What’s your story?

Earlier this week I was doing some reading and came across a quote that was talking about the levels of exhaustion that we are seeing in the workplace. This exhaustion is part of what’s leading to the rise in workplace burnout – something that I know educators can definitely go through. The quote made reference to an article in the Harvard Business Review that talked about how that exhaustion is more often a symptom of loneliness than anything else. Oftentimes when we are feeling burnt out, our solution might be to take a “mental health day” and stay home, relax, binge something on Netflix, etc. But if exhaustion is correlated to loneliness, then that mental health day may not be the solution you were hoping for.

After reading the article, I posted a series of tweets with some of my thoughts:

So, all of this got me thinking – how can we attack that feeling of loneliness in our school setting? As I thought about this, I recalled something that we did as a part of our Administrative Team Meetings a couple years ago. Every time all the intermediate administrators from my district got together, one person would “share their story.” In this, they’d start wherever they wanted and talk about the journey that led them to the point that they are now. I loved this time of our meetings because I learned so much about each of my colleagues – even people I had worked with for years. It created a space where we were able to collaborate with one another on an even deeper level. It seemed that knowing where everyone came from helped us to connect in a whole new way.

In the coming weeks, I challenge you to take a few minutes of some time that you are together with your team – it could be your teaching team, it could be your grade level team, it could be your lunch group – and spend some time sharing your story. To get us all started, I thought I would share mine.

I grew up in Bloomington, Indiana as the son of the county extension agent and a stay-at-home mom (she ran an in-home daycare for much of my childhood). In time they transitioned to careers at Indiana University. I attended elementary school at what I later learned was “the rich kid school” in my hometown. I spent time while growing up at the county fair, on the farms of my parent’s families, and in Bloomington. As a child, I had all kinds of dreams about what I might do with my future – be a star basketball player at IU, become a lawyer, be a train engineer, etc.

I was a pretty typical student. I didn’t get the best grades, but I did well enough to not get in trouble either. In high school, there was a program that upperclassmen could apply to called LOTS (Leadership Opportunities Through Service). Part of this program involved spending time as a senior with fifth grade students somewhere in our district. Suddenly I found something I really enjoyed. The time I was able to spend at school with them, plus a week camping at Bradford Woods made me decide that education was the path for me.

Education had always been something in the background for me. My mom taught home economics before I was born, my grandmother was also a home economics teacher, and my great grandfather was a high school science teacher, college professor, and school administrator. I guess you could say that it ran in my blood, but it took me until my senior year of high school to realize it. That time with a class of 5th graders led me to make a huge decision about my future. I was ready to become a fourth generation educator.

I attended IU and majored in elementary education – the first in my family to not be in a secondary education role. I loved my education classes while I was there, with placements in a variety of grade levels for different practicum work. For my student teaching, I was actually placed in the same school that I had worked with as a LOTS Senior four years earlier.

After graduation, it was my hope to stay in the Bloomington area. That dream didn’t work out to well. I had several interviews for teaching positions, but people with more experience than me kept getting selected for the spot. I was able to land a temporary contract for a teacher on maternity leave, and did some coaching, but no full-time jobs worked out.

After a year of substitute teaching, coaching, and one temporary contract, I made the decision to expand my search. After applying to and interviewing in several districts in the Indianapolis area, I received a job offer at Oaklandon Elementary School in Lawrence Township. The position was in fifth grade, and school started in just a few days.

That first year was a whirlwind! If it hadn’t been for some awesome teammates, some great people working in the office who helped me out, and an amazing principal as our leader, I’m not sure I would have made it. I definitely had some doubts that I was on the right track. On the last day of school, I remember that principal stopping me in the hallway and asking me if I’d ever thought of school administration. I hadn’t! He told me that he thought I had leadership potential. I took the compliment and moved on. I kind of thought he was crazy.

A few years down the road, I made the jump to Hamilton Southeastern Schools, the district I’m still in. After a couple of years in HSE, I decided it was time to start thinking about a master’s degree, and the comments from that first principal came back to me. I did some research into schools, and eventually chose to take classes through Ball State.

After 2 hard years of work, I received a master’s in administration and supervision. I was happy to have that degree but wasn’t sure I was quite ready to make the jump to an administrative position. I loved the work I was doing in the classroom with my students and was in no hurry to make a change.

Eventually I decided I wanted to test the water in administration. I interviewed for several positions (a couple of them I even thought I really had a solid chance), but nothing was panning out. Then, an opportunity fell right in my lap. The current assistant principal in my building left. I threw my name in the hat, and after a long interview process, I was chosen as the best candidate. I’m forever grateful for the opportunity to make that jump to assistant principal. While I’m sure it’s not the final stop in my journey, it’s definitely one that I’m happy with now!

