Bigger, Stronger, Wiser, and Kind

I didn’t know very much about trauma-informed practices until I started at my current school. While I’d taught in both public and private schools, I’d spent most of that time in a school filled with very fortunate children and their families. While trauma can (and does) exist in all communities, it’s far more prevalent in some than in others. Many of my current students, unfortunately, have experienced a great deal of trauma, and since I now teach in a tribal school, the intergenerational trauma is also in their very DNA.

At the start of last year, I handed out index cards so students could ask questions about me. It’s a pretty typical get-to-know-you sponge activity for the end of a class period (“What is your favorite ice cream flavor?” “Do you like the Seahawks?”). This time, though, I was asked a new question.

“How long are you staying?” many wrote.

“When are you leaving?” one student continued to ask as fall turned into winter.

“Are you coming back next year?” an advisee asked for the fifth or sixth time during the last week of school.

My students didn’t think that I would stay because a lot of teachers hadn’t stayed in the past. So I told them, every time they asked, that I would stay, at the very least, for the entire school year. When things got hard, and they did, I reminded myself that I would not be one more person who left these kids. Later, when they started asking if I was coming back the following year, I told them that I wasn’t looking anywhere else, and that I would come back if it was within my power. I told my 9th grade advisees that I wasn’t going anywhere until they graduated (“and everyone is graduating!” I added).

I did my best to miss as few days as possible. When I went to visit another school to see our then future curriculum in action, I told them where I was going, and yet some were still suspicious that I was visiting another school. “Where were you?” they asked accusingly when I had jury duty and later missed a day for a family gathering to honor my grandmother, even though I’d announced it weeks in advance. I took to posting my weekly schedule of meetings and other commitments on my door so that students would know why I was late opening the classroom or why I couldn’t meet with them after school.

To earn our students’ trust and build relationships with them, we have to be present. The most important thing that we can do is to show up every single day. Obviously this isn’t always possible; new teachers will be especially susceptible to every single germ that walks in the door. A few pieces of advice: Get your own stapler and keep it separate from student supplies. Invest in hand sanitizer. Wash your hands a lot.

One winter when I still lived in Chicago, the flu was so bad in my building that I sprayed down my classroom and all the lockers and door handles with Lysol almost every day. People complained about the smell, but eventually we had to close down the entire school for a day because so many teachers were out. I never got sick. Now, my recommendation is to get as much sleep as possible and take a double dose of Emergen-C daily, especially if you’re a new teacher. Super Orange mixed with Tropical is my favorite. (Seriously, every day.)

Some people call this self care, and it is. But students who have been exposed to trauma need consistent, caring adults in their classrooms, and we can’t be that if we’re sick and tired, and we definitely can’t do that if we aren’t there. Students might not understand why you hand them a new pencil instead of sharing yours, but they will notice when you come to school every day.

Thanks for staying
A sophomore wrote this in my yearbook last year.

In the introduction to Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom, Kristin Souers writes that strategies are “a reminder that as the adults, we should, to use a quote from the Circle of Security project (Marvin, Cooper, Hoffman, & Powell, 2002), be “bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind.” (3). Even as I set the book aside for a few weeks, those four words continued to run through my mind.

Bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind.

We’re asked to be a lot of things to our students. We’re teacher, coach, mentor, friend, taskmaster, fashion consultant, alarm clock. We provide lessons, books, supplies, lunches, snacks, band-aids (so many band-aids!), tissues, bathroom passes. We teach students to read, to write, to think, to calculate, to measure, to dance, to sing, to trust. It can be overwhelming, especially when you’re also trying to be the safe, trustworthy adult that Souers is writing about.

Bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind.

Teaching students suffering from the effects of trauma isn’t easy work. Many students don’t enter the classroom ready to learn; my students don’t do compliant. It can be a struggle every day, and it’s discouraging when students push back at every opportunity.

Bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind.

I’m excited for school to start in two weeks; I wouldn’t want to do any other job, and I wouldn’t want to be teaching anywhere else, but I don’t fool myself that the second year will be easy. My new 9th graders, especially, will surely want to test their new teacher.

Bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind.

These are the words that I’ll use to guide my work this year. This is how I’ll build relationships with a new group of students. Every day, I’ll strive to be bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind.

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