Table of Contents for this Blog Series
Way back in… (checks calendar)… August 2021, I started reading Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education by Alexis Shevrin Venet. Simultaneously, I also tried out new techniques for engaging with professional reading to maximize my learning. Looking back at my previous posts while reading the book, I’m really happy with the depth of my engagement. I’ve got detailed summaries of the first four chapters along with personal connections and wonderings I made along the way.
However, this turned out to not be a sustainable process. In October 2021 I started substitute teaching and that ate up a lot of my time. (In a good way. I’ve been happy to help out at schools in my community knowing how desperately substitutes are needed.) I didn’t even touch the book again until a week or so ago. I really wanted to finish it, but at the same time I knew I couldn’t devote the same amount of time to reading and blogging about each chapter. I made a decision to split the difference. I continued reading the book, but I opted to capture only brief summaries of the remaining chapters, which are all collected in this final post. It’s not as rich of an experience, but I have managed to finish this inspiring book (Yay!), and I still have an artifact I can come back to in the future as I implement what I’ve learned from the reading.
Chapter 5: Four Proactive Priorities for Decision Making
We need to make equity-centered, trauma-informed education core to our decision making, not an add-on. Four priorities for decision making (not in any particular order):
- Predictability – Does our decision make things predictable? Is the decision itself predictable? While we don’t want to be so rigid that we’re inflexible, we do want to aim for predictability to provide a sense of safety and calm for our students, particularly those who have been harmed by trauma.
- Flexibility – Does this decision include flexibility? “The key is to identify what’s truly important and let go of how tightly we hold on to how and when students get there.” (p. 75) Being flexible can look like being unfair to some, which is why we need to create a “shared value that fairness isn’t as important as supporting one another with what we each need.” (p. 76)
- Empowerment – Does our decision foster empowerment? Does it include students’ voices and opinions? Are we attempting to control our students or are we attempting to give them control as much as we can?
- Connection – Does the decision foster connection? We know that traumatized children benefit from anything that increases the number and quality of a child’s relationships. We can and should make decisions that help build relationships with teachers, other students, support staff within the school, families, and community members/resources.
Shift 2: Rethink Your Role as an Educator
Chapter 6: Build Relationships Rooted in Equity
Relationships are important, but it’s important to know that relationships have the potential to heal and harm.
Teachers need to do everything we can to avoid having a savior mentality. This assumes that the students are broken and need fixing, rather than looking at how systems may need fixing to better support and prevent trauma.
Shift from savior mentality to unconditional positive regard, a mindset that focuses on the inherent skills, capacities, and values of every student.
We need to avoid having a deficit mindset about our students. This leads to inequities. Instead, we need to affirm our students’ values, interests, and strengths.
Chapter 7: Cultivate Unconditional Positive Regard
Unconditional positive regard means accepting students for who they are, not what they do. It means showing students kindness and respect unconditionally. Students do not need to earn our kindness and respect by achieving good grades or arriving to class on time. When I first read this chapter, I immediately thought of Islah Tauheed’s (Link) blog post “Empathy as a Radical Act” (Link). She doesn’t use the phrase in her post, but it is a beautiful example nonetheless.
Sustaining unconditional positive regard can be challenging because relationship building can be slow. It’s important to look for and celebrate the incremental changes and not to give up hope. It can be helpful to have a coach or at least someone to talk to to help keep you grounded, offer advice, and help you see small signs of growth that might be challenging to notice since you’re in the thick of it.
Chapter 8: Make Connections, Respect Boundaries
While building relationships is critical, it’s also just as important that we set boundaries so that we don’t find ourselves getting too involved or taking on a savior mentality. “Becoming a savior or a martyr not only is a recipe for burnout but also does a disservice to our students.” (p. 119)
Three principles to help create healthy boundaries are:
- Don’t be a trauma detective – We do not need to know all the details of our students’ trauma in order to support them in a trauma-informed way. Focus on what the student needs, not on what they are experiencing.
- Don’t be the only one – “Children need many more relationships in their lives than just one trusted teacher.” (p. 113)
- Be a connection maker – Teachers should serve “as a bridge to other caring adults and resources.” (p. 115) Teacher can help foster relationships among students, help students build connections with their communities in and out of school, and connect students to the right people and resources for support.
Shift 3: Move From Mindset to Systems Change
Change cannot only happen at the classroom level. We also need to consider the systems of schools, in particular policies and procedures that have the potential to help or harm students.
Chapter 9: Support Teacher Wellness
If we want teachers to support students in an equity-centered, trauma-informed way, then we need to ensure that we are also supporting teacher wellness to avoid and/or mitigate burnout and secondary trauma.
