Today on the podcast, Alex Shevrin Venet joins us to talk about her new book, Equity-Centered, Trauma-Informed Education. How does it work in classrooms? How can you, as an educator, use your own coping strategies to dismantle inequity at your school? Will action research help? And what does convincing your landlord to let you have a pug have to do with it?
Alex Shevrin Venet explains.
Jeanie: Thank you so much for joining me, Alex, tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.
Alex: Thanks for having me, Jeanie. I am an educator based in Vermont. For those of you in Vermont, I’m in Winooski and I’ve lived in Winooski for a few years and been in Vermont for, I guess, 12, 12 or 13 years at this point. It flies by when you live here. I say educator because that’s easier than explaining what I do on a day-to-day basis, which is I wear very many different hats all under the umbrella of education.
So one of the things I do is I teach at CCV — the Community College of Vermont. I teach sort of interdisciplinary humanities courses there. I also teach teachers through Castleton’s Center for Schools and through Antioch University. And those are kind of professional development courses for teachers. I do workshops and professional learning for educators, which lately has meant being on zoom a lot.
But pre COVID , I got to drive all around New England (and sometimes beyond) working with teachers in schools. And of course, I’m often writing for my own blog and for a few other websites. All connected to trauma informed education. So it’s easier to just say educator than to give the whole list. And I’m sure I left a few things out.
Oh! And my background, I should say, is in teaching middle and high school. I worked at an alternative therapeutic school, which I talked a lot about in the book. And that really sparked my passion for trauma-informed education. Cause that’s what we were doing day in, day out.
Jeanie: Thank you so much for sharing all of that. I sort of know you in lots of those different places, but not all of them. And you’re certainly the first person that comes to mind when I think trauma-informed education. When I want to look at an expert I think of you. I’m delighted to have you on the podcast.
So you have told us a little bit about yourself, but you really begin this book, Equity-Centered, Trauma-Informed Education by positioning yourself in relation to the work. And I wondered if you wanted to share a little bit about your positionality and what brought you to both trauma informed work and equity work.
Alex: Okay! So where I come to this work from is as a teacher.
And I try to say clearly in the book that I’m not a mental health clinician or therapist or psychologist.
I do sort of inhabit an interesting space, which is that I went to college to become a teacher. I got my teaching license in secondary education with an English endorsement.
And then I ended up working straight out of college at this therapeutic school.
At this therapeutic school, we cross-trained in educational professional development and also professional development from the clinical director in counseling techniques. And our role was called “counseling teacher”. So over the eight years — including summers — that I worked there, I tried to add it up once, but it’s really hundreds of hours of counseling-focused professional development. In addition to also hundreds of hours of education-focused professional development.
I kind of wished that all teachers had that because there are so many tools from counseling that are so helpful in teaching.
But even with all those hours, I still do not hold any type of clinical license. And I think that’s important to say because I wanted to write a book that was about being trauma-informed, but not trauma specific. Sometimes the two terms mix together a little bit, because a lot of trauma informed texts really look at: when I have a student who’s experienced trauma in my classroom, how should I help that student?
And that’s really important. There’s some things like counseling strategies that teachers can use or particular pieces from the neuroscience that teachers might be informed by. That’s really helpful. But in my book, I really wanted to look at:
What does it mean to be trauma informed in a more universal way? And in a way that doesn’t require me to really know, or even spend a lot of time dwelling on which of my students have experienced trauma?
So I positioned myself by just stating clearly that I’m an educator.
I’ve taught in this middle and high school setting. I’ve taught after-school programming for younger kids. And I currently teach community college and graduate students and adults. So I’m really bringing all of that experience as a teacher to this, in the hopes of reaching other teachers who hear the phrase “trauma-informed education”, and they go: Well, I’m not a counselor, is that really for me?
I’m trying to say, absolutely, this is for you. I’m also not a counselor. Let’s work on this together.
Jeanie: I love that way you’ve captured the the in-between of counseling and teaching, and the overlap between the two. And you can see that throughout your book.
I think there’s a way in which all of that — all of your learning, your deep learning and practicing — has led to you sort of talking about a shift in many schools.
We hear about folks doing trauma work with students, and they’re talking about the impact of a trauma. But you really reframe that in a way that I think is powerful, which is: how do we go from addressing impacts on kids, to addressing the causes of trauma. I wondered if you’d talk a little bit about that.
