Special thanks to Dr. William Kerns for this insightful blog entry. For me personally, this entry could not have come at a better time. This week my wife’s mom passed away. Her mom was in her 90’s and had a rich and full life. Still, that kind of thing is never easy and was made worse by the realities of a new normal as they impacted both the wake and funeral. On the brighter side, the family was able to make up for some of the restrictions by selected use of Zoom meetings and by having the services streamed to friends and family. Bill knew all this was happening and wrote this entry so that writing for my blog was off my plate this week. So- Bill definitely practices what he preaches. I want to thank him again for this thoughtful and timely entry. I’m getting by with a little help from my friends. So, all of you, take care of yourselves so you can do a better job of taking care of your kids. Be Safe and Be Well. See you next week- Dr. Sam
Practicing Love for Students and Love for Yourself by Dr. William Kerns
Time to take a deep breath. And exhale. I have no doubt at all that every teacher reading this blog is deserving of gratitude. And the best dessert that you want. Maybe chocolate cheesecake or blueberry pie. If you are reading this on a Saturday morning, the least you deserve is a strong cup of rich coffee and some pancakes. Time to destress. In this blog entry, I will address self-care and trauma-informed instruction in the context of literacy instruction. An ethic of care (see Katz et al., 1999) frames this blog, one which promotes meaningful connections between teacher and student, between student and family, and among students.
We cannot bury or ignore that we are each going through a trauma, defined by the American Psychiatric Association (2013) as experiencing, witnessing, or being confronted with actual or threatened death or serious injury, or threatened physical integrity of self or others. Trauma is experienced when an event exceeds normal coping skills. The pandemic is an adverse childhood experience for students. For all we know, students may be living in conditions aggravated by such additional adversity as maltreatment, the experience of or witnessing of violence, or the loss of a loved one. So, at the core of trauma informed instruction is an emphasis on responding to what has happened to a child instead of focusing on what is wrong with the child.
Each of us are also coping with trauma-induced stress. Children can be ill-equipped to handle responses to trauma that may include fear, horror, helplessness, disorganization, and agitation. In fact, it would not at all surprise me if many of the teachers reading this blog have likewise recently experienced some combination of these responses. It is, therefore, crucial that we practice trauma informed instruction and self-care. Trauma informed instruction involves understanding the impact of trauma on cognitive development and learning, understanding the impact of trauma on socio-emotional development, and understanding the impact on behavior. Meanwhile, self-care involves developing the practices of maintaining mental, emotional, and physical health even during times of adversity.
We need to face the distinct possibility that many students and teachers are trying to cope with toxic stress, a “strong, frequent, or prolonged activation of the body’s stress response systems in the absence of the buffering protection of a supportive, adult relationship” (Shonkoff et al., 2012). The pandemic appears to be far from over, and some students may have unstable homes. This poses a challenge, because repeated traumatic experiences lead to an over-release of stress hormones and to an over-reactive stress system.
Not only are each of your students going through trauma with the pandemic, but marginalized groups often do share a history of trauma from which we can learn. Making connections with students is important. May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, so you might consider incorporating themes to honor Asians and Asian-Pacific Americans within the curriculum. English Language Arts and Literacy classrooms, even online, can provide a lens through which victims of trauma can explore topics through material that is emotional and relevant (Dutro 2019). You could also incorporate themes of African Americans, or of Latinx peoples. The key here is to be honest. Open. Dialogue about shared pain, about common experiences, but also about experiences in life that are quite different. We can learn so much by listening.
The process of truly listening to another opens the door for empathy. As we strive to be there for students, we must also be there for ourselves, practicing self-care. Like me (in all honesty) many of you may be experiencing symptoms of trauma. The lack of sleep, restlessness which can also become a type of hyperactivity, heightened sense of emotional arousal that can be exhibited in feelings of highs (joy, exhilaration) that are too high, and lows (sadness, anger) that are way too low. The cravings for foods and in my case for chia banana smoothies is also part of stress. Focus can be a struggle. If we are going to exercise self-care, I recommend that we start by being trauma-sensitive through recognizing what has happened to us rather than feeling guilty about what may be wrong with us.
I find myself highly focused for stretches at a time, but also taking long walks to regain focus. I might also pace around trying to regain focus. I find myself avoiding topics that distract me from work. All of this is a normal response to trauma, many of you might be able to relate. It is forgivable if you may have made mistakes – a lost temper with a loved one, a wasted day dealing with anxiety or sadness that later seems overblown, but such things can also cause damage.
We can each choose to act with love toward our students even when we are emotionally burned out and physically exhausted. Love as both an emotion and a moral choice (Bransen, 2006). We can feel love. We can also make the choice to act with love toward one another. This choice can carry us through times with the experience of trauma negatively impacts mastery of the teaching craft, confidence to perform instructional duties, and even a sense of professional identity. Don’t be surprised if at some point you and your students alike may find yourselves distancing from social connections (friends, colleagues, even loved ones) or lacking confidence to maintain control over emotions, this too is a natural aspect of coping with trauma (Brock et al., 2006).
Forgive yourself please and forgive students (or friends, loved ones) who may have made mistakes. Be honest with yourself and be honest with students. You are only human. This can lead to shared stories of pain and vulnerability. It can also lead to shared stories of strength. Love for students as people, and faith in your abilities to perform instructional tasks skillfully, can help to overcome the deleterious effects of this traumatic time. In the process, students benefit from the example. So, you can model for students how you find the strength to carry on during hard times. This can lead into reading literature with characters who likewise face difficulties and find strength to overcome trauma.
The importance of social support at the time of a traumatic event is well established. It is also OK to be there for yourself. Take a break. Be healthy and find an opportunity to laugh. Even if all you do is imagine me composing this blog while wearing a T-Rex dinosaur outfit that is good enough. Now, dear reader, go find an excuse to play for a little while. Work will still be there later. The play time will help you to have the energy it takes to be there for your students with all your heart.
American Psychiatric Association (APA). (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th Ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association (APA)
Bransen, J. (2006). Selfless self-love. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 9, 3-25.
Brock, K., Pearlman, L., & Varra, E. (2006). Child maltreatment, self-capacities, and trauma symptoms: Psychometric properties of the inner experience questionnaire. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 6, 103–125.
Dutro, E. (2019). The Vulnerable Heart of Literacy: Centering Trauma as Powerful Pedagogy. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Katz, M.S., Noddings, N., & Strike, K.A. (1999). Justice and caring: The search for common ground in education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Shonkoff et al. (2012). Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. Key concepts: toxic stress. http://developingchild.harvard.edu/topics/science_of_early_childhood/toxic_stress_response
Tedeschi, R., & Calhoun, L. (2004). Posttraumatic growth: Conceptual foundations and empirical evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15, 1–18.
Copyright 2020 by Dr. Sam Bommarito and Dr. William Kerns. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.
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