So, you may be wondering why I took the time to tell you my story here. I just wanted to model for you what it might look like. One of the things that seems to be colliding from a lot of different places for me right now is the power of a good story. The next chance you get, talk it over with your team. Find the time to share your stories, even if it’s just one person at a time. The things you learn from one another in those few minutes can be so meaningful! Talk it over with your team, your PLC, your go to people at school. It’s totally worth the investment!

If any of you want to share some of your story, go right ahead in the comments below!

And, here’s that article I referenced earlier:

https://hbr.org/2017/06/burnout-at-work-isnt-just-about-exhaustion-its-also-about-loneliness

Change requires connectivity

The innovatorsLast summer, I read the book The Innovators by Walter Isaacson. As a brief description, the book was about the work of the many different people who played a role in the development of the computer and internet. For most of us, when we think of innovation, we think of people like Franklin, Edison, Bell, Morse, Jobs, or Gates, but in the case of the digital revolution, most of the work was not the creation of any one person. Instead it was the work of many who connected, collaborated, and iterated. Someone like Steve Jobs is seen as the creator of the iPhone, but really he took several technologies that already existed and combined them into a form factor that connected with a market.

Creativity IncThis past spring, I read the book Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull. Catmull is the co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, and wrote a book about the steps that they take in order to build a highly functioning, creative environment that is able to churn out movies that people love (think Toy Story, Monsters, Inc. Finding Nemo, and more). One of my big takeaways from this book is that the amazing work that occurs at Pixar happens because of 2 things: teamwork; and a willingness to accept feedback from those around you, whether positive or negative, and understand that it’s being shared in the hopes of creating something better.

Now, as many of you know, this blog is geared toward education. You may be wondering what the creation of the digital revolution or the work that occurs at Pixar have to do with what happens in our schools on a daily basis. I’m hoping to make that connection here today!

The connection that I can make between The Innovators and Creativity, Inc. has to do with the collaborative networks that existed between the creators. As an educator, each of you is a creator EVERY DAY. You create the experiences that happen in your classroom. You decide on what the room looks like, you decide if the lights are on or off, you decide if there is music or not, you decide how the desks are arranged when kids walk in. Each of these little decisions plays a role on the learning environment, and those are just the decisions you make BEFORE the students walk in. Think about all the decisions you make during the lesson! None of you are ever allowed to tell me that you “aren’t creative” because you create EVERY SINGLE DAY!!!

Think for a moment about your existence as an educator. You work close to several other amazing teachers every day, but there’s one thing I know about teaching because sometimes I did it when I was still in my classroom: it’s easy to shut the door, do your own thing, and not worry about what’s happening around you. Education is one of the careers where we often live in silos – our classrooms, our content area, our team, our grade level, or our campus.

But there’s one thing that books like The Innovators and Creativity, Inc. hopefully remind us: innovation doesn’t happen inside of a vacuum, it happens with collaboration, teamwork, and connections.  With all the amazing educators and schools, we still at times fail to create those critical connections for collaboration that lead to real innovation in education.

This is why I see such value in what happens during our Professional Learning Community (PLC) time. It’s an opportunity for you to come together with your colleagues, to analyze the data your seeing, to talk about what’s working in classrooms, and then to be able to test out whether or not that works in your own room. It’s a chance for you as a team to take risks, to walk out on a ledge as a team, and try something new because as a team you feel it will benefit the students in your room. We all know there’s safety in numbers! We need to see PLC time not as something that’s done to us, but as a form of self and team-directed professional development with regular opportunities to collaborate and communicate.

But if we want to create the amazing innovative environments that our students need in order to learn and grow, we have to be ready and willing to connect on an even grander scale. If you are looking for other ways to learn and grow, there are lots of informal options out there. Things like Twitter chats, EdCamps, and blogs are free and easy way to seek out like-minded educators who are doing amazing things in their classroom. Or there are more formal ways to learn about innovation in the classroom. I recently learned of the Deeper Learning Network (click here to check out their website) that shares tons of resources for innovative ideas in you classroom. Some of the things you can find information about include: Project-Based Learning, Blended Learning, Inquiry-Based Learning, Authentic Assessment, and so much more!

Now, some of you may be wondering why we need to change. Well, the reality is that thanks to the work of the innovative people that are discussed in Isaacson’s book, many of our students are used to on demand learning, are used to making choices in what they want to learn, and how they learn. The digital revolution has changed the game for learners, which means we have to find ways to change the game as teachers to meet their needs. I think we all would agree that our students today are different than the students that were in our schools just 5 years ago. They are digital natives, and many know how to find what they want to know when they want to know it.

