Each morning, students stand, placing their hand over their hearts, and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. “With liberty and justice for all” are the words that echo throughout our classrooms from coast to coast with students yearning for the opportunity to be heard as a fellow American.
Needless to say, our students have also observed Colin Kaepernick placing his knee to the ground during “The Star-Spangled Banner” in opposition to a series of African American deaths caused by law enforcement, which has led to the Black Lives Matter movement.
We face not only a coronavirus pandemic but also a pandemic of continual racial and systemic injustices that has been inherited from several generations. History reveals that it began in 1619 when enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia and has extended to the most recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. The outrage and outcry of Black forefathers has become the ancestral burden of each generation.
Although the history of oppression and racism dates back centuries, the advancement in technology through camera phones and social media has provided repetitive exposure to traumatic experiences that may have gone undiscovered or unreported.
Clips of the nightly news feature unarmed African Americans being killed on the street, dying while in police custody, or being the victim of a misleading eyewitness. These experiences produce racially charged memories in which no environment feels safe.
Then, there is the added pressure of microaggression. This is a term coined by psychiatrist and Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce for when someone insinuates something about a person of a marginalized group without saying it directly—for instance, not taking the time to learn to correctly pronounce a student’s name, refusing to look the student in the eye, asking to feel the texture of their hair as if they are part of a laboratory experiment, or making comments such as “Wow, you’re so articulate!” This type of behavior often leads to lower performance and disengagement and a disproportionate population in special education and gifted and talented programming.
As educators, one needs to begin by examining how the trauma of racial injustice impacts students and their school experience. Educator and anti-racism activist Jane Elliott said, “Teachers can’t teach what they haven’t been taught, and are in danger of losing their jobs if they teach the truth.”
It is important to recognize that creating a trauma-informed resilient classroom is a process. As teachers, one must be willing to become a lifelong learner. This includes fostering strong connections, making social and emotional skills a priority, establishing a safe space, and building even stronger relationships with kids of non-responsive parents.
Relationships are built though communication. Conversations should include historical events, things currently happening in the news, or personal tragedies. This is a teaching (and listening) opportunity for the educator to move from the “why” to the “how” mindset. At this point, the teacher may begin to look beyond the behavior and focus more on avoiding the triggers. For instance, are you able to talk with your students about their trauma, even if you’re of a different race? Perhaps they could benefit from shifting the classroom from teacher-directed to student-directed, in which the peer is developing speaking, listening, collaboration, and independent thinking skills with limited teacher interjections, in order to integrate the cultures and views of students into the learning experience.
How do your students respond to corrective action from a teacher of another race? Creating a culturally responsive classroom management system means the teacher is willing to reflect on the ways in which their decisions promote or impede students’ access to learning. Management procedures such as handling confrontation privately and respectfully as opposed to yelling or removing students from the classroom is still a teachable moment. On the other hand, going to the principal’s office and later getting suspended matters because it has a strong correlation with encountering law enforcement, which is a pathway to the cold, dark school-to-prison pipeline.
Once the conversation has taken place, it is now time for the teacher to self-reflect as an individual by asking the following questions: “Have I shared a personal testimony to build a stronger relationship? Do I have any implicit biases and how may I self-correct? Do I say anything when a colleague is being racially offensive? Do I have the language to articulate academic or social support needed for my students?”
The space for reflection gives the teacher time to support anti-racist communities and unlearn certain ideologies that are poisonous to our communities. Then, we can become more intentional about how we communicate and educate our students, which is part of the recovery process.
As we all know, you cannot teach the mind when the heart is broken.
What Is a Trauma-Informed School?
A trauma-informed school is one in which adults in the educational community have been trained to recognize and respond to those who have been affected by traumatic stress, whether student or faculty. Learn more using the following resources:
Scoie Green is in her fifth year of teaching in Katy ISD. Prior to teaching professional communications, she began her career as a special education teacher. She was named a 2019 ATPE Campus Representative of the Year and was a member of the 2019-20 Leadership ATPE cohort. A 2020-21 Teach Plus Texas Policy Fellow, she is passionate about education policy and practice issues that advance equity, opportunity, and student success.
As part of her Teach Plus Texas Policy Fellowship, Green wrote a follow-up article for Education Post, which can be found here.