Over the past week I’ve participated in quite a bit of professional development with the other members of my team. The main focus has been on the brain science behind trauma-informed instruction. We are using a book called Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain to learn the why behind some of the strategies we use in our school. A guiding principle in our community is that a large number of our students have experienced trauma or adverse childhood experiences (ACES). Our population is predominantly students of color who qualify for free or reduced breakfast and lunch and who live in the Detroit metropolitan area. Many have experienced racism, poverty, and various other traumas, but even if they hadn’t before 2020, they have certainly experienced trauma (loss of schooling, loss of family members, financial hardship, etc.) because of Covid. For that reason, our network of schools has adopted a whole suite of practices that fall under the umbrella of trauma-informed instruction.
We understood from this week’s training that the brain’s ability to think and process information can be interrupted if it feels the body is in physical or emotional danger or if it doesn’t feel a sense of belonging in a community. Brain science teaches us that the brain stem is continuously searching for danger; if danger is perceived, all of its energy goes to reducing the threat through actions many of us know as fight, flight, freeze or appease. So, before we can hope to build community or engage our students in learning, we must first create a space that is safe, predictable, and consistent.
With that in mind, we have always emphasized common building norms and expectations such as teachers standing at our thresholds to greet students, having a strategically arranged classroom, and using consistent instructional practices such as Do Nows, Exit Tickets, and other practices of the No-Nonsense Nurturer model. This year, our school is being additionally intentional, using the first week of school to set culture and behavioral norms across all classrooms through common slide decks that the instructional coaches and I have prepared for use by ALL teachers. The first period that students are in the building, ALL teachers and students will review the same community guidelines — focused on ensuring our students that they are safe in our school. The second period that students are in the building, ALL teachers and students will review the same school-wide behavioral expectations — focused on ensuring our students that they are partners in keeping our school threat-free for all. Throughout the first week, teachers will ALL play community-building games and review classroom systems that they will use throughout the school year so that students, who are hopefully beginning to feel safe, can begin to feel engaged within their classrooms.
That’s the second function of the brain, the limbic system’s focus on finding relationships and belonging, also a prerequisite for learning. Our network, with the understanding that the highest functions of cognition cannot happen until students’ safety and belongingness needs are met, has initiated the school-wide adoption of a social-emotional learning curriculum that was piloted last year. This program, Character Strong will be used in every classroom every Wednesday morning. Its content focuses on self-awareness, goal-setting, and community building. The hope is that the more safe, the more connected, the more self-aware our students feel, the better they will be able to engage with rigorous curriculum.
And they do need curriculum! Our standardized test data from last year is not great — I’m not sure that anyone’s is post-Covid! This makes sense! The whole world was collectively in survival mode — our brain stems were at high alert!! It’s no wonder we suffered socially and academically — we were all collectively fighting, flighting, freezing, and appeasing ourselves into a tizzy! This is evidenced by the ways that we treated each other — not as the collective that we are, not as members belonging to each other, but as freaked out individuals trying to scratch our ways to survival.
But guys, it’s time to return to our right minds, and the only we can do that that is by taking actions that remind ourselves (and our brain stems) that we are safe, held, loved, supported and part of a community.
In my classroom, that looks like order and predictability. It looks like standing at my door each morning, greeting each student by name, smiling, and tracking their language (verbal and non-verbal) so that I can attend to any signs of distress and minimize any further triggers. It also looks like an orderly room — I have desks facing one direction; seats will be assigned, but those assignments are flexible based on student feedback. Everyone has adequate space, all can see the screen where I project the goals and content for the day and the white board where I display my students’ learning data so that they can track their progress. We track this progress as a whole class — where are we together? what do we need to do so that all of us can succeed together? We set goals together; we work together; we celebrate together. We are a community.
In my personal life, it looks like continuing my practices of healthy eating, regular exercise, and plenty of physical and mental self care and adding community practices such as a ride-share with a colleague, which will ease the driving burden for both of us and provide time for building relationship in our 25-minute drive each day. We will both have heavy loads at work, so we are intentionally building in support because we are caring for ourselves while caring for each other.
As we move through the fall, using these safety and community-building practices, we will increasingly become available for academic challenge. After learning about brain science and viewing our student data, I identified a couple areas of focus for this year. I will, with everyone, focus in those first two weeks to build safety and community so that I can increase the rigor of instruction and the independence and agency of my learners. I met with my instructional coach (everyone in our building has a coach!) who agreed with my goals and to thought-partnering, challenging, and supporting me as I work toward them. I am very excited about this partnership.
Some teachers I know go back to their classrooms two days before school starts. They arrange their rooms, they make a seating chart, they pull out supplies, and that is enough for them to feel ready. That is not me.
I need every minute of the past week and the coming week to fully shift my mind from the relaxation and freedom of summer to the intentionality and rigor of the school year. I need to remember the traumas my students have endured; I need to be mindful of how my attitude can make or break the culture of my classroom; I need to remember the importance of every moment of instruction and the potential impact it might have on the futures of my students.
My principal says — and she’s dead serious — “We are saving lives here, team.” We are the potential last educational stop for many of our students. What we do and how we act can change or solidify the trajectory of our students’ futures. Our practices, our climate, our culture might just create the safe space in which our students can try to trust, begin to believe, and turn toward a life of transformation — one for themselves, but also one that impacts everyone they touch.
And isn’t that the most powerful thing we can give one another — the space, the safety, the confidence, the support, and the encouragement to be transformed?
I am looking forward to transforming right along with my students — what a privilege I have been given!
be transformed by the renewing of your mindRomans 12:2