If we as educators don’t adapt to the new style of learning, our learners are going to leave us behind. If they don’t see the relevance of what they are doing, if they don’t get choice and voice in their learning, they will not engage. I continue to believe that the HSE21 Best Practice Model is our North Star that gets us to the learning environments that will work for our students. And the best way for each of us to learn and grow towards those best practices is through meaningful collaboration. As one of my favorite professors at IU repeated almost every day “Learning is social” and we are all learners too!

BestPracticesModel_HSE21_standalonegraphic_2017_05_24

Continue to seek out ways to collaborate. Take a moment to be vulnerable and ask a PLC team member to come observe one of your lessons to give you feedback. If someone asks you for feedback, be willing to give it. We ask our students to be vulnerable and a little uncomfortable every day because that’s where the learning and growth takes place. Why can’t we expect the same of ourselves?

What are some of the things you do to continue to grow? Is there a preferred method for learning from others that works best for you? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

#RSIpln – The Riverside Intermediate Personal Learning Network

I know that around our school, or any school, there are a variety of ways that members of the staff go about expanding their knowledge base. For some it may be through conversations with colleagues within the building, some might go beyond the building and reach out to friends around their school district, others may be less social and look for ideas on their own with tools like Google, Pinterest, Teachers Pay Teachers, or other similar resources, and some might just look towards books as resources. Each of these methods have their benefits, but there are also drawbacks – the biggest of which is that we are limited to a relatively small number of resources.

Almost nine years ago, I joined Twitter. At that time, I mostly followed my favorite athletes, some actors, tv personalities, authors, and other pop-culture icons. It wasn’t until quite some time later that I realized that Twitter could be a learning tool that could help me grow as an educator. At that time, I began to see that I could follow other educators, learn from them about what they were doing in their classrooms, and schools, and grow in my own craft. Hence, the PLN – Professional/Personal Learning Network.

Around the 300th person I began to follow is a guy named Brad Currie, who along with Scott Rocco founded #SatChat as a way to connect with other emerging school leaders. By hearing about his journey on Twitter, I realized that my phone could connect me with educators all over the world. Many of my best ideas have been based on things that I have learned while on Twitter.

Today in our building, we are rolling out a way for all the teachers in our school to expand their own PLN, and find ways to grow as an educator, and as an added benefit, share the amazing things that are happening within our building. We can share with one another, with our local community, and ultimately with the world!

The plan, that I must admit I got from a conversation with John Hochstetler (Teacher Librarian at Sand Creek Intermediate), is to play a massive game of bingo, built around the idea of growing the PLN of each and every person who participates!

Why Twitter? Well, as Matt Miller has shared:

Congrats!

In the keynote at #DitchCon2017, Miller shared that as the lone Spanish teacher in a small rural school in western Indiana, he was struggling with whether or not he was actually able to create meaningful learning opportunities for his students. He then found a PLN through Twitter, and realized there were so many more possibilities for his students. His learning on Twitter led him to begin presenting to countless educators, and eventually writing 2 books for educators. Without the connections he created through Twitter, he feels he would have burnt out, and eventually left education.

It is my hope that through our game of bingo all the people who participate will have an opportunity to expand their own learning, and see that there are ways to get awesome ideas from others (and also have a little fun!). And the best part? By working with my PTO, I was able to get some prizes donated for those who are able to earn bingos! Each Friday of our Twitter Bingo we will do a drawing for a gift card to local restaurants for the teachers who have reached a bingo. At the end of October, we will do a Grand Prize drawing for a really spectacular prize (the details are yet to come, but it’s going to be HUGE!).

So without further ado, check out our Twitter Bingo board! Follow along with the hashtags #RSIpln and #RSIbingo. That way, you’ll see the awesome learning happening at Riverside Intermediate, and hopefully be able to further grow your PLN.

Twitter Bingo

And – for those of you who are already on Twitter, share in the comments below about your own experiences! I know that we have some pretty prolific Tweeters in our building already. Why do you choose to use this as a tool in your classroom? Share your thoughts in the comments below. Maybe you’ll convince a colleague that they should join in!

If you’re interested in seeing the actual bingo board, and the directions on page 2, check it out here: #RSIpln School Year Twitter Bingo

The Global Read Aloud

This summer, my Twitter feed was blowing up with pictures and quotes from a couple of books that sounded really interesting – Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed and Refugee by Alan Gratz. Each post also had the hashtag #GRA18. For me, when the same hashtag or same topic keeps showing up in my Twitter feed, it’s time to do some research. I quickly learned that #GRA18 was the hashtag for the 2018 version of the Global Read Aloud.

