Relationship Building through Discipline

(Some details have been changed out of respect for my student’s privacy.)

“I didn’t think Kelley would take me.”

I had left school thirty minutes early on a Tuesday to take my ailing 17-year-old cat to the vet when my phone rang, an unhappy Georgie in the cat carrier next to me. School had ended just minutes before, and it was the paraeducator who had covered our class at the end of the day calling. I answered because there weren’t any good reasons for him to be calling instead of texting when he knew I was dealing with an emergency vet visit.

“You know our friend who was in such a bad mood this morning?”

One of our students had been particularly surly that morning. Distracted by the need to schedule an emergency trip to the vet, I hadn’t taken the time to ask him what was wrong. He’d been hostile and disrespectful. I’d responded by alternating between ignoring him and reminding him about expected classroom behavior.

“Well, apparently his day got worse. They’re going to call and ask if he can do in-school suspension with you tomorrow.”

I didn’t hesitate. “Yeah, we’ll take him, of course. Tell them to call me.” At the time I didn’t realize that I was signing on for three days of in-school suspension, but I still would have agreed to have our student with us and not out of school for three days.

This isn’t the first time that a student has served time with me rather than a more traditional discipline. Last year a student who called me a bitch was sentenced to three lunch detentions. We agreed that he would serve them in my classroom so that he could complete missing work and pull his grade up from an F. By our third lunch together, he’d caught up on his missing assignments and we’d begun to build a better relationship as student and teacher. (Full disclosure: He skipped the first several lunches and an administrator had to finally track him down, but we made progress once we got started.)

Three days of in-school suspension is a lot of time to spend with a student. I was still teaching my regular schedule of classes, so the student sat at my rarely-used teacher desk in the back of the room while my classes did their usual work. One of the conditions for in-school suspension was that he wasn’t allowed to talk to any other students, and they couldn’t talk to him. The paraeducator who was usually only with me for part of the day was with us every period so that one of us could escort our student when he needed to leave the classroom.

It was a long three days. The student respected and followed the administration’s expectations, but three days is a long time to sit in a room full of your peers while only communicating with the two adults in the room. It was a lot of time for the three of us to spend together. While I was glad that he’d been able to avoid an out-of-school suspension, the public nature of serving ISS in a classroom still troubles me.

On the other hand, a lot of trust can be built in three days. Barriers can be knocked down. Because we had two adults in the classroom for the entire time, there were multiple opportunities to take a walk around campus when he needed a break. It’s unusual as a high school teacher to have the luxury of walking and talking with a student for twenty minutes. We talked about his mood the day he got in trouble. We talked about the chickens that live near the elementary side of our campus, and he showed me the slow one that his friend had managed to catch one day.

On the third day, during my planning period, it was just the three of us in my classroom. Our student could relax, move around the room, talk out loud. I’m pretty sure he was bouncing a basketball by this point. He started talking. He told us his story.

“I didn’t think Kelley would take me,” he said.

We aren’t all best friends now. He doesn’t come and hang out before school and during lunch, and he gives the teacher desk a wide berth when he’s in my class. But he knows that there are at least two adults in the school who will take him, who will pull him closer instead of sending him away. We won’t give up on him.

How Students Care for Each Other

Busses drop our students off starting at 8:00 a.m. for breakfast, and first period begins at 8:30 a.m. I try to be in my room after 8 for my early birds who want to drop off their bag before they eat. One day last week, a student who usually isn’t early came in well before anyone else, picked a seat, and put his head down. I’m sure I said good morning, but I probably didn’t say much else. Students who come in at 8 and put their heads down usually want that last 30 minutes of sleep.

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Fast forward to midway through first period. Students are working independently on a series of research questions about an ecosystem; while I teach English, our current focus is informational reading and writing through the lens of a science topic. Since it’s first period, many students are slow getting started, but a few are asking me questions or are ready for me to check off what they’ve finished. The student who arrived first today isn’t yet working, but he’s only recently rejoined the class after being gone for a long period. He will need my help getting started since he hasn’t yet learned our strategies for reading informational text.