Alex: Yeah! So a lot of trauma- informed education resources frame themselves in this phrase over and over: “children who bring trauma to school”.
And so there’s almost this image of a kid, at home or somewhere out there, and this trauma happens. We don’t see it. We weren’t a part of it. Then they come to school and they’ve got this, like, backpack of trauma. And then it’s our job to respond to that.
But in reality, that’s not the full picture.
Because it is true that kids are experiencing trauma and, you know, quote-unquote “bringing trauma to school”. But it’s also true that kids who otherwise have not experienced trauma are experiencing trauma inside of our schools. That’s really hard to talk about because when we talk about that? We then have to acknowledge that we educators are complicit in that.
And that feels horrible.
That feels horrible to think about because teachers get into teaching because we love kids and we want to help them. We want them to grow. We want school to be a safe place.
But if you really look at the experiences, especially of marginalized people going through school, you will hear again and again about ways that people experienced trauma inside of schools.
Whether it is bullying or harassment by peers, whether it is teachers being hateful or or denigrating their students (which unfortunately is all too common experience), whether it’s connected to the curriculum and the ways that the curriculum was harmful or that the curriculum erased or invisibilized certain students, whether it was the stress of high stakes testing and the surrounding environment or connected to that.
I mean, there’s truly so many ways that students experience trauma inside of school.
If we’re willing to acknowledge that? Then trauma-informed education becomes about both what students are bringing to school and what students are bringing from school.
And that means that our role is to address that trauma that’s happening in school, and prevent it. Transform our schools into places where that’s not happening.
Jeanie: I read a couple paragraphs from your book that I found so powerful that echo just what you just said. This is from pages 27 and 28. And I put about 42 exclamation points around it.
“This is the uncomfortable truth: schools cause trauma and harm teachers and administrators as individuals can perpetuate this harm such as making derogatory remarks about children’s that racial identity or family school systems such as rules, policies, and procedures can cause trauma and harm.
For example, harsh discipline policies that refer children to the criminal justice system for behavior in school and students can cause trauma and harm to one another through bullying and harassment, especially when adults allow racism and other oppression to flourish. This can be painful to reconcile. I believe most educators get into teaching because we care about kids. We want to be part of schools that feel like communities. It’s tempting to look at the examples I just mentioned and say, well, that doesn’t happen in my school, or I would never caused pain to one of my students looking away, however, benefits, no one, if we want to create more equitable schools and systems for all students, we need first to reckon with practices and attitudes currently causing harm.”
That’s so powerful because it reminded me of the importance of doing the internal work and the external work in coordination with each other. And I see so much of that internal / external happening in your book, in the practices you suggest. I don’t know if you have any other thoughts on that. I just love this so much and the way you’re so clear about it.
Alex: Yeah. I mean, it’s a difficult thing to reflect on. It ties into all of the other types of reflective practice we have to do.
I think I probably use the phrase “both and” in my book about 7,000 times. And also if you’ve ever heard me talk for more than five minutes, also 7,000 times.
But it’s really just so key to everything, this idea of “both and” rather than either or.
I think about this paradox of teaching: that teaching is about me and it isn’t about me, right? It’s about the students.
And teaching is really human, right? It’s a person in a room with other people we’re in a zoom with other people. So it’s about me because I bring my perspective to everything that I’m doing, everything I’m saying, the choices that I’m making. And so there’s this need to say:
“Okay, well, I have to look at all these systems and structures and I have to look at on a very personal level. Have I committed any harm, even if I didn’t mean to? And what does that mean? How do I make it right?”
So yeah, it’s a complex knot to unravel, I think.
Jeanie: Yeah. I appreciate that. Because in honesty, like… we’ve all committed harm. Like, we’ve all done that unintentionally. And our intentions aren’t as important as the impact we’ve had, and how we move forward from that.
One of the things that really stood out in your book is that you make it really clear that you can’t be trauma-informed without also being anti-racist. You can’t be trauma-informed without fighting oppression beyond the school doors, in order to serve all students. And I really appreciated how clearly you state that.
I also felt the “both and” of like, it’s hard work for educators because some of the work will involve shame and regret for our past actions and our complicity. That kind of work takes space. And it takes a lot of support.