I recall hearing something about the Global Read Aloud in the past, but I always thought it was based on picture books and related more to younger students. However this year I noticed that the titles I was seeing were books that I knew our students would be interested in.

Basically, the Global Read Aloud was a project created by Pernille Ripp, a 7th grade teacher and author who lives in Wisconsin. On the Global Read Aloud website, she explains why she started a project like this:

Global collaboration is necessary to show students that they are part of something bigger than them. That the world needs to be protected and that we need to care for all people. You can show them pictures of kids in other countries but why not have them speak to each other? Then the caring can begin.

I’m assuming we have all participated in a book study of some sort or another. You might have read a professional book with some colleagues, you might have a neighborhood reading group, or connect in some other way. What I love about reading a book as part of a group is the opportunity to hear the perspective of people with a wide variety of experiences. Each person’s perspective may allow them to connect to the story in a different way. Through learning about their impressions from the story, we learn about how others may be similar, or different than us. In a recent interview of Matt Miller, he shared that he feels part of the power of global conversations is that “we want our students to understand that though it may seem like we don’t have a lot in common with people across the world, we actually do.”

Hopefully, some of you are interested in participating in this great experience, and you might be wondering how you go about getting started.  First, you have to sign up. You can do that at the Global Read Aloud website – you can sign up by clicking here!

Amal Unbound

Next, you have to choose your book.  There are two books that I think would be age appropriate for our students.  The first book, Amal Unbound, is the story of a girl named Amal, a typical Pakistani girl pursuing her dream of becoming a teacher one day. The other book that some of you might consider is Refugee, a story of three children – Josef is a Jewish boy living in 1930s Nazi Germany, Isabel is a Cuban girl in 1994, and Mahmoud is a Syrian boy in 2015. All three go through amazing journeys in search of refuge from their homeland. RefugeeBoth of these books are available on Amazon, although you can probably find them at any bookstore!

Once you have chosen your novel, you would then decide what level of connection you’d like to have. On the most basic level, you might choose to connect with another class in our school that is participating. If you’d like to connect with classes outside of our school, there are lots of ways you could do that. Searching the hashtag #GRA18 on Twitter will connect you with tons of others who are participating. If you’d prefer, there is also a Facebook connection through The Global Read Aloud Main Group, as well as groups that are specific to each of the books. Here I’ve seen posts of people seeking connections, sharing resources they have created, and communicating about their ideas.

If you are considering participating, and would like a ton of information about the Global Read Aloud, click here.

If you are looking for the schedule for the Global Read Aloud, you can click here.

If you do choose to participate, let me know! I read both of the books, and would love to talk with your students about their thoughts!

#IMMOOC Week 3: Proactive vs. reactive

In my first year as an assistant principal, I felt at times I was running around, putting out fires, and never seeming to make any progress on the things I was doing.  For those of you who have been an assistant principal, you probably recall the feeling of only being able to react to the things that were happening around you.  I was trying to learn my role, learn the expectations that students and staff had for me, and help however I could to lead our students towards success.

I’m so glad that I’m past that feeling! (Most of the time, let’s be real, sometimes you have no choice but to react!)

Currently I’m in my sixth year as an assistant principal, and it has become a lot easier to identify ways to avoid reacting.  I have learned that every year there is a group of students that I lovingly refer to as my “frequent flyers.”  I typically know who those 6th graders will be because I probably got to know them in the 5th grade year.  I typically learn who those 5th graders will be because they start to have some difficulties early on.  For these frequent flyers, I work (and sometimes it really is work) to build relationships with them.  I talk with them at times other than when they have made a poor choice or are feeling escalated.  I work to get to know what makes them tick, and use that to my advantage.

This strategy helps me to recognize when something is off.  At the start of every school day I’m on the sidewalk greeting students as they come in off the buses.  If one of my “frequent flyers” has his/her head down, or is behaving differently than normal, I know that something must be off.  I might pull them aside to have a quick chat right there, or I might go find them as classes get started so that we can have a more private conversation.

School teachers (or leaders

By getting to know those kids that most need to be known, I have found that they are not as likely to have the explosive behavior that might lead me to have to go back to my reactionary steps.  I’m a big believer that when we know what makes a kid tick, we are a lot more likely to be able to find the spark that leads to success and learning.