As I move around the room, I notice that someone’s music is extra loud, louder than the instrumental music that I have playing over the classroom speakers. Of course the students aren’t supposed to have their own music playing, but I pick my battles. I make a mental note to ask him to turn down his music after I check in with one more student.

It’s at this moment that another student, a young man at the opposite corner of the classroom, hears the music and looks around to see whose it is. He gets up and walks across the room to the student with the loud music, the same student who was the first to come into my room. He asks him a question then pulls over a chair. He leans over and wraps the student in his arms. It’s only then that I realize that the music was hiding the fact that the student was sobbing.

If you’d asked me a week ago, I wouldn’t have said that the two boys were particular friends. And while I like them both a great deal, I wouldn’t have said that either was particularly sensitive or nurturing. I certainly didn’t expect one to cross the room and wrap his arms around the other.

I called a friend and colleague who is close to the student to make sure that she was in her office, and I wrote the two boys a pass. The second boy returned after a few minutes and put his head down. When I checked on the first boy in my colleague’s office, he was smiling, laughing, coloring a picture. When he asked for a restroom pass, my friend filled me in on what was going on. To say it’s a crappy situation is an understatement. It sucks.

I try to watch my students more closely. I ask them how they’re doing, and I make sure to listen to their answers. I tell them I’m glad they’re here. I tell they’re loved, they’re strong, they’re brave, they’re resilient. I tell them I’ll see them tomorrow.

And I hope, that just like the observant young man in first period, that they will continue to look out for each other.

Not One More

I am your child’s teacher.

I do not need

your thoughts and prayers

speeches about school shootings that do not once mention guns

a government that makes it easier for mentally ill individuals to purchase guns

congresspeople who place lobbyists’ wishes above those of their constituents

gun laws that ban assault weapons lapsing


another day of setting curriculum aside to address my students’ fears and questions

hashtag activism

to see one more child posting or tweeting about their slain classmates and family

to be told that today is not the day to talk about this

to look around my classroom, deciding which pieces of furniture make the best barricades and self-defense weapons

to train children how not to die at school

the solution to be that American teachers should now be armed.

We never have enough money to stock school libraries, retain full-time guidance counselors, buy supplies for art teachers, and update technology, but somehow we’re flush with the finances to buy every teacher in America a gun? I teach math, and that doesn’t add up.

I am your child’s teacher.

You want to arm me?

Arm me with books.
Arm me with winter coats.
Arm me with healthy lunches.
Arm me with a social-emotional curriculum.
Arm me with full-time support staff.
Arm me with time.

Because my arms were meant to
Hug children
Carry books
Paint watercolors
Create writing
Turn pages
Capture thinking
Open doors

They were not meant to
pull children into hiding
make bookshelves into barricades
soundlessly signal for silence
shield students from bullets

But, because
I am your child’s teacher
I would.

I am your child’s teacher.

And I am now required to
think
about
that.
Life and death…because I want to teach kids.

I am your child’s teacher.

I need you.

I need you to care enough about children to hold accountable those who refuse to act and who ignore the fact that we are the only economically advanced country where this happens REGULARLY.

Because thoughts and prayers do not stop bullets.

Because I’m tired of going to work every day wondering if today will be the day I’ll need to shelter my children in silence to survive.

Because schools should be the safest places in our communities.

Because every time this happens, shoulders are shrugged, and complicit helplessness thrives and asks us to accept this as normal.

This is not normal.

Take your thoughts and prayers and turn them into votes and action.

Thoughts and prayers vocalize our pain.
Votes and action catalyze our change.

Not one more school.
Not one more child.
Not one more.

Enough.

This post adapts and expands upon an original post I shared on my personal social media accounts the day after the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in which 17 people, most of them children, were killed.

