As we welcome students back this year, let’s untangle ourselves from our long list of “to-do” items to recognize that none of us are the same. No matter where we have spent the last year, our environment has changed and our way of life is different. Social distancing restrictions have changed the way we interact and communicate with each other. Families and loved ones have been separated. As social beings, isolation takes a toll, even on us introverts. This is a call to normalize the space that we all need to humanize this moment. To leave space for all that we and young people need in order to journey on a path to healing and create a more liberating school environment.
Dr. Sean Ginright describes healing as a transformative and collective experience. When applied in schools, we are charged to see trauma not only as inflicted on individual students, but as a collective experience. He writes, “A healing-centered approach views trauma not simply as an individual isolated experience, but rather highlights the ways in which trauma and healing are experienced collectively.” Rather than see trauma or mental health as an issue to help individuals with, we look to ourselves, our culture, and our environments to see the interrelated effects of trauma and grief on a collective psyche.
Many schools are now doing listening sessions with students, to start the journey of authentically understanding the voices on the margins. Student panels are a great way to bring student voice into adult-centered meeting spaces. But we also need to be thoughtful about how we own our collective responsibilities to ensure we commit to the necessary self-reflection (or mirror-work) to change student experience by first changing ourselves. I remember a student panel I recently participated in. A committee had worked hard to prepare students to speak on their experience involving gender and gender identity in school. The students spoke for over an hour about the impact of sexism and gender norms from their fellow peers and some teachers while an entire auditorium full of teachers and administrators looked on. As the panel finished, they all got up to walk out quietly and I looked backwards to see the look of weariness, guilt, and even some blank stares of the faculty. Although this was an empowering experience for the students, it was not a healing-centered space. The event centered the students as the ones traumatized by these experiences. But seeing the look on the faculty’s faces, we were all a part of this trauma. Unless we created the space to invite in our own struggles with sexism and patriarchy, the incidents and problems the students brought up, would not be solved. We had started the journey, and we needed to activate the love and courage to continue on the path.
In his book, My Grandmother’s Hands, Resmaa Menakem explains that trauma is a collective experience. Our world’s collective trauma has been racialized and that is where healing will come. This centers the need for affinity spaces as sources of healing. It is only in affinity that Bipoc and white folks can come to terms to the extent of our pain in community with others who may have experienced similar. The uncovering of that pain is where the roots of healing can start to grow; through understanding and release - not numbness and denial.
As an international educator of color, I have heard the talk of “covering up” of pain as related to cultural difference. This is a misunderstanding of the concept of cultural difference. Culture is the values and beliefs and assumptions of a group of people and every nation sits on a continuum of values that drive decision making and behavior within these communities. However, no culture is homogeneous. In every culture, we find individuals who shut down and mask pain, who are emotionally immature, or who cannot find personal healing. Every community needs healing and it’s the cultural differences within communities that will mold how this healing care manifests.
Normalizing and giving space to healing means that we take the following steps:
Healing in context and community.
From a justice and equity perspective, our collective sense of healing is connected to our local context. Who are we in the space we occupy? How can we become empowered in our own identity-markers to feel a sense of belonging and worth in our own community? Schools are institutions within a larger context of local community, cities, and countries. Do the work it takes to understand the history of your local community. Not just the textbook history, but the hidden history that may have been wiped from textbooks.
- Engage in a book club that helps folks learn more about the local space and place.
- Engage in listening campaigns with local staff and students.
- Participate in community walks led by students and families.
- Learn about the history of your place from multiple perspectives.
Healing should restore a sense of wholeness and identity.
For people of color worldwide, we have internalized what it takes to perform under the white gaze. Affinity spaces provide spaces for Bipoc communities to discuss the issues important to us without having to put on the armor that is often needed in white-majority environments. For white folks ready to do the work to examine their own privileges, white affinity spaces provide support and learning without putting the mental labor on Bipoc individuals in the community.
- Find an affinity space in your local community or online that can be a supportive space for you this year.
- Make a commitment to yourself to learn and explore your identity, culture, community, and history.
Healing is asset driven.