Alex: It does! Teachers do need a lot of support and space to unravel these things. And in part four of the book where I talk about systems change? One of the things I tried to do was really target leaders and administrators, and bring them into the work. Understanding that some readers are going to be classroom teachers and some readers are going to be administrators. But hoping that if you’re a teacher reading this book, something you take away is: I don’t have to do this all by myself. And I deserve support.
I really tried to in particular target administrators when I talked about wellness and reflective practice. Those are things that leaders need to set the stage for.
It’s great to tell a teacher, you know, “you should have reflective practice” and “take care of yourself”. That’s true and right; another “both-and”.
But you can’t just magically self care your way out of an incredibly stressful situation.
It’s really incumbent upon school leaders to set the stage so that teachers can delve into this work. So they can feel vulnerable. They don’t have to feel like if I mess up, then, you know, I’m outta here. So I think in order to really dig into, you know, unpacking your own stuff so that you can pick up this difficult work you have to have that backup.
Jeanie: We hear that and appreciate that. And I saw the layers in the way that you build this book. It’s like you’re asking administrators to do a layer of the work that’s very similar to the work you’re asking teachers to do. And I really appreciated the congruency between the different layers.
I also appreciated your ability to see it whole.
I’ve been using that phrase a lot, “seeing things whole”. To me, what that means is that that these aren’t separate parts, these aren’t separate layers of work, necessarily. These aren’t separate initiatives, but rather they’re complex pieces of the same puzzle, right? And they should work together.
On page one, you lay out right away: “Too often trauma-informed practices are considered a separate initiative from a school’s efforts to create educational equity. It’s time to change that equity. Centering trauma informed education is more than adding two together, existing trauma-informed education and equity initiatives. Instead, equity-centered trauma-informed education is an integrated and holistic approach.”
What I hear you just saying just now is that that means that that wellness and reflective practice and PD are also all wrapped up into that same whole.
Jeanie: Without people necessarily having read the book yet, how does that like, fit as a whole system for you? How do you see that playing out in schools as a whole system?
Alex: Well, I had this experience a few years ago that started to spark my thinking on this, where I had run a workshop through professional development group on trauma-informed practice.
I went back to them a few months later and I said, “Hey, I felt like that went well. I’d love to work with you again and offer another workshop on trauma-informed education.”
And the message I got back was actually, people aren’t that interested in trauma-informed education this year. Now it’s all about equity.
At the time, my initial reaction was to be annoyed at the person who said that and to go, “Wow, they, they don’t recognize that trauma-informed education is not just a buzzword.”
But later I had the realization to be annoyed at myself. I hadn’t been clear enough that trauma-informed education is necessary for equity work and vice versa.
And that my commitment to equity needed to be louder when I describe what trauma-informed education is.
Really, I think a lot of schools, they literally have separate teams, right? You know, schools are all about the PLCs or the teams, and they literally have separate teams. One is doing equity and one is doing trauma-informed work. To me, they are just so integrated and they build on each other and they multiply each other.
One of my suggestions for teachers is really quite simple. Literally take the two teams and make them one team.
As easy as that, right. Take the two teams, share the zoom link, share the meeting room, do it all together.
Because if we’re working towards equity then we are disrupting those things that can cause trauma in school.
And if we’re working towards being trauma-informed, then we need equity.
We’re taking the two teams and making them one team because inequity causes trauma and school is not equitable for students who’ve experienced trauma and there are so many more connections between them. And I explore those throughout the book. So my challenge to folks is to really see how can you integrate these things as fully as possible.
Jeanie: I love that. And I I found this section that you share on how to tell if equity’s at the center of your work. So powerful. Do you think you could read the bullets on page 11 and 12?
Alex: “So whereas equity now, if not in the center and then here’s some of the places I thought equity could be on the side, equity work is often relegated to a committee that meets only a few times a year and spends more time studying equity than taking action to bring it about underground equity work is taken up by only a few teachers, often teachers of color who implement anti-racist and other equity focused practices behind closed doors for fear of rocking the boat in the ether equity work is talked about only in the abstract or used as a buzzword in the school’s mission statement. No one ever actually talks about what inequity looks like concretely and at their own school or how to fix it, or nowhere in too many schools, equity is never talked about.”