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Kindness, Respect, and Love

you deserve kindness

One of my students sometimes asks me why I’m so nice.

I don’t actually think of myself as particularly nice. I’m impatient. I’m judgemental. I’m an introvert who mostly wants to be left alone. Sometimes I want to scowl when students ask me for a Band-Aid. Again.

I try not to let that show with students. “Infinite patience” is my counsel when anyone asks how I do what I do. I can go almost the entire school day telling students where the pencils are, providing snacks, picking books up off the floor, before I snap.

Many of our students don’t get a lot of kindness. The world is filled with snark. Negativity is cool. Kids tease each other, but they’re often tone deaf about it. “I’m just joking,” they say, but their friend isn’t in on the joke.

My students in Chicago loved to play hide the lunch. A girl would get up to get a napkin or a milk, and the other girls would hide something from her lunch. They’d laugh. They thought they were hilarious. They didn’t think they were being mean, but no one should have to return to a table where everyone is laughing at them.

My current school is conducting a Kindness campaign. Students and staff track their kindness every day and turn in their tallies at the end of the day. “How do you count kindness?” the high schoolers ask. “You count it all,” we respond, “every greeting, every class arrived at on time, every door held.” You count it until it’s habit and you forget that you’re doing it.

you deserve respect

At a recent meeting about behavior, one of our leaders said that “Students should not refuse a reasonable request from an adult.” I think it’s a good way to put it, and it’s been pretty effective with my students when I remember to use it. If a school staff member makes a reasonable request of a student, the student should not refuse. That’s respect that most schools expect students to give to adults.

But what about the reverse? Do we always treat our students with respect? Do we respect their privacy and their boundaries? Do we ask them for hall passes with respect? Do we greet their return from an absence with respect? Do we treat their stories with respect when we talk about them with outsiders?

you deserve love

I don’t know how to write about this. Last week I learned that a little boy who I had known since he was a baby had died at age twenty-five. He was probably in elementary school the last time I saw him, but I was babysitting his older siblings when he was born. When I went away to college, he would wake from his nap and call “Hi Lea!” out the window of his bedroom to my parents’ house across the street. He’ll always be that little boy to me.

The day after I found out that he died, I started writing on the tables daily. I don’t know how else to convey to my students how wonderful they are, how impressive and challenging and creative and important, how much their lives matter, how devastated we all would be if they were gone. They deserve love. They are loved.

i'm glad you're here
I’m glad you’re here, even if you’re sitting on the table.

I usually write this on the announcements that I post on Monday mornings. For the past two Mondays, I’ve written it on their tables.

Mondays are rough. Our students have terrible weekend sleep habits. Some report that they haven’t slept at all before arriving at school; others have maybe only slept on the bus.

Sometimes I’m annoyed that students have been absent. I wish their cell phones and headphones were already put away. I don’t like that they respond to my greeting with a snarl. But I’m still glad that they’re there, in class, every Monday, even if they won’t smile at me until the end of the day.

Be kind to yourself.

I’m going to write this on their tables this morning. I saw it in a magazine this weekend, though I can’t find the reference now.

You deserve kindness. Be kind to yourself.

Not-So-Happy Holidays

Last year I had Christmas dinner alone. I had planned to eat Christmas dinner with my mom, but she woke up with the flu that morning.

I’m a teacher. I definitely didn’t want the flu over winter vacation. I took her some meds and got out of there as quickly as possible.

I briefly felt sorry for myself. Everyone else already had plans or was out of town. I didn’t even know what to feed myself for dinner.

After about a minute, I remembered a recipe that I’d seen online that I wanted to make. I remembered that the Safeway near my mom’s house was open on Christmas Day. I remembered that I’m an introvert. Christmas dinner alone was not a big deal.

I think that sometimes when we think about the holidays, we think that the worst that can happen is that someone won’t have many family and friends around. We warn children to remember that their classmates might not get as many presents as they do. We get caught up in “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” and which songs are okay for the winter concert.