#IMMOOC Week 2 – The networked learner/leader

Recently I wrote a post about my takeaways from the book The Innovators by Walter Isaacson. One of the big takeaways that I had from that book was the fact that the innovations that led to a digital revolution did not happen in several giant leaps. Instead, innovation takes place through little steps that are layered on top of each other. In addition, most of those tiny steps did not occur because of one person. When you think of the iPhone, who do you think of? For me the first name to come to mind is Steve Jobs.  And while he was an important part of the process that made the smartphone a marketable thing for consumers, that idea would never have been possible without the work of so many other innovators in the digital revolution. Names like Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing, Robert Noyce, Grace Hopper, and Bill Gates (along with many other innovators) all made it possible for the iPhone to be the powerful tool that I carry around in my pocket every day.

Not too long ago, I was at #DitchCon2017, put on by Matt Miller. During his keynote, Matt put a picture of the Twitter logo on the screen and said “This little bird saved my teaching career.”  As educators, we all get into our own little silos and forget that there are lots of other people doing the same work as us.  If we forget to lift our heads up and look around, we may miss someone else’s awesome idea that could make learning for our students new AND better.

I have been on Twitter since January of 2010.  Initially I joined in order to follow athletes, pop-culture icons, politicians, and people of that nature.  One day while I was driving to school, I was listening to Morning Edition on NPR and I heard a story about #Satchat, and I saw a totally new purpose for Twitter (in fact, the first 3 educators that I followed were Brad Currie, Scott Rocco, and Billy Krakower, the co-founders of #Satchat).  Suddenly I realized that Twitter wasn’t just a way to absorb information from pop-culture, instead it was a way for me to learn and grow.

Twitter became my new go to for learning.  I began seeking out ways to leverage hashtags to find ideas that could impact the learning in my classroom.  I participated in Twitter chats and learned from educators who were just as passionate as me.  Sometimes I just lurked and listened, other times I dove in and shared my ideas.

Today, I talk to everyone I know about how we can use Twitter (or Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Voxer, etc.) to learn and grow in our own ways.  Once I started to participate more in Twitter chats, I began to grow followers.  The more followers I had, the more I had to think about what was really valuable information to share with them.  I became very intentional in the types of things I post (not that I’d never post a silly gif or my thoughts on the Cubs or Colts).  This has led me to seek out high quality information to share, and causes me to be constantly reading, learning, and getting better at what I do.

We all would agree that collaboration helps us all grow.  Sometimes it’s great to collaborate with that colleague down the hall, but sometimes it’s awesome to be able to collaborate with someone on the other side of the world.  As Couros says in The Innovator’s Mindset, “Isolation is often the enemy of innovation.”

Going back to my lessons from Isaacson’s The Innovators, the best innovations that we will make as educators are not going to happen in giant leaps and bounds.  They’re going to happen when we continue to layer our own ideas on top of the other innovators that we are learning from, and we can create truly mind-blowing, amazing, awesome learning experiences from our students!  Networking is one of the best ways that I know of that we can do that!

What do you know about each of your students?

At the beginning of this school year we held a back to school retreat.  One of the slides was based on something that Aaron Hogan, author of Shattering the Perfect Teacher Myth, had shared in his Twitter feed this summer.

My Challenge

We have talked over the years about the value of relationships.  We all know that there are some students who are EASY to get to know.  At the same time, we all know that there are some students that are very difficult to get to know.

Getting to know about the things that are tied directly to school is what teachers do. Test scores, homework completion, attentiveness in class…  I think all of us are good at that.  To have a true and meaningful relationship with a student, we need to have a knowledge of all the aspects of the child’s life, not just their ability to “play school.”  To know this, we have to be excellent watchers and listeners.  This watching and listening has to come from the idea that the only way to create solid learning environments for our students is through truly knowing a student.

Do you have a system of tracking what you know about kids?  Whether you have a spreadsheet that you type info into, a stack of notecards with one for each kid, a class list with simple notes, sticky notes in a binder, or whatever works for you, there needs to be some way to keep track of the things you know about those kids.  If you haven’t done this yet, take a few moments in the coming week to assess your own knowledge of your students.  What do you know about their life outside of school?  What interests do they have?  What did they do over the weekend?  What do you know about their family?

As you assess your own knowledge, are there any kids who stand out as someone you don’t know much about?  If you don’t know much about that child, how can you be sure that you are creating a learning environment that meets that child’s needs?

The good news, it’s still very early in the school year!  If there are kids you want to get to know better, there’s plenty of time for that.  Make it a goal to learn what you can about those kids you aren’t able to write much about.  Use strategies like the 2 for 10 method (spending 2 minutes every day for 10 days talking about something that has nothing to do with school) can help you learn a lot in a very short time.  Conversations in the hallway or at recess can be a great chance to get to know kids too.