Jeanie: I find that so powerful because I think it helps it can help us identify where we are in doing equity work. And then I also find this sentence right below. So important.
“Equity at the center means always asking, does this practice policy or decision help or harm students from marginalized communities because the same factors that cause an equity, for example, bias and discrimination also cause trauma, we can’t unlink the two.”
That’s so powerful. It takes my breath away a little bit to think about the power that happens if we really center equity and trauma informed practices in our schools, what, what, what could happen.
Alex: Absolutely. And I think it’s important to really explicitly draw those connections because I think a lot of times when we talk about trauma, it’s in this way of, it’s just this thing and it’s just there, and it happens to individual people and, oh, it’s very sad for those individual people.
But if you really look at the things that cause trauma, almost every single one of them is political and systemic in at least some fashion, right? You look at things like child abuse or sexual assault. Those things are caused by what’s called rape culture, or a culture that, you know, glamorizes and permits those things.
Even if you look at something like natural disasters, we know that global warming causes an increase in those. And that’s absolutely a political and systemic issue. You then start to see that these are all systemic things. That, in a way is hopeful, right? Which just sounds weird after what I just described.
If you think of trauma as just randomly happening to individuals, then there’s not a lot you can do to stop it.
But if you recognize the systemic factors at play, the human-created systemic factors? Well, if humans create something, they can uncreate it. They can destroy it. And so if you say, “Oh, this trauma is caused by these systems of oppression.” It gives us a job to do, which is to knock down those systems of oppression.
Jeanie: I hear echoes of Paul Gorski in that, and I know you quote him in the book too. I remember seeing him speak where he said, “You can’t really be an equity-oriented educator and not be for the living wage. You can’t be an equity-oriented educator and not want all people to have access to healthcare.”
Alex: Paul Gorski is one of the editors of this book. This is the first book in his new series, and I’m really excited to read the others that are coming as well. So yes, you will see many echoes of Gorski throughout the book.
Jeanie: Great. Okay. So, the other thing you say in this book that really resonated for me, is this idea that we could describe our work in equity-centered, trauma-informed practice as an action research project.
What I love about that, because it also goes along with something that’s important to me and that runs throughout your book, is this idea of being a lifelong learner. This idea that you don’t have to get it perfect the first time. That it’s a journey. And I wondered if you could just explain what that could look like as an action research project.
Alex: I love the idea of just constant cycles of learning, because it takes the pressure off to get everything right the first time.
The section that lends itself most to thinking through an action research lens is where I talk about these four proactive priorities of being trauma-informed. Those priorities are:
- connection, and
In the book, I talk about how all of this is connected to what we know about trauma, and that by prioritizing these in our decision-making we can better create environments that are supportive for students who may have experienced trauma or may experience trauma in the future.
I give all kinds of examples in that section about different practices. Take flexibility, for example.
In my own practice teaching community college, I feel like every semester is an action research project on flexibility.
When I have to sit down and write my attendance policy, I have really, and gone back and forth with this over the years. And I am always talking to other teachers about it, and I’m asking my students about it and I’m looking at the outcomes and thinking about, okay, well, I did it this way this semester, and this student had this issue or this student seems to really thrive when I framed it this way.
That’s just one example, but to me, it’s sort of fun to think about it as an action research project, because then it becomes sort of a constantly evolving part of my practice rather than I feel like I failed with it. That’s how you have to think of anything with equity and being trauma-informed.
Because as I say, a couple of times, there’s no checklist and there’s no “there”, right? There’s no “there” to get to where you are perfectly trauma-informed. Every single thing is equitable because people are messy and that’s just not going to happen. There’s no perfect perfection that we’re working towards.
Instead, I just think about identifying some of those places where I know that I could be more flexible and more supportive in this thing.
I’m going to try it a different way this time. Then I’m going to reflect on what happened and then I’m going to do it again.
Jeanie: I love that. Let go of perfection now because that’s completely out of reach. Like, it’s not even what we’re striving for. We’re just striving to learn.
I thought you put all of these core concepts together on page 77 in this way that my boss, John Downes, would refer to as a kind of simplexity. It’s simple and complex at the same time. And I thought it’s such a good frame for instructional design. (I love to design instruction.)
