the game encourages and rewards for you for enlisting “allies.” Through the design of the site, you essentially create a social network that is focused on you and your wellness. The set-up of the site allows for only people you have specifically invited to support you to access your activity. Your allies can comment and “like” your progress, award you achievements, and recommend tasks for you. The process brings your allies in and transforms them into part of your feedback loop, adding extra data to the set, making feedback more meaningful, and helping you to consider your consequences.

In SuperBetter’s “secret lab” section about allies, the research about social relationships is synthesized: “having at least two strong social relationships dramatically increases positive health outcomes and helps us succeed in our goals” (SuperBetter Labs 2012). Furthermore, SuperBetter defines what makes a positive social relationship: one that includes positivity, honesty, support and closeness. For students like mine, saying “strong social relationship” would not be sufficient to understand what types of allies one needs in the journey to bettering oneself. The research synthesis on SuperBetter (developed from peer-reviewed papers also linked to in the secret lab) describes those characteristics as well as the benefits of developing a strong relationship with an ally. In this way, SuperBetter not only supports the social and emotional growth between people, but actually teaches how to do this.

There is currently wide support in the field of education for “gamification.” In an article for Edutopia, Matthew Farber describes how gaming elements such as leveling up, achievements, badges, and Easter eggs are used in the classroom. Farber concludes that gaming is “the very definition of constructivism” (2013). The Mozilla Foundation further supports elements of gamification in a paper collaborating with Peer 2 Peer University and the MacArthur Foundation. Learning today takes place across multiple settings, not just a classroom, and in multiple means, not just rote memorization and testing. Yet, “institutions still decide what types of learning ‘count’, with little room or innovation, as well as who gets to have access to that learning” (2012). Badges are a “bridge between contexts” and support motivation, flexibility, and community-building. In SuperBetter, badges are called “achievements” and can be awarded from an ally to their “hero,” further supporting the social and emotional connections in the community.

In addition to the impacts of classroom integration, the act of playing games in itself can have positive emotional impacts. In one study, after playing “casual” video games such as Bejeweled, subjects experienced less physical and emotional stress.  (Russoniello et al 2009). However, these casual games are not social – and do not teach a regulation skill, they are in themselves a coping mechanism. Different research suggests that social online games can impact “real-world” relationship. In a study from Michigan State University, researchers found that people playing games on social networks could practice relationship skills such as initiating, maintaining, and enhancing relationship. They also found loose evidence that certain behaviors reinforced by Facebook games in particular – such as reciprocity – had a positive impact on relationship. (Wohn et al, 2011).

Can SuperBetter and gamification replace traditional means of building social/emotional skills? I doubt it, but I do have faith that using elements of gamification in therapeutic work can engage students. Gamification is another way of making learning visible, tangible, and putting it in the hands of the learner – and in my experience those traits lead to successful learning outcomes, both in content areas and in social/emotional skills. I plan to try SuperBetter with some of my students in the upcoming semester, and to encourage my teachers to use visible markers of learning to support our students’ growth.

References
Farber, Matthew. “Gamifying Student Engagement.” Edutopia. N.p., 2 May 2013. Web. 2 Dec.
2013. <http://www.edutopia.org/blog/gamifying-student-engagement-matthew-farber>.
Goetz, Thomas. “Harnessing the Power of Feedback Loops.” Wired Magazine 19 June 2011: n.
pag. Wired.com. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.
McGonigal, Jane. (2012 June). Jane McGonigal: The game that can give you 10 years of extra life
. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/jane_mcgonigal_the_game_that_can_give_you_10_extra_years_of_life.html
Mozilla Foundation, People 2 People University and MacArthur Foundation. 2012. Open badges
for lifelong learning. Mozilla Foundation. https://wiki.mozilla.org/File:OpenBadges-Working-Paper_012312.pdf
Russoniello, C. V., O’Brien, K., & Parks, J. M. (2009). The effectiveness of casual video games
in improving mood and decreasing stress. Journal of Cyber Therapy and Rehabilitation, 2(1), 53-66.
“Secret Lab: Allies.” SuperBetter. SuperBetter Labs, n.d. Web. 2 Dec. 2013.
<https://www.superbetter.com/heroes/197132/secret_lab#alliances>.
Wohn, Donghee Yvette , Cliff Lampe , Rick Wash, Nicole Ellison, and Jessica Vitak. “The ‘S’ in
Social Network Games: Initiating, Maintaining, and Enhancing Relationships.” Proceedings of the 44th Hawaii International Conference on Systems Sciences (2011): n. pag.Michigan State University. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.