Caring about kids can have a huge impact.  The kids who drop out of school in 9th or 10th grade don’t decide one random Monday morning that they are going to sleep in and never come back.  Dave Brown and Trudy Knowles share in What Every Middle School Teacher Should Know that:

“The decision to drop out is a reflective process that begins during the middle level years based primarily on the relationships they have at school with classmates and particularly with teachers.”

In the book Canaries Reflect on the Mine: Dropouts’ Stories of Schooling, Jeanne Cameron interviewed several high school dropouts.  One of the things that stood out in the comments from those students was the belief that they needed teachers to notice them and care about them.  That care doesn’t come just from looking at students grades and test scores.  It comes from the recognizing the difficulties that each of our students have in their lives.

If that isn’t enough of a motivator for you to try to get to know those quiet kids a little bit better, I don’t know what would be.  Do you know there are kids that you don’t know much about?  What do you know about the quietest kid in your class?  What are you going to do in the next week to get to know those kids?  Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Childhood trauma – part 2

Last week I encouraged you to watch the TED Talk by Nadine Burke Harris titled “How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime.”  If you missed it and still would like to watch it, click here.  Even if you didn’t watch the talk, hopefully there will be information in today’s post that will help you understand: 1) the impact of trauma on children; 2) that childhood trauma can affect any community; and 3) a few ways to be able to impact the lives of students and their families to improve outcomes.

Childhood trauma: it affects brain development, the immune system, hormonal systems, and the way our DNA is read and transcribed. It leads to increased risk of heart disease and lung cancer, and can cause a 20-year difference in life expectancy.  Even with all these factors, many doctors are not prepared to be able to identify childhood trauma, and even fewer have the tools necessary to treat these issues.

Trauma

 

Many physicians, especially those that work in public health, are trained to try to identify root causes of an illness.  When 50 people from the same neighborhood begin exhibiting the same symptoms, doctors are not only going to treat the patients, they are also going to look at what’s going on in that neighborhood.

Dr. Harris began to notice a pattern in many of her patients that she couldn’t initially put her finger on.  She was having kids referred to her for ADHD, but she could not make that diagnosis.  As she got to know more of these patients, the pattern that she found in many was that they had experienced some form of severe trauma.

There is a direct link between childhood trauma and adult onset of chronic disease, as well as mental illness, doing time in prison, and work issues, such as absenteeism.Eventually, Dr. Harris learned from a colleague of a study called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACEs Study).  This ongoing study is a collaboration of Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  I believe that every educator needs to be aware of the ACEs Study.  The study shows a correlation between ACEs that occurred prior to reaching the age of 18 and many health and social problems as an adult.  Here are some basic stats from the ACEs Study:

  • 17,300 adults were part of the original study
  • 70% were Caucasian
  • 70% were college educated
  • All participants have/had livable wages and health insurance
  • All were middle class or affluent

While there were many forms of trauma that the participants in the study had been through, the study identified the top 10 ACEs.  They are:

  1. Sexual Abuse
  2. Physical Abuse
  3. Emotional Abuse
  4. Physical Neglect
  5. Emotional Neglect
  6. Loss of a Parent
  7. Witnessing Family Violence
  8. Incarceration of a Family Member
  9. Having a Mentally Ill, Depressed, or Suicidal Family Member
  10. Living with a Drug Addicted or Alcoholic Family Member

ACEs scores are determined by 1 point per each of the ACEs listed above.  A couple things to be aware of about ACE scores: first, they are extremely common.  67% of the population had at least one ACE, and 12.6% had 4 or more ACEs.  Second, the higher the ACEs score, the worse the potential health outcomes.

ACEs can also have an impact on student success.  In one Washington State University study, students who had at least 3 ACEs were 3 times likelier to experience academic failure.  They are 5 times likelier to have attendance issues.  And they are 6 times as likely to exhibit behavioral problems.

Sunset chaserWhy does this happen?  For the normally developed brain, when it encounters a stressful situation the adrenal gland kicks in and releases adrenaline and cortisol, which gets the body ready for fight, flight, or freeze.  For a child living in trauma, those adrenal glands are constantly being triggered, which causes their brain to have bottom up control, and prevents the upper part of the brain (those that control reasoning, self-control, learning, and understanding), from being able to take control.  And what are the triggers for our trauma students?  You may never know.  It could be walking into their home, it could be a loud voice, it could be a simple as a facial expression.  These triggers are so frequent that the trauma brain is constantly in fight, flight, or freeze mode.

One of the things that we all know is that being an educator can be a very emotional task.  You become connected to your students, you want the best of them, and no matter how hard we try, there are times that they become frustrated.  These frustrations may manifest themselves in many different ways.  We have to be able to help our students to calm their brains and return to top-down control.  Punishments and logic will not work for a dysregulated student.  Instead, our students need relationships, connections, and acceptance.  When we are able to stay calm when our students are not, we may be able to help get our students back to calm.  Remember, when a student is struggling, it is not about us, and we can’t take it personally.