Your questions are:
- Is it predictable?
- Is it flexible?
- Does it foster empowerment?
- Does it foster connection?
I can imagine as I’m designing an instructional unit, being able to ask myself,
“Okay, where’s the predictability? Where am I calling on the routines? The things that kids already know well. Where am I calling on the structures that tend to support our learning in the classroom anyway? Where’s their choice or where is there opportunities for kids to do it in their own way, or to have a little more time if they need for this or that, or a little less time?”
That’s this idea of flexibility. Does it foster empowerment? Where’s their agency baked into it? Like:
- Where do kids get to decide what they’re learning about?
- Or how they’re learning about it, or how they’re sharing their learning?
- Does it foster connection?
- Are we building relationships?
- Are we building that like, relational glue between us as we do the work together?
To me, being able to do that in an instructional unit, is to reflect on how it went and then try again. The next time I design an instructional unit, it will be a powerful action research cycle. So thank you for the gift of that.
Alex: You’re welcome! And I also, you know, in the book I give a version of a reflection sheet that I have used with a bunch of teachers when I do PD or when I teach these ongoing courses.
On the reflection sheet, there’s areas to reflect on strengths and challenges in your own practice with these four areas.
But then I also give prompts. Think about how our systems and policies support these four areas.
Oftentimes what happens is that a teacher will reflect on, you know, her own ability to be flexible or to give students agency. But then in thinking about the systems, she’ll then recognize, well, I’m a little bit limited in this because I can only go up to a point and then the school policy kicks in.
So I’m always asking teachers to just be mindful and grapple with that. Make changes on your own, but also recognize where could you push and where could you agitate a little bit to change some of these policies so that in your own practice you have a little bit more room.
Jeanie: I so appreciate that. And I just think about that you frame that really well in the book too, because you talk about how we could use this lens to influence our personal practice or pedagogy, and then also this policy. And I love you use this visual in the book of feeling the friction. Could you talk a little bit about what you mean when you say feel the friction in this work?
Alex: In the book I give this little speech to almost every group of teachers that I’m working with over a period of time, because there always comes this point with that tension we were just talking about: I want to do this stuff in my classroom, but my district has this policy or my school has this policy. And so I can’t really do it the way that I see that it needs to be done. Or even, Hey, our whole school is trying this thing, but then our state has this rule or there’s a federal way that these funds are tied up.
What people are really saying is: I can see what needs to happen and the bigger systems are holding me back.
I say, notice that friction.
Notice the tension that you’re seeing between what you believe could be, and the things that need to change. Embrace that friction. That’s the fuel that you need to make change.
I will sometimes say if enough of us are noticing and embracing that tension, then we will all work together to overthrow the unjust systems.
I believe that. Right? I believe that if enough people can notice and want to agitate for change, we can do it together.
I say a few times through the book, you know, do this work collectively. You don’t have to be an island to do it alone. Embrace community partners who are doing this work. Work with your union. Work with the teacher in the room next door, who also wants to make these changes with you.
Jeanie: You talk beautifully in this book at many about how it’s not the checklist, right? We have to take action, but we also have to have strong beliefs to guide us to that action. The two go hand in hand, and the ultimate goal as you state in the book, is schools that are humanizing. That promote wellness and thriving for everybody; for all students and also for all educators.
I have such an appreciation for the clarity of that goal. I think we lose ourselves sometimes in complex mission statements. But if we frame school’s purpose as places where we could be our fully human selves, where we find a sense of wellness and thrive? That’s so powerful. That’s such a clear guide forward to me. Thinking about what you just said and thinking about how having that at the center gives us something to feel friction about, right? That fuel you talked about is fueling us to transform education into a liberatory space that affirms all of us.
Alex: Oh, absolutely. And you know that the piece about thriving? Early in the writing process for this book, I had this ginormous pile of books that I wanted to read to help inform what I was writing. And I was having a hard time with the anxiety of looking at that huge pile. A good friend of mine, Caitlin, was working on her dissertation at the time. Writing a dissertation and writing a book are pretty close cousins. And she gave me this great piece of advice to really sort by like, what do you really need to read directly to influence this project? Then separate that out from the stuff that you just kind of want to read, that are tangentially related. So I went through this list and I was asking her advice about what to prioritize.