Leaders need to create a culture of care within their schools, and it needs to come first, not as an extra. This has to go beyond words. Instead we need concrete actions like frequent conversations with staff and students to find out how they’re doing and what they need, and taking the time to create a culture with shared values. “Care for all humans in your school should be the driving force behind decision making.” (p. 129)
Two ways to create a culture of care are:
- Helping the helpers: Leaders need to help their staff care for themselves. One way to do this is to provide opportunities for them to slow down and reflect rather than charging ahead piling on stress and trauma.
- Reflective supervision: This is “an ongoing, relationship-focused time set aside for the goal of supporting teachers.” (p. 133) These regular, authentic conversations can help increase teacher retention.
We need to go beyond surface level, cutesy wellness acts like donuts, chair massages, and yoga breaks. Rather, what educators need to support long-term wellness is:
- Time: Specifically look at time used for meetings. What times of the year should you avoid meetings because these are the toughest times for teachers? When can a meeting be an email instead?
- Money: All staff deserve fair pay and efforts should be made to ensure all staff in schools having a living wage that allows them to meet their own needs before being expected to meet the needs of all the students in their care.
- Support: Find out what your staff needs. Check in frequently to find out what changes might be needed to ensure everyone is heard and their needs are met.
- Autonomy: Don’t micromanage. Teachers need to the autonomy and agency to exercise their professional judgment and the resources to continually grow.
Chapter 10: Foster Professional Growth
Teachers face “initiative fatigue” as a result of competing priorities from themselves, their administration, the school district, and the state. Rather than view equity-centered trauma-informed education as yet another initiative, leaders need to commit to it and “live this commitment in everything [they] do.” (p. 140)
Leaders need to create shared values around equity-centered trauma-informed education. This can be done through hiring – how do we ensure we hire staff who align with our values? – and through coaching – how can we support the professional growth of our staff in alignment with our shared values?
One way to fight initiative fatigue is to make equity-centered trauma-informed education central to the school’s mission. If this is done then any professional learning should be chosen and implemented in alignment with this mission.
Leaders should also model their own learning. “School leaders need to be lead learners of equity literacy and trauma-informed practice.” (p. 143) Leaders need to affirm the identities of their staff and also be willing to admit when they do not have the background knowledge to support a staff member.
Leaders need to support those staff members “brave enough to speak truth to power.” (p. 145) They must “value feedback and welcome the leadership of teachers who push for equity and justice, even – especially – when that makes us uncomfortable.” (p. 145)
Chapter 11: Work Toward Policy Change
“One of the other essential roles of a school leader in advancing equity is to root out the status quo in its favorite hideout: school policy.” (p. 147)
Start by analyzing “any and all” (p. 148) current policies with an equity- and trauma-informed lens to determine what your current system values. An overarching question to ask during this work is, “Does this support a culture of care or a culture of compliance?” (p. 150) Be sure to include a variety of stakeholders in this work – students, teachers, administrators, parents, other family members or caregivers, and community members. The chapter includes an excellent policy review tool with reflection questions that can guide this work.
“Policies do not need to be harsh to be clear.” (p. 150)
Work within your sphere of influence and work to grow that sphere.
In addition to analyzing current policies, also imagine new policies. What could be put in place to better support students?
The chapter talks a lot about the school handbook and how this is one way schools can communicate policies and values. However if we want to ensure we are taking a “universal approach, implemented proactively,” (p. 153) we shouldn’t rely solely on school handbooks. Nor should we wait for students and families to ask for support. For example, schools should find a variety of ways to proactively share information on topics such as:
- The process for referrals to mental health support within or outside of school
- Teacher-student boundaries
- Basic needs and accessing support for them at school
“This is not easy work, and a lot of the work of systems change is outside of a teacher’s control.” (p. 154) But, again, teachers and school leaders should work within their sphere of influence and then work to grow that sphere. Rather than wait for policy change, teachers should consider creative forms of noncompliance with policies that run counter to values centered on equity and trauma-informed care. There are risks involved, and each person has to decide how much risk they can task, but know that when we do nothing we are “no threat to inequity” (Gorski, 2018).
Shift 4: Change the World From Inside Your Classroom
Teachers don’t need to be therapists, nor are they trained to perform this role. Rather, they are one part of a “web of support,” (p. 158) and what teachers, specifically, can do for students is teach them, “building on their strengths, skills, and interests.” (p. 158) Teachers’ sphere of influence may be the classroom, and that may sound limiting, but with the power to teach hundreds and hundreds of kids, teachers can empower those students to go out and change the world while they’re in the classroom or later in their lives.