Your presence is the most precious gift you can give another human being.In their book The Trauma-Informed School, Jim Sporleder and Heather T. Forbes identified a few strategies that we can all use to interact with students (and I would suggest that these strategies work for all kids, not just those who have been through trauma).  Here’s a few of them:

  • Respond instead of react – ask yourself “am I responding to this student as a person or am I reacting to his behavior?”
  • Give emotional space – allow the student to be upset, and be there to support the student when they are once again regulated.
  • Ask the right questions – What’s driving the behavior? What can I do to improve my relationship with this student?
  • Statements that show support – What do you need from me right now that takes care of you and allows me to continue teaching?
  • Choose your battles – sometimes it’s best to just get your class going on something, then quietly approach the student to check in.
  • Keep yourself regulated – drop your personal mirror and seek the cause to the problem that is happening in front of you.

No two situations are going to be identical.  No two kids are going to react in the same way.  What works today might not work tomorrow, but simply being aware of what’s going on in the brains of our students, and some possible strategies for when a student becomes dysregulated will help all of us to be able to better meet the needs of our kids.

What strategies have been successful for you?  Are there things that you have done in the past with kids that aren’t included here?  Share your thoughts in the comments below so that we can all spread our knowledge.

One key to student success

With it being the beginning of the school year, many of us have been spending countless hours getting ready for our students.  We made sure our classrooms look just right, we made sure to pick the perfect activities for our students to get to know each other (and for us to get to know them).  Before the first day I’m sure you were all just as excited as I was thinking about this school year.

One thing that many of us think about during the summer time is how to help our students to be successful.  For those of us in education, that is something that we all want for our students.  I’ve read many philosophies of education, written by lots of great teachers, and all of them say something about helping our students to be successful.  So what needs to happen in order to help our students be successful?

As I was thinking about this question earlier this week, I found myself drawn back to a book that I read a while back – What Every Middle School Teacher Should Know by Dave Brown and Trudy Knowles.  I know I’ve mentioned this book in previous posts – if you haven’t yet, it’s definitely worth the read!

In order to create cognitive growth for our students, they have to be willing to take risks in their own learning.  They have to be willing to try things that they’ve never done.  They have to be willing to fail from time to time.  Failure leads to growth for all of us!

The problem is, failure is scary.  How many of us have not tried something because we were worried we wouldn’t be able to do it?  During my high school years in Bloomington we would hang out at the Indiana University outdoor pool.  If you’ve never been there, one thing you should know is that there are multiple diving boards, including a platform.  I had a couple of friends who were divers, and they made it look so easy to go off the 3-meter springboard, or any one of the platforms.  I on the other hand, while being a strong swimmer, was scared to death to jump off that top platform.  Multiple trips to the pool, and many times watching others go for it, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.  Finally one of my buddies got me to go up the platform with him – “don’t worry, if you don’t want to jump, you can go back down.”  Once I got to the top, he jumped right off.  I was next in line, I turned around and there was a line behind me.  I didn’t want to walk past all of them, so I walked up to the end of the platform, looked over the edge, thought about it for a moment or two, and went for it.  What a rush it was to take that jump!  My fear had held me back and prevented me from a fun experience.

For some of our students, the fear that I felt about jumping off that platform is what they feel about reading aloud, or writing a story.  Maybe a teacher has told them that math isn’t their strong suit, so they don’t want to solve a problem for the class.  We expect our students to come to school for 180 days to do something that feels risky.  How many adults would do something risky every day?  A lot of us might just give up.  For the kids who feel this level of fear about their academics, they may say to themselves “If I’m not good at it, why even try.  I don’t want to embarrass myself.”

These students need our encouragement and support to build enough confidence to take risks.  That comes back to our classroom culture – the expectations we set about how students treat each other, as well as the things we (the adults in the room) say in the classroom.  Kids need to feel safe enough to be able to take risks.  Brown and Knowles share the following list of things students need to feel academic safety:

  • No one laughs at them when they attempt to ask or answer questions
  • Teachers establish realistic academic expectations and outcomes for every student
  • Students’ efforts are recognized, as well as the products of those efforts
  • Teachers eliminate competitive situations that create inequity among students
  • Teachers develop cooperative grouping strategies that encourage students to collaborate in their learning and share their knowledge and expertise with one another
  • Teachers play the role of learning facilitator to encourage student independence
  • Teachers choose alternative instructional strategies to meet each student’s learning style
  • Teachers recognize and appreciate talents other than academic skills

This list is not meant to be the end all be all solution for all our students, but it provides some ideas that we can reflect on in our planning and preparation to make sure that our students will feel safe in our classroom.  They need that safety to take risks, and they have to take risks to grow.