She had my list of books and she said, you need to prioritize We Want To Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom, by Dr. Bettina Love.
That suggestion was so right on time because anyone who’s read that book knows how powerful it is.
Dr. Love really talks about this idea of thriving — especially for children of color, especially for Black children and teachers. That book really for me, pulled together so many threads of equity-centered, trauma-informed education. And so I was very influenced by it (as you see when I cite her throughout the book). So shout out to my friend Caitlyn, for, for putting that to the top of my list.
Jeanie: I appreciate that shout out to Dr. Love for that amazing, paradigm-shifting book. Big appreciation for that. I love that book too.
Sorry. I’m finding my way to back to my question since we’ve jumped all around (which I love).
Another book that I thought of when I was reading your book was I thought a lot about Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist.
And the reason is this: you point out something that’s so basic that I’m a little embarrassed at how it struck me.
That was: we can’t punish students for their trauma response *and* be trauma-informed. Like, that’s such a truth. Yet when I think about schools, we often punish kids for their responses to trauma. And it made me think about Dr. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist because he frames that anti-racism is different than assimilationism, which is this idea that we expect people to behave like us, right?
Like we expect them to behave in a certain way. And that certain way in schools is still defined by the dominant culture: white, middle-class or upper-middle-class, and heteronormative. Right?
So in many ways, if we’re punishing kids for their response to trauma, it’s a kind of an assimilationism, not unlike PBIS, which asks them to behave like the dominant group.
We’ve had this conversation you and I before, but I just really appreciate that. You’ve made it very clear here that PBIS is not in any way trauma-informed. And I wonder if you see that connection between this sort of way of being and PBIS and this, and this other notion that you sort of shed light on for me.
Alex: Absolutely. there are so many connections. Actually you know, speaking of books on the to read pile, I actually haven’t read Dr. Kendi’s books. So maybe I’m putting it back on my list now that I’m through my big book-writing list.
Yes, I think that the paradigm shift for me is when looking at student behaviors, recognize the way that behavior that may seem out of the norm or disorderly or whatever deficit label we want to throw on it, recognize how some students behaviors are the things that have kept them safe and help them survive up to this point.
And recognize if you have coping strategies that have helped you survive, that those worked right, those were helpful strategies that kept you alive up until now.
Recognize that some of those strategies when kids yell or when they run out of the room or when they tell you to go f-off. Those are strategies that are protecting them from harm.
Keeping people at a safe distance, for example. Or removing themselves from an environment that feels harmful. If those things are working for them? And then we say actually that’s not appropriate? Actually you aren’t being safe, respectful, responsible, or whatever our S buzzwords are in that particular school?
That’s pretty messed up.
It’s pretty messed up to say this strategy that you use your protect yourself is not okay here.
This is one of those really complicated both-ands, right? Because of course we want to support all people to feel safe in many spaces, to be able to collaborate, to be able to work towards that thriving. And sometimes that does mean learning other coping strategies or learning other ways of communicating. But. I think that that’s really complex because you can’t also shame somebody for doing what they need to do to survive for having a trauma response.
It’s a complicated conversation that gets very erased when we do something like PBIS, that boils behaviors down into these like, fake neutral lists that you post on the cafeteria wall. “If you’re sitting quietly with your friends, if you don’t yell, if you clean up your plate, if you don’t waste food” — whatever it is, you know, we’re kind of erasing the complexity that is behavior.
It’s very complicated.
Part of my wish throughout the book is just to add that complexity and have people really think about what are the ways that we might be forcing this — that word you used — assimilationist perspective, as opposed to honoring that you’re using the survival skills that have worked for you so far.
Jeanie: That really resonates for me. I’ve been doing a lot of work on culturally responsive pedagogies, and I think that’s a similar thing, right? Where if the problem is the simplicity of neutrality and assuming that we are neutral in schools. When we make rules and expect certain behaviors and create certain cultures as if it’s one size fits all. Or as if the dominant perspective is the only perspective.
Whether it’s around behavior and trauma, or behavior and culture, the point is to be able to see it from different perspectives and not just this one that’s fed by dominant culture. Whoo! That was not very eloquent. But I just feel that on this cellular level, this notion of who gets to set the rules and that’s the person in power.
