“Trauma is not a flaw or a weakness. It is a highly effective tool of safety and survival. Trauma is also a wordless story our body tells itself about what is safe and what is a threat.”
— Resmaa Menakem, My Grandmother’s Hands
The heart of a teacher extends far beyond supporting students in excelling academically. Instead, teachers recognize that students are whole human beings who grow with love, care, and compassion. Because of this, it’s not uncommon to read articles, attend professional development, and read books that preach about the importance of taking a trauma-informed approach with students. But how often do we ask ourselves, “How are we supporting and caring for the emotional needs of teachers?”
As an instructional coach for BetterLesson, a trauma-informed specialist, and a former classroom teacher and education leader who has taught in mainstream and alternative settings in the United States and internationally, I’m still astounded at the way teachers’ well-being isn’t prioritized.
First and foremost, it’s important to recognize that we need systemic changes if we want to improve teacher retention and curb burnout. Some of these changes include school-wide ABAR (anti-bias, anti-racist) training, increased funding for mental health professionals, better pay, smaller class sizes, environments that prioritize co-teaching and collaboration, safe professional learning communities, and a culturally responsive curriculum.
As instructional coaches and education leaders, it’s imperative that we fight for systemic changes through advocacy, but we can also support teachers in the present moment by offering trauma-informed coaching.
Taking a trauma-informed lens to coaching means we recognize that teachers suffer from vicarious trauma and we view our coaching sessions not only as a time to support teachers in the art of teaching, but also to acknowledge their value and contributions as whole human beings. The pandemic has only amplified the clear fact that our teachers deserve better—they always have. Although there isn’t a “one and done” fix, and counseling should be accessible and free for all teachers, trauma-informed coaching practices are one way we can support teachers in feeling like their district is prioritizing their needs. Here’s a glimpse into five trauma-informed practices that coaches can utilize to support teachers.
Create a Brave Space
Before teachers can feel vulnerable to talk about the successes and challenges they face in the classroom, it’s imperative to cultivate a sense of trust. Without trust, coaching sessions are forced and teachers never feel fully themselves around their coach.
Get to know each other. To create a brave space, the first couple sessions of coaching should be focused on getting to know each other and what’s going on in the teacher’s current reality (which these days, let’s be honest, is constantly shifting). Active listening skills such as attentiveness, open-ended questions, requesting clarification, paraphrasing, and being attuned to the feelings in the space, are all ways we can honor teachers during coaching sessions. Strategies like I Wish My Teacher Knew can be modified to get to know teachers on a deeper level.
Unpack biases. Instructional coaches must always continuously unpack their biases to meet the needs of teachers of many intersecting identities. Strategies such as Identifying and Addressing Implicit Bias and Building Equity Awareness and Capacity can support coaches as they strive to be social justice driven and adhere to equitable and trauma-informed practices in coaching.
Provide confidentiality. An instructional coach can often provide a neutral space for educators to be vulnerable and share challenges, hopes, and risks they may not feel comfortable sharing with their co-teachers or with other leaders. As a BetterLesson coach, I’m uniquely positioned to act as a sounding board; but even in-district coaches can cultivate that confidential, supportive space.
Acknowledge the Difficulties
Teachers come to coaching sessions in all states of mind. Examples from my participants this year include:
- Experiencing grief around losing a mentor and colleague to COVID19
- Overwhelming expectations around hybrid teaching leading to feelings of failure
- Feeling isolated and heartbroken as a first-year teacher who has had to learn over a year’s worth of college course information in just a few weeks
- Juggling small children at home while teaching remotely
While the Try-Measure-Learn coaching cycle is truly the heart of continuous improvement, it’s important for coaches to “read the room” so to speak, and know when to provide space for grief, heartbreak, and venting during sessions. We cannot separate the teacher from the whole human that deserves to be validated, encouraged, and loved.
Set Social-Emotional Goals for Participants
Along with empowering teachers to set sustainable and attainable goals aligned with the 5 essential elements of student-centered teaching and learning, coaches can invite teachers to set their own social-emotional goals. Ideas might include zooming in on targeted skills such as boundary setting, self-care practices, spending time in nature, sleep, and simplifying daily tasks. A few minutes from each coaching session can be dedicated to circling back to the social-emotional goal and asking teachers to speak about how things are going. This small shift in coaching can support teachers in recognizing that their mental health matters.
One of the most common themes that have emerged this year has been an overall sense of despair and lack of joy. So many of us became teachers for a sense of community, and to see our students’ faces light up when they learn or share a new skill. So how do we support teachers in finding joy?
Tap into their core joys. Talk with teachers about what has brought them joy in their life. What delights from the past are they missing and how can they find them again?
Share stories. Invite teachers to share positive stories from their classrooms during each coaching session.
Embed joy into their practice. Support teachers in recreating that joy as you work toward a goal. For example, to increase student engagement, strategies such as School Poetry Nights, Block Parties, and simply Communicating Positive News to Families can help teachers internalize the positive and essentially “grow the good” in their brains.
Check-In Outside of Coaching Sessions
Some of the most powerful connections I’ve made with teachers this year have stemmed from showing care about trips, doctor’s appointments, the death of a loved one, an upcoming engagement, or a community crisis. It’s important for coaches to be up-to-date about personal, community, and current events. It’s as simple as sending a quick email to say, “Hi, I’m thinking of you!” or “This article really spoke to me and reminded me about how you’re shifting to student-centered instruction in math.” These check-ins aren’t time-consuming and can make all the difference in the world.
Moving forward, prioritizing support for teachers will influence everything from their creativity, interactions with students, and ability to contribute meaningfully to the field of education for years to come. Trauma-informed practices should be viewed as necessities for teachers and students alike.
Resources to Further Your Learning
- Use Active Listening to Coach Others by the Center for Creative Leadership
- Trauma Stewardship by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky
- My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem
- Coaching for Equity by Elena Aguilar
- The How and Why of Trauma-Informed Teaching by Edutopia
- How Do We Support Educator Well-Being? by Emily Santiago of The Center for Cognitive Diversity
April Brown (M.Ed) is an instructional coach, trauma-informed specialist, curriculum developer, and writer based in Putney, Vermont. Formerly, April was a teacher and education leader in both mainstream and alternative education in the United States and internationally. She’s passionate about exploring how to disrupt structures that perpetuate systems of oppression and address unbalanced power dynamics inside and outside the classroom. She’s an advocate for kids and teachers.
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