What steps do you plan to take in your classroom to make sure that all of your students feel comfortable to take risks in your classroom?  How can you model your willingness to take risks in your own learning and growth?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

How do we respond to student behaviors?

In last week’s post we discussed the role of trauma in student behaviors we see.  Each one of us can think of one or two students who manage to get under our skin and push our buttons.  What we have to remember is that for some of these students, they are acting out due to something that we cannot control – they have been through some type of trauma in their life.  It leads to behaviors we don’t understand, and that makes it difficult for us to respond in the appropriate way.  The goal of this post is to think carefully about how we respond to those students so that we are intervening in a way that offers support.

Imagine for a moment that you were to look up from your computer right now, and see this:

Imagine this bear walked into the room you’re in right now. What would you do?
Imagine this bear walked into the room you’re in right now. What would you do?

What would you do?  How would you react?

For our students who have been impacted by trauma, every adult that they meet is a bear like the one you see above.  That includes their teachers!  For these students, they are constantly watching for the dangerous bear.  They may not be able to interpret an innocent or neutral look, action, or touch from their teacher or others at school as being benign.  The brains of our traumatized youth lose the ability to understand the difference between safety and danger, and will falsely signal danger and hostility EVERYWHERE.  As a result, these students behave in ways that are not considered appropriate in the normal school environment.  They lack the language skills to be able to describe how they feel, so they act out in ways that we might describe as reactive, impulsive, aggressive, withdrawn, or defiant.  These challenging behaviors have become coping skills that help them survive in abusive or neglectful situations.  Remember from last week’s post, children who have dealt with trauma are living with their focus on the survival portion of the brain (fight, flight, or fright).  Since all of life is about survival for these students, they generalize the behavior to all other environments – even school where we think they should feel safe.

So when students are acting out, especially students that we believe (or possibly even know) have lived through one of the traumas addressed last week, we need to shift our perspective in how we react.  Oftentimes we see this behavior as willfully acting out or disrupting class, or consciously refusing to engage with learning.  Instead, we need to see that:

  1. These responses are based on personal experiences
  2. Students are seeking to meet their needs
  3. They have difficulty regulating emotions
  4. They lack some of the important skills to be successful in school
  5. They believe that adults cannot be trusted

troubled-childrenWe need to put into place supports and other interventions to address these issues.  Instead of seeing the behavior and asking (or even thinking) “What’s wrong with you?” we need to shift our mindset to “What happened and how can I help?”  In order to be sensitive to trauma, we must recognize the prevalence and impact of trauma in our students’ lives and create a framework that provides support, is sensitive to the unique needs of students, and is mindful of avoiding re-traumatization.  I’m sure that some of you are looking now for a list of exactly what to do in each situation.  It doesn’t exist.  Each child is different, their needs are different.  You must take the time to offer your support, your help, and let these children know that you truly care for them.  You do this through paraverbals (tone of voice, body language, volume, and cadence of speech).  Deliberately slow your speech, soften your voice, choose a kind tone, and be supportive of the student.  Students who feel supported are more likely to feel safe.

I think we can all agree that when students feel safe, they are more likely to act in ways that are safe, so how can we support that?  First, we need to ask ourselves if the student is fearful, anxious, frustrated, or tense.  Next, our responses to inappropriate behaviors need to be predictable, and our students who struggle need to have an agreed upon safe haven (maybe the resource room, maybe the counselor’s office, maybe with another teacher) where they can go to work through their complex emotions.  Finally, when that student is ready to return to class, we must find an opportunity to rebuild rapport with that student (this step is quite possibly the MOST important in helping students to feel supported).  Continue to let them know you care, and that you are here to help.  Ask them to let you know how you can help.  They may not have an answer today or tomorrow, but eventually they may have an idea that will support them.  We also have to remember – for students to behave appropriately, we must model and teach the behavior we want to see (this is not the same as telling students what we expect).

In order to help students feel connected in schools, we should work hard to build relationships – especially with the students who struggle the most.  Greet each student at the door of your classroom every day.  Be aware of your student’s likes and interests (these can be used as a distraction in times of crisis).  As I’ve said before, know your kids and love them for who they are.

While we can’t protect our students from all the evils of the world, we can be allies, mentors, and role models.  The relationships we build with our students will help them as they grow, recover, and begin to heal from their trauma.

What experiences have you had with students who have been through trauma?  Have you found strategies that seem to be successful?  Let us know what has worked for you in the comments below.