In this blog post I reflect back on my recent experience as a principal of a large urban elementary school that, over four years, embraced trauma informed practice as an essential part of good instruction.
I walked into my office after morning announcements to review my plan for the day. I had appointments with three teachers to see their guided math groups, a new strategy that teachers were excited to launch. This trio all taught different grades, and all were leaders on their team. Each one was excited about guided math as a way to differentiate math instruction, and I was excited to support them. Even better, I had the forethought to book a substitute teacher to cover each class for 30 minutes so we could meet, reflect on how guided math was going, and what else we could do to support learning. In short, my plan was to be the instructional leader of my school. Then my plan dissolved.
“Assistance is needed in room 6.”
“I’m on my way.”
“Assistance is needed in room 12.”
I called my Assistant Principal Connie. “Connie, I know you’re supposed to be meeting with the second grade team, but are you available to stop by room 12?”
“Sure thing, Tim, I’m on my way.”
“Assistance is needed in room 24.”
“Goodness,” I thought, “We just finished morning announcements 15 minutes ago!” I heard Connie through the radio, “Tim, I just saw Diane and asked her to head to room 24.” Of course, I know that Diane is supposed to be teaching a math intervention group, but, like many days, right now, our team needs Diane in room 24.
I grab my radio to answer. “Thanks, Connie, update me when you can. I just got to room 6. Camden’s having a rough morning, and it looks like the rest of the kindergarten class went outside with the teacher.” As I walk in, I see a beleaguered Mrs. Soto standing in a doorway watching her class take an unexpected recess during what was supposed to be reading while Camden knocks over baskets of markers, scissors, papers, and glue sticks throughout the classroom.
“Dr. G-S, I don’t know what happened! We were following his behavior plan, and everything was going well! Then, when morning circle was over, he started knocking stuff over!”
We know Camden can be unpredictable, and we also know that without us, Camden wouldn’t have regular meals. We also provide him clothes, snacks, hugs, presents for the holidays, school supplies, and free eye exams. If his family would sign the permission slip, he could get the glasses he needs for free too. Once, Camden refused to leave the courtyard water fountain. It turns out that the water at his house had been turned off for a week.
Right now, though, Camden sees me and realizes that something has gone terribly wrong. Always ready to fight, flee, or freeze, he crawls under a table, gives me the middle finger, and calls me a f***g b***h. Yesterday it was “f***g f***t,” and I got two middle fingers, so I felt happy with the progress. Keeping my distance, I sit down on the floor, lower my voice and say, “Hey, dude, you look mad. We’re not mad though. We just want you to feel better. Want to sit with me for a bit?” Camden nods and crawls into my lap. I wrap my arms around him, and we both feel each other relax a bit. In a few minutes we’ll start cleaning up the room and trying to repair the damage done to his relationships with his peers and his teacher.
Meanwhile, I hear the radio buzz. “Hey Tim and Connie, it’s Diane. Just want you to know that Garrett swore at his teacher and ripped up his essay on mythical creatures. He’s going to take his stuff with me and work on it while I finish my math group.” “Thanks, Diane,” I answer, “I’ll check in when I can. Let Garrett know I’m glad he’s feeling better and that I’ll help him with the writing if he wants.”
Shortly after, I hear Connie on the radio, “Tim, Angelina changed into a swimsuit, ran out of her classroom, and is now taking books off the library shelves. She plans on reading them at the pool.” Because my team is skilled of heart and mind, we all laugh. After all, humor is often the best self-care we can find!
In my first year as principal of this school, we had three students who were survivors of trauma and had needs as severe as Camden, Garrett, or Angelina. By my fourth year, we had three students in every grade needing high levels of support, and each of them had experienced several traumatic events. Often, we knew many of our students were experiencing trauma over and over again, and there was little we could do to prevent their suffering.
As much as I loved Camden, each time I had to skip a coaching conversation with a teacher to coach him off of his desk, I felt morally injured. Meeting the academic, social and emotional needs of students who suffered severe psychological trauma frequently meant that other students’ academic, social, and emotional needs came second.
Principals are not alone—when teachers and staff know that they have students who have experienced trauma and need their support, yet have little access to training, resources, or strategies needed to help, they also suffer moral injury. (Alisic, 2012). Trauma informed practice ought to be the norm throughout our districts, schools, and classrooms, yet system-wide access to this kind of professional learning for educators is scant. Thankfully, educators who’ve suffered moral injury can heal, and even work to prevent moral injury to others. Here are three commitments to make towards keeping trauma informed practice a daily discipline.
Commitment one: Think beyond the moment. When principals, teachers, and staff spend significant portions of their day supporting students in crisis, looking beyond the current struggle to recognizing the growth that is happening can be a challenge. Like a tree adding one barely perceptible ring inside its trunk each year, positive changes in our students needing the most support tend to accumulate over time. Thinking beyond the moment helps us notice the steps we’ve taken rather than focus on the miles left to go. For example, now in first grade, Camden trusts us enough to go directly from morning announcements to class nearly every day. Camden still needs a tremendous amount of support in the classroom, but he has learned to express his feelings in ways that respect his peers and his teachers. This is good news, and happened because we were no longer a trauma-blind school.
Commitment two: Be consistent. Because Connie, Diane, and I showed up each and every time we were called, we could model trauma informed practice to teachers. Slowly, teachers noticed what we were doing and began to implement practices that helped students feel safe as soon as they walked into the classroom, regulate their emotions, and see themselves as in control of their decisions (Crosby, Howell, and Thomas, 2018).
Being a school leader, whether as a principal or as a teacher, in schools and classrooms with many students who have survived trauma can sometimes be unimaginably hard. Do it anyway, and do it every day. Be consistent in how you support your students and your colleagues in becoming more trauma informed. Students may need several years in a trauma informed environment before their healing becomes visible, yet healing absolutely begins the first moment that the trauma-informed teacher builds relationships with each and every one of their students.
Commitment three: Keep learning. Whether at CITY Center for Collaborative Learning, within your district, or through some other avenue, seek out professional learning programs to help you build a trauma informed learning environment. Your classroom, school, or district can be the place where healing begins. Edutopia has several helpful articles, and “Trauma Informed Practices Benefit All Students” is a good one to read first. Another outstanding website for school leaders is the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative.
Camden—along with his classmates—is able to learn because his teachers and his school leaders have become trauma informed practitioners. Think beyond the moment, be consistent, and keep learning.