For many of our students, the holidays aren’t the happiest time of the year. For some, they’re the worst.

It’s not just about being sensitive because someone else might have less money. It’s not just about keeping church and state separate.

We have students who don’t live with their parents for good reason, but might have to see them at a holiday gathering. We have students whose families will drink far too much at their celebrations. We have students with parents incarcerated, or serving overseas, or lost to addiction, or just gone. Our LGBT students might have to hide their true selves around their families. Our student might be giving their meals to a younger sibling because there isn’t enough to eat, or sleeping on the floor in that sibling’s bedroom to keep them safe during a holiday party. They might be hiding bruises from extended family to protect their abusers.

I’ve written before that we don’t actually have to know our students’ stories to help them. They don’t have to reveal their secrets to us.

Instead, we need to remember that all of our students have stories, and treat them as such. Assume that holidays are hard and make your classroom a place of safety and predictability. Don’t add more stress to their lives.

It’s a busy time of year. As teachers, we’re trying to cram a unit in between two holidays. We don’t want to leave something unfinished over a two-week vacation. High school teachers know that the end of the semester is coming.

Stop. Slow down. Connect. Take the extra ten seconds to ask a student how it’s going. Take another ten seconds to ask the next student how it’s going.

I set three goals for December this year: relationships, engaged reading, and strategies for rigorous texts. Will it be better if we finish the whole book before vacation? Sure, but there’s a reason that I put relationships first on that list. The needs of the student are more important than my need to finish the chapter.

Our students won’t come and tell us that the holidays are hard. Some won’t even know it themselves. But we know, and so we must be extra kind and safe and predictable and wise.

Take a deep breath.

Take another one.

You got this.

Vulnerable but Invincible

Way back on August 22, educator Steve Kukic spoke to our faculty during our August Professional Development. I have a few pages of notes from his day with us, but one particular set of information has guided my thinking about my work with students these last few weeks. (I’m basing this on my own incomplete notes, so any mistakes are mine.)

Quoting from the study Vulnerable But Invincible: High Risk Children from Birth to Adulthood, Kukic cited three factors for the resilient kids who succeeded despite the roadblocks in their way:

1. High expectations from home, school, or community,

2. Future orientation (not focused on past or now), and

3. “Unconditional positive regard” from an adult.

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Sophomore reading with kindergartner.

Reading conferences are often tough during the first few weeks of school, especially with students who are new-to-you. You feel like you’ve recommended the same book twenty times. A new English teacher lamented the number of times she’s asked “What’s your favorite movie or video game?” when students say “I don’t read” when she’s helping them find books.

When this has happened to me this year, especially with juniors and seniors, I’ve asked what they want to do after high school. A counselor I worked with used to mention how surprised she was that no one ever asked students what they want to do after high school. Many students have tough and even horrible pasts and presents, pasts and presents that are utterly beyond their control. The future, however, can be within their control, and we can help them with that.

This year, a student told me he might want to join the military, and when I asked him what he would want to do there, he said he didn’t know. He thought that flying sounded cool after I listed all the things that one could do in the military. Since my brother is a pilot, I then told him every possible thing that I know about learning to fly airplanes. Did my student run out and sign up for flying lessons? Of course not. Does he now realize that flying is actually something that ordinary people can do? That he can sign up and take lessons and learn to fly before he graduates from high school? He knows all that now. The more interest we show in our students’ futures, the more likely they are to turn their focus in that direction.

I’m still thinking about how high expectations play out in my classroom. I don’t think it means academic rigor, or strict expectations for classroom behavior, or inflexible grading policies. High expectations isn’t “We all must read William Faulkner together” when 40% of the class is still working on decoding and academic language.

I think that when it comes to high expectations, what we really need to communicate to students is a high level of belief. It is not that I expect you to read at this level; instead, I believe that you can read at this level. I believe that you can write this narrative. I believe that you can pass Algebra.