Alex: Yes. And it’s this interesting thing, right? Part of what you’re saying is that we can’t choose a dominant paradigm and say: everyone has to act this way.
At the same time, something I often encourage teachers to do is really reflect on some of your hardest moments and what you needed during those hard moments. What that would have looked like if you were a student in your own school at that time.
So, the book is dedicated to my mother and I talk about her story in the introduction. My mom passed away almost exactly two years ago. It’s coming up at the end of April. And I sometimes think about the time after she passed away and as I was grieving — well, at that stage of grieving, at least — it was really hard for me to be around groups of people. I did not want to be social.
And when it sort of came time that I was trying to re-enter social situations, if you had like, PBIS expectations for my social skills at that time, I wouldn’t have gotten any points or “tiger bucks”. Like, I would go into a social setting and I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I was sometimes rude and just kind of walked away from a conversation because I was overwhelmed. I flaked out on invitations. And so if I was a student in a school at that time, you might’ve looked at me and said: she’s not working collaboratively with others. She’s not being positive in her interactions with her peers. She’s not getting her participation points today.
And at that time in my life, the last thing I needed was for someone to tell me: “you suck at social situations right now”, right?
What I needed was flexibility and grace and understanding and the love of my community.
So I invite teachers to really think about, you just don’t know what’s going on for your students. And even if you think you do? Take that understanding of what you needed at those really low points.
Can you just be a person? Can you just be a person and apply that to how you’re responding to students?
If you knew that that today was the hardest day of your student’s life, how would you respond to them if they were acting out or not being social or whatever it is?
Of course we want to do that. And there is also the business of school to do, right. We have to keep going with the business of school and “I can’t respond 26 different ways to 26 different students and get done the business of school.” But my invitation is to really just make it complicated. To see if I can move myself a little bit towards that humanity-centered approach. What would happen?
Jeanie: So I’m going to look at it from a different example, because I had a lot of trauma in my childhood — which I don’t need to go into because we don’t, as you have taught me, Alex, we don’t need to know people’s trauma stories. But I had a lot of trauma in my childhood, my sister and I both, and we went to school with our trauma in different ways in our backpacks, if you will.
And my way was to be a rule follower.
I found school to be a safe haven in a lot of ways. But my ability to follow the rules and be a good little girl did not mean that school was a healing place for me. It was just a way of hiding.
And you really make it clear that trauma is a lens and not a label.
Those are exactly your words. I want to like, put them on billboards all over — if Vermont allowed us to have billboards. But I would not have been labeled a “trauma kid”.
And my sister probably was. I don’t know, I don’t think we had that language then, but she would have been.
But our ways of dealing with it were very different. I thrived in school in some ways, but not emotionally. Not in a healing sense. I just got good grades. My sister did not thrive in school or emotionally. And so both of us were harmed by the insensitivity to our needs. Regardless of whether we could or did follow the rules. And I wondered if you could talk a little bit about like moving from that label of “trauma kids” to that lens: trauma as a lens and the way that changes how we create systems in schools.
Alex: Well, thank you for sharing that piece of your story. That is really resonant with the story of my mom that I share at the beginning of the book. I shared that story for the purpose of illustrating exactly what you’re saying: that it needs to be a lens. Because the kids who are being rule-followers and perfectionists as a trauma coping mechanism, they need a trauma-informed environment. Just as much as the kids who are very loudly proclaiming that they are going through a hard time. You could have had a healing environment without ever having to tell anybody that you needed it, if your teachers were trying to create this whole trauma-informed school with this lens.
So when I talk about the lens not the label, I talk about looking at everything in school through this lens of how does trauma impact people? How is trauma present in our lives and in our schools? And then using that as a way to shift our practices. Connecting that as well to equity in the sense that, you know, some schools will say, “Oh, we’re, we’re doing equity because if a student asks us for financial help, then they can have it for the field trip.”
“If a student asks us for an accommodation, they can have it” — that still requires somebody to air their story for you in order to get support.
So I’m asking people to make the shift of what would it look like if you just offer the support? If you just made equitable spaces where no one ever had to come and say, I need this.
Jeanie: Right? You don’t have to bleed to get what you need here. This is the kind of schools we want to have.That story itself is already going to be damaging enough that we’re not going to advocate for ourselves necessarily.