Shane Safir, in her new book Street Data: A Next Generation Model for Equity and School Transformation, writes that looking at our student’s data from a satellite perspective can lead to deficit thinking. Low test scores, underperformance, mental health issues can often lead us to ask, “What is wrong with you?”. Instead, using curiosity and listening as a key driver for Street Data allows us to listen with a stance of curiosity and a mindset of radical inclusion. When we engage with those on the margins of our community in authentic and humanizing ways, we ask the question, “What is good with you?”. The responsibility is not to fix the individual, but to fix the system in order to support what the individual needs to thrive.
- Engage in listening campaigns with those on the margins, listen with an asset-based lens.
- Reflect on what went well with remote-learning and move those structures to in-person school.
Healing students includes the healing of adult providers.
Healing centered engagement starts with the adults in the community. As we work to provide healing spaces for students, we first turn inward to identify the parts of ourselves that we need to heal. This work is hard and vulnerable. It's important so that we can be the stabilizing force that students need. Most importantly, it prevents the cycle of trauma to unconsciously act out, in ways that may perpetuate the same harm an adult experiences into their future actions.
- Start with the engaged healing of the adult educators. Provide space for teachers and staff to engage with their whole self, their identity markers, and their relationship to their community.
- Re-examine the use of time as a structure to either create more stress or to provide healing. De-center the Western view of time and productivity and center activities to provide healing (talking circles, reflections, storytelling, art/music integration).
Healing is an intergenerational journey.
In much of Western epistemology, healing is a destination. People go to therapy to “get better” so that they can return to be productive members of society. Alternatively, if we include a wider knowledge-base of understanding from Afro-centric, Indigenous, and Eastern viewpoints, we can begin to recognize the ‘historical and societal causes’ of trauma while empowering people to overcome the impact of this trauma on their lives. For historically oppressed peoples, this may start from learning about and recognizing the impact of trauma from past generations and the remnants of this experience in your current lives. For folks whose ancestors come from the roots of colonizers, this is the recognition of the responsibility that your life actively plays to right the wrongs of a past that you do not directly have responsibility for. As individuals, we must take a historical perspective to see the importance of our individual roles in our collective experience both in the past and now.
- Interview an elder in your family or community.
- Engage in counseling and/or therapy to give space for intergenerational healing.
- Be patient with yourself and others on the journey.
In closing, here are some tips that individual educators and collective school communities can engage in to start this year off differently with a sense of shared purpose towards healing.
Reflect on your identity.
Understand your identity markers and reflect on intersectionality. In what spaces do you hold privilege? In what spaces are you marginalized? Notice the emotions that connect to these reflections. Do not deflect and externalize blame to others in situations that call you to recognize privilege. Do not feel shame in situations that bring up your oppression. Developing self-awareness and actualization is a skill that is uniquely connected to healing.
Normalize the highs and lows.
Provide space for adults and students to reflect on the highs and lows of their daily lives. We often think of the admission of low points as “bad” and a reflection of our own failure. Normalizing the “rose” and “thorns” of our experiences helps students and adults reflect on why something has affected us negatively and positively. This is the journey toward increase self-awareness.
Untangle the knot of time.
Traditional schooling messages to us and students that our physical presence in certain locations directly translates to productivity and success. This is backwards. In fact, the more packed a person’s day is, the less productive they are. This is a challenge to leaders and middle managers to attempt to release the structure of time in classrooms and meetings to extend how we measure success and productivity. A good leader leads with a strong vision oriented towards outcomes, not the controlling of people’s behavior and locality.
As we return to school, let’s revisit what it means to educate the whole child in healing-centered and spacious community.
Jessica is a school leader, teacher, and leadership coach with 20 years of experience in classrooms, schools, and mentorship. She strives to bring a healing-centered, student-focused lens to all of her work. Jessica co-facilitates professional development for school teams, non-profits, and educational organizations aimed at creating and sustaining a culture of equity and anti-racism and is also a certified coach for the Association of CA School Administrators. Jessica has a Bachelor’s of Foreign Service from Georgetown University and a Master’s of Education from Stanford University. She is currently serving as Vice Principal at United World College, Southeast Asia at the Dover Campus in Singapore.
Menakem, R. (2017). My Grandmother's Hands. Central Recovery Press.