I believe in you.

In a meeting this year, someone said “But he can’t—” and one of our instructional leaders interrupted with “He can’t yet.” An English colleague repeated it later, and I remind myself to remember the power of yet. He can’t read that yet. She can’t do that yet. But I believe that my students will do it. It’s not that he can’t read single and double consonant words, it’s that he can’t read them yet. Even better: “He is working on single and double consonant words.” You can learn to do this, I say to my students, and I know that it is true.

And, of course, we work to practice unconditional positive regard every day. On this blog a few weeks ago, Angie Huesgen wrote “Be damn nice to kids. All of them. Every single day.” This isn’t as obvious as you think. “Don’t smile until Christmas,” people say. “You’ve got to be tough, make them respect you,” others might add.

But I agree with Angie. Be nice, damn nice, every day. Even to the mean kids and the kids who ignore you. You might say hi twenty times before students respond, but they do notice when you say hi.

At my school the secondary teachers supervise buses loading while our elementary colleagues walk the little ones to their buses. A lot of the time this means walking around while students work hard to talk to anyone but a teacher. I know from personal experience that walking around saying “Get on your bus, get on you bus” does not work. So last year I started saying “See you tomorrow” if I didn’t know a student. If I knew their name, I said “Good-bye” and their name and that I would see them tomorrow. That works better.

We then stand by our stadium and wave at the buses as they pull out, all twenty-four of them. The little kids wave and shout good-bye, smiles huge. The high schoolers ignore us, and sometimes they even give us a school-inappropriate finger.

But they know we’re there.

And they know that we’ll be there tomorrow.

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(Yes, that is our view. When it isn’t raining.)

Confronting Anti-Semitism

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We need to talk about anti-Semitism.

We need to talk about how Nazis, swastikas, and outstretched “heil” arms are direct embodiments and symbols of Jewish genocide.

We need to talk about the history of oppression, racism, marginalization, and degradation of Jews in the United States of America.

We need to talk about our lack of awareness and understanding of Jewish-American identity, and how the white privilege many American Jews experience today is a recent phenomenon, only two generations thin.

And right now, we need to talk about how the dialogue in response to the events in Charlottesville has, so far, minimally included discussions of Jews and the blatant anti-Semitism that was on display this past weekend. Talking about Nazis without acknowledging Jewish suffering is forgetting, and possibly condemning us to repeat, history. As Jews, we are aware, more than ever, that modern day Nazis will readily use us as a scapegoat for their dangerous agenda again.

Many Americans have been lulled into a comfortable complacency, a false sense of security, believing an atrocity like the Holocaust could “never happen again”. There exists a feeling that anti-Semitism is something that happened “back then” and “over there”. We’ve been looking beyond our fences for long enough now, that we have forgotten to see the evil that has not been fully eradicated from our own backyards. When conditions are favorable, the long-ago planted seed of anti-Semitism germinates and burgeons, radiating toxic hatred, one swastika, one salute, at a time.

Never in my life did I imagine I would have to legitimately fear for my safety because I am Jewish. Growing up in an interfaith household, my sisters and I were raised Jewish. I attended Sunday School and Hebrew School, had a Bat Mitzvah, was consecrated and confirmed, participated in the synagogue youth choir and the B’nai Brith Youth Organization, and attended Jewish summer camps. My public school teachers always happily obliged my mother when she asked for permission for me to share with my class about Chanukah as the winter holidays approached. The day I brought in a picture book about the holiday, our family menorah, dreidels, and gelt (chocolate coins) to share with my classmates was special, a source of pride for our unique culture. Never did I feel fearful because I was Jewish. Never. Until now.