Chapter 12: Examine the Curriculum, Disrupt Harmful Narratives
“Don’t tell students you believe they can climb the mountain. Climb it next to them and then point back and say, ‘Look, we climbed the mountain.'” (p. 161)
Children may blame themselves for their trauma, not realizing that children are never to blame for the trauma they endure. We can’t support children by telling them empty phrases like, “You matter!” Rather, “we have to create opportunities for work that actually does matter.” (p. 162)
Teachers should employ critical pedagogy, teaching practices that foster social consciousness and justice. (p. 162) In our classrooms “social justice is a driving force, not an ‘extra.’ Individual lessons that address social issues need to take place in the overall context of a classroom where students engage in real conversations about identify, race, and equality.” (p. 162)
Three considerations when using critical pedagogy:
- Building critical consciousness – Help students understand the structural factors that impact us as individuals in order to disrupt false narratives such as the US being a meritocracy
- Disrupting harmful narratives – “The messages we learn in childhood can shape how we interact with the world for the rest of our lives.” (p. 167) Importantly, small comments add up. We should help students unpack and understand their visible and hidden identities. We should also help them understand the realities of history. All of this should be done with a focus on emotional safety so as not to traumatize or re-traumatize students.
- Navigating the complex issues of oppression – Oppression isn’t only historical, we should be addressing “what happens in the world around us and help students make meaning of it.” (p. 173) “…student concerns and fears will not disappear if adults ignore them.” (p. 173) In fact, there can be a healing power to discussing issues of oppression. In particular we need to ensure we “highlight stories of resilience, healing, and action alongside discussions of trauma.” (p. 174) We also need to strive for balance so that we aren’t overwhelming or bombarding our students, remembering that the classroom can also be a place of respite and shared joy.
Chapter 13: Get To Work: Activism and Action as Healing
While schools can be a place of harm for students, they can also be a place of healing. To reiterate what’s been said before, this does not mean that teachers need to become therapists. It is not the role of a teacher to help students work through their trauma. Rather, “a healing environment is one in which students are validated, affirmed, and cared for, one in which students feel a sense of agency and the ability to make positive changes in the world.” (p. 180)
Teachers can co-create classroom communities where students feel like they belong and their voices are heard. Teachers can also design learning experiences that empower students. These can be long-term projects designed to address an issue in the community, but they can also be smaller experiences such as teaching students how to locate the contact information for their elected representatives. The important thing is that teachers are doing this work collaboratively alongside their students.
It’s important to know that while we can empower students through activism, it doesn’t mean we can ignore our role as teacher activists. If we know changes are needed in our schools, we should advocate for change to prevent further harm, not wait for students to take up the cause.
“In equity-centered trauma-informed schools, we acknowledge and witness the harm, trauma, and pain of our world. We create classrooms where students and teachers can be fully human: affected by trauma but not defined by it, hurting but also learning, struggling but also growing and already whole. And we create sites of possibility. We tell our students, We believe you can change the world. Let’s work on it together.” (pp. 185-186)
“Ending trauma is an exercise in loving the question, not seeking the answers.” (p. 189)
“There are no one-size-fits-all strategies, and there should not be any one-size-fits-all models for schools. The needs of each community are different, and our dreams for education in our communities should reflect that.” (p. 190)
“Fighting for equity often means endless uncomfortable conversations with colleagues as we interrogate the biased philosophies underpinning curriculum choices or school policy.” (p. 191)
Taking a stand means taking risks. Decide the level of risk you can stand, and then take it.
“To be trauma-informed is to be committed to the end of the conditions that cause trauma.” (p. 192) (Conditions in and out of school)
“…we need to work on the big issues of injustice while also doing the immediate work in our classrooms.” (p. 192)
“Hope isn’t just wishing that things can be better but daring to work toward making things better, even in the face of an uncertain future.” (p. 193)
“There is a teaching I return to often, from the Jewish scholarly text the Talmud: ‘It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.’…Knowing that we can’t or won’t do it all shouldn’t stop us from beginning.” (p. 193)
This book covers a lot of ground – as evidenced across this lengthy blog post series! – but here are three of my takeaways:
- Equity-centered trauma-informed education is a lens, not a checklist of actions. While schools can cause harm and trauma, the book shows us how schools also have the potential to prevent and heal from harm. This lens should be at the center of decisions made at all levels within the school system, not just within individual classrooms. Our aim is to provide universal support because we never know who is experiencing trauma. Rather than focusing on issues of fairness, we should focus on ensuring all students have access to and are receiving what they need.
- Teachers are not therapists, nor should they feel like they need to be therapists. It is not necessary (or appropriate) to know each individual student’s trauma. Rather, we need to assume that every one of our students is experiencing life and that may include trauma. Our role is to be one of many supports available to them through the relationships we build in our classroom, the lessons we teach, and the resources we provide or direct them to. Our students need to know we stand alongside them.
- Get started. We can’t keep waiting for someone else to take the first step. We can’t keep waiting until we feel like we’ve learned “enough” before we act. It’s not all on the shoulders of any one of us to fix every problem. We each have control over some things, so we each need to start making decisions that are equity-centered and trauma-informed in the areas we have control over. Then we can grow our spheres of influence over time.
Thank you to Alex Shevrin Venet for this wonderful and inspiring book! I look forward to continuing to refine my lens, standing alongside students, and working to change systems to both prevent and respond to harm in our schools.