Alex: The other thing is that when it comes to trauma, a lot of kids don’t recognize what they’re going through while they’re going through it.
I think most of us will look back on things that happen in childhood and go, oh, that’s a thing that happened. Whereas at the time, you’re just living day to day. You don’t necessarily know what’s going on. So it’s not very often that a student is going to walk up to you and say, hello, I have trauma. Please help me. Right. You know, more often you’re not going to hear anything about it, or you’re just going to see some responses that maybe give you an indicator. And so that’s really that need to be universal.
Jeanie: That leads right where I wanted to lead!
One of the things you talk about is empowerment. How can schools be empowering places for kids? And one of the things I highlighted and put exclamations points around was on page 69:
“Flattening the imbalance of power also means re-examining our curricular choices. Students’ lives are full of rich areas for exploration and real problems to solve. We don’t need to give students fake work that is meaningless in the context of their lives.”
I’m just going to say that sentence again.
“We don’t need to give students fake work that is meaningless in the context of their lives.”
If we want to help students recognize and use their own power in the world, we need to make sure that our academics are aligned with that goal. I want schools that help kids learn to use their power so much.
And for me, this seems really this seems to align with Act 77. In particular, personally meaningful learning opportunities, flexible pathways.
The way I see that is that I, as an educator, don’t get to decide what is meaningful. Students get to decide what is meaningful. There’s so much power in reframing curriculum through that through that lens, through that vantage point.
Alex: Absolutely. And that’s really something I was so lucky to experience at the alternative school where I worked, because we really designed all curricula around our specific students’ interests and strengths and what they were working on.
When you talk about giving students real work or making it relevant to their lives, increasing agency, I think we can there’s a lot of examples where you can go really complicated, really fast, right? If you look at problem-based learning or project-based learning and how can we make our school more sustainable or let’s advocate for this change in our town. All those things are amazing. And I love them. But I want to give an example of this that is really low stakes, because I think it’s important to recognize you don’t have to go wild in order to do this.
So. I had a student once in an English class and we were just basically working on writing fluency in a really broad way.
And she really didn’t want to do it at all.
Hated English. Didn’t want to engage with me.
So we were just chit chatting one day and she was complaining about how she really wanted to get a pug. And her mom was on board with it, but they lived in an apartment, and dogs weren’t allowed.
So I said, okay, let’s write a letter to your landlord.
It was just as simple as that, right?
We looked up how to write a letter. We looked up how to address something to your landlord. And we looked up pug facts. Like, we made the case that this was a great dog to have in a rental.
She worked on this letter and it was great. It was very simple and took little to no wild planning on my part. I didn’t have to overthrow the way that I teach in order to do this.
So I think sometimes I can get really excited about community-based learning experiences and dismantling oppression through our classrooms and everything. We should get excited about that!
But I also just want to speak to people who are overwhelmed and say, it doesn’t have to be really big.
You can just start with: Hey landlord. I would like to have a pug in my apartment.
And go from there.
Jeanie: I appreciate that. And I appreciate the way it helps students learn to advocate for themselves and be active members of not just the school community, but the broader community. Start to see themselves as people with agency, as opposed to people have to do what they’re told to do.
Alex: There was at the school where I worked, there was this phrase that maybe got overused at times, but it was: let’s make a plan. Or come up with a plan. Or suggest a plan.
It was this idea that if you want to see something change, come up with a plan and we’ll try to do it.
I just think about the difference between that and some schools where, Hey, I’m upset about this thing and there’s no path. There’s what is, what even is the, to making a change.
I asked teachers this too, sometimes when we’re talking about policy. We look at policies that they would like to shift. And then I ask them: “If you wanted to change this, what actually would be your steps?”
I invite them to really go and figure out who are the people I would have to talk to, what is the meeting I would have to go to? Is there even a way that I could shift this?
A lot of them are sometimes surprised to find that it’s not as complex as they had initially thought. That can be a path to agency, as well as just making it more transparent.
“How can I make a change if I want to?”
Jeanie: As Gorsky would say fix injustice, not kids, people, and start at all levels. I, I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to write this book. First of all, to talk to me about it. Second of all, I so appreciate the work you do, Alex, and the way you show up in the world. And I’m so grateful for this conversation.
Alex: Thank you so much for having me.