My own direct experiences with anti-Semitism are rare and isolated incidents. I was once told by someone I considered to be a friend that I was going to hell, since I had not accepted Jesus as my savior. He had the gall to say “No offense, it’s just a fact”. I have wrestled with my Jewish identity my whole life, asking myself questions about faith and practice. Do Jews have to believe in God? Is Judaism a religion or a culture…or both? Am I Jewish enough?

As American Jews, many of us walk precarious lines of identity. We are our own individual melting pots of overlapping identities, Venn diagrams with multiple points of intersection, assimilation, and cultural preservation. Unlike identities more easily observed externally, Judaism can be invisible. A yarmulke adorning a head or a Star of David dangling from a necklace can make our identity visible. The reason that a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jew may have survived the Holocaust, is also what allows many American Jews to assimilate with white America, post-World War II. Invisible identity is both the reason for our survival and the cause of our assimilation. Judaism can blend into the background, slide behind other identities. It can even become so transparent that we are erased from the story.

Last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, a crowd of white supremacists, armed with guns and torches marched onto the University of Virginia’s campus. The hate-filled rally encouraged hurt and harm of non-white people. The Confederate flag that people carried is a symbol of enslavement and oppression, our shameful history and the racism we have not yet resolved. Keep talking about this. Acting on this. Be unrelenting.

But please turn around and look. The target of a Nazi organization is the Jewish people. And we are standing right here, desperately needing your alliance and support. We need you to see us. We need your awareness. We need you to embrace us in your defenses and discussions. We need you to cry out against hate, consciously denouncing anti-Semitism, as you rebuke other forms of racism and bigotry. We need you to include us in every resource you share and conversation you have. We need you. Now. Amplify our voices, undertake our plight, too. We are notably underrepresented in the narrative of the Charlottesville Nazi rally. We have been interjecting, waving our arms wildly, trying to insert ourselves back into the story. We are asking you to see the hate as anti-Semitism, name the hate as anti-Semitism, and fight the anti-Semitic hate.

Here we are in 2017, witnessing white men and women, red-faced with hatred, waving swastika flags and flaming torches, punching the oxygen out of my lungs with each extended arm, heiling Hitler and Trump. Every chant of “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil” marches us one step closer to the history most of mankind has vowed never to repeat. There is a history of oppression and otherness stretching back through our entire existence, to the very first moment someone drew a line, pointed, and said “you are not us”. Right now, you have the ability to interrupt that history. Step over that line. Stand with us. And vow, “you are safe with us”.

Teachers and parents, take a look at all the resources you’ve collected, articles you’ve saved, and links you’ve shared over the past few days. Check the hashtag #CharlottesvilleCurriculum. Check the crowd-sourced Google docs. Analyze each one and ask yourself: Does this resource acknowledge the anti-Semitism of the Charlottesville rally? Does this resource help me and my children/students learn more about anti-Semitism and how to combat it? If the resource discusses Nazis without acknowledging Jews, it has missed the mark. It is erasure, whether purposeful in its omission or not.

Now that we know better, let’s do better. Here are some resources to learn and teach about anti-Semitism, and articles that address the anti-Semitism witnessed in Charlottesville.

Resources:
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Global Jewish Advocacy
Anti-Defamation League
Teaching Tolerance
Yad Vashem

Southern Poverty Law Center

Facing History
USC Shoah Foundation

Anti-Racist Resources (Crowd-sourced Google doc)

Articles:
”We Need To Talk About The Anti-Semitism At The Charlottesville Protest” (Refinery29)
”Why the Charlottesville Marchers Were Obsessed With Jews” (The Atlantic)
”What Jewish Children Learned From Charlottesville” (New York Times)
”In Charlottesville, the Local Jewish Community Presses On” (Reform Judaism)
”State Department’s Anti-Semitism Office Will Soon Have No Staff” (Huffington Post)
VICE News Documentary Charlottesville (VICE HBO – film)
”Not In Our Town” (Facing History)
”Hate in America” (Slate)

The United States has a stormy past in regard to American Jews, but we now have the knowledge to say “we have seen this before”. We have the power to make good on our promise of “never again”. We have the ability to cultivate only peace and love in our backyards to drown out the howls of hate. I am hopeful. The conditions are favorable. One teacher, one student, one voice, at a time.

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.

Building a Trauma-Sensitive Learning Environment

I struggled with how to introduce this list without telling stories that aren’t mine to tell. Last September I asked the new principal of a local high-needs school about her new job. She said it was “good work.” I used that phrase whenever someone would ask about my new job. “It’s good work,” I would answer. How to explain that in a blog post?

I finally realized that it doesn’t matter if your school is high-needs or not. As Kristin Souers writes in Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom, “Because the statistics are so overwhelming, I encourage you to view every student as though he or she has experienced trauma or is exposed to chronic stress” (2). Here’s my incomplete list of how to begin to build what Souers calls a “trauma-sensitive learning environment.”

1. See students as more than their story.

In Fostering Resilient Learners, Souers writes that we should focus on the effect that events have on our students rather than on the details of the events themselves. This shift in focus encourages us to “see students as more than their story” (16).

What does it mean to see our students as more than their story? Aren’t we building relationships? Isn’t it important that every single student in a school be known?

Yes, we’re building relationships, and yes, it’s essential that every student in a school be known, but we don’t have to know every detail to teach the student. Nor does the student have to reveal all of her or his life story to every single teacher. While a student’s story is important, it can also be shorthand for a set of assumptions that might or might not be true for that student.

It is helpful, for example, to know that a student suffers from crippling anxiety, or needs kind words, or doesn’t get support outside of school. In some cases, I am the teacher who knows the story, the one the student confides in. Just as often I’m not, and that’s okay too, because the changes I make for the crippling anxiety or the need for kind words or the support someone isn’t getting at home? Those are changes that benefit all my students, whether I know their story or not.

As much as we believe otherwise, the more we tell the story, the less we see the student. My students are more than their ACEs.

2. If they can, they will.

Many of us, as Souers writes in Fostering Resilient Learners, “associate behavior with choice” (32). If you only read one more book between now and the start of your school year, it should be Ross Greene’s Lost at School. Greene writes that behavior is a matter of lagging skills and unsolved problems rather than a decision by a student to misbehave. For me, the key change is to think about challenging behaviors as a problem to be solved rather than a choice that a student has made. If they can, they will.

When we see challenging behavior as a problem to be solved rather than a choice made by a student, it completely changes our relationship as teacher and student. Imagine that a student walks out of my class without permission every day. If I view this exit as a choice that the student is making, then the solution is obvious: the student needs to stay in class. On the other hand, if I view this exit as the demonstration of a lagging skill, a sign that my student is facing a problem that he or she lacks the skill to solve, then the situation is very different. I still want my student to stay in class, but if I remember, as Greene repeats, that “Kids do well if they can,” then I’m more likely to work with my student to identify the problem and master the lagging skill. (I’m only touching briefly on the content of Greene’s book. You can learn more about his work with Collaborative and Proactive Solutions here.)

3. Every student, every day.

File Jul 21

Sometimes, simple is better. When we returned to school after break in January, I set a simple focus for myself each day. Greet every student by name. Look and see their faces. Ask questions. A few weeks later, I wrote Connect in my planner on a Monday and Connect again on a Tuesday. At the very end of the school year, one of our instructional leaders tasked us to meet with every single reader before the year ended. It seemed an impossible task, but I met with as many students as I could. Tell me about the book you’re reading. What are your plans for next year? What do you want to do after high school?

I know we can’t confer with every student every day, but how many students do we stop and talk to each day? Do we take a minute to really see every student in front of us, or do we simply launch into our lesson after a cursory glance so that we can take attendance? I know that I can look without seeing, especially after I’ve taught a few periods in a row. I know that I need to stop, breathe, observe, connect. I might not get to everyone, but the goal remains the same.

Every student, every day.