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Teaching with purpose: ACEs aware, healing-informed.


Listening to the voices from current classrooms, the social-emotional needs that students are coming into classrooms are intense and demonstrate the importance of additional commitments for well-being and self-care. Schools and communities must recognize that teachers have ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) too. Similarly, they enter the profession as “wounded healers," being charged with filling needy hearts with hope. The levels of toxic stress and compassion fatigue are increasing levels of teacher burnout. The new breed of teachers will have to be prepared to eliminate the mounting fears because of the 21st Century responsibilities beyond instruction. For example, mental health support, non-academic needs, evaluations, and accountability, coupled with the need to improve parental involvement, creates massive turnover (50% within the first 5 years) and a disillusioned profession.

The healing-informed teachers become ACEs aware by using data from S.E.L.F (Safety Emotional Management, Loss and Future) Model to guide instruction and support for the whole child. Also, becoming familiar with concepts like discovery and active learning that utilizes a trauma-informed approach creates rich learning environments that enable children to experience success. Grounded in the anti-biased Constructivist Learning Theory, Discovery Learning is defined as the ability to problem-solve or think critically, allowing students to learn as they discover new knowledge by connecting it to their experiences. Also, Active Learning occurs when they navigate the diverse society unlocking truths and acknowledging facts. As equally important, students may become more culturally intelligent and likely to improve their academic performance through guided discovery, project-based learning, simulated classroom experiences, and celebrating diversity.

On the other hand, Well-Being Centers provide youth with an outlet to cope and educators a space to decompress and recharge. Every generation will have to adapt and adjust to their communities and schools' local conditions and circumstances. The commonality is that schools will need spaces to address the social-emotional needs of students and staff. Often, they are internalizing their traumatic experiences. The California Surgeon General, Nadine Burke-Harris, gives an illustration of ACEs. She shares a scenario; "Imagine that you were at a campsite and a bear enters your tent. Think about the adrenaline rush and how much someone's heart begins to pump. A child who experiences ACEs, "the bear does not leave the room." Additionally, the reported increase in suicide rates among black children has shown statistical significance that schools need to be ACEs Aware and trauma-informed.

What you accept matters as much as what you do

There are many challenges that teachers are facing today. The tremendous contributions of Louise Derman-Sparks and Patricia Ramsey shed light on how to become an effective teacher and culturally responsive. They affirm that the commitment to action “requires a solid understanding of what each child brings to the table. Teachers must become intentional and acute observers of their children’s ideas and images and the attitudes and information they are being exposed to in their families, communities, and classroom.” Ultimately the questions are, what adverse effects of trauma prevent students from thriving in school? Would Sanctuary Models, Healing-Informed Practices, and cultural humility promote social engagement and increase student motivation?

Cultural responsiveness requires opportunities to establish trust. Stephen Covey demonstrates this compelling example through the lens of penetrating the dimensions of culture. He says, "seek to understand than to be understood." Similarly, the correlation with Sealy-Ruiz's conceptualization of Critical Humility is a self-reflective practice to evaluate one's role in affirming whiteness. It assesses whether or not those actions have committed harm actively or passively. Also, the levels of Historical Trauma that plague communities of color that de-humanize through media representations because of the lack of attentiveness to disrupt systematic oppression allows for the fruits of injustice to deprive children. Moreover, acknowledging that the results of the dominant culture’s norms have led to inequities and have isolated minorities from educational opportunities in some cases. This is not to say that the injustices that happen solely lie with the persons of privilege. Nonetheless, there is a collective responsibility to all people in society, specifically those that the system has neglected. The ability to be an instrument of inspiration has to be taken seriously. Children who face poverty and lack educational opportunities need joyous environments filled with cultural responsiveness, empathy, and compassion. William Penn wrote in the face of persecutions, "I expect to pass through life but once. If, therefore, there be a kindness I can show or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now and not defer or neglect it.” The idea that teachers are responsible for transforming children into future leaders and productive citizens is at-risk and may turn dreams into nightmares. The number of educators that are overburdened and under-resourced is creating chaos because specific environments make it difficult to improve student learning outcomes. A survey conducted by Educators for Excellence (2020) measured teacher preparation. The sentiments regarding high turnover rates were attributed to the lack of effective training in (SEL) Social Emotional Learning SEL (only 24% of the schools meet the needs of students who experience trauma), the diversion of resources from the classroom, and most of all work conditions. In addition, the lack of support services (e.g., counselors, therapists, mental health providers) for students increases the burden on classroom teachers, which compromises instruction and teacher effectiveness. In the midst of all these ideas, teachers will need to place an expectation of well-being for themselves and the students they serve.

Healing-Informed Practice

The belief that is creating lasting relationships before rigor is a crucial element for the new breed of teachers. Children do not care what you know until they know that you care. The Fall-Hamilton Elementary School in Nashville, Tennessee, is showing positive results by implementing "Tap in/Tap Out." This Healing-Informed Practice allows teachers to contact a fellow staff member when they need an additional break or support. This system also gives a student an assigned staff member to go to during the school day as a trusted adult to review goals for the day and discuss issues in confidence. During the years 2015-17, student achievement rates have drastically increased. In 2015 SEL was implemented, and behavior infractions leading to referrals were down 76%. During the 2016 year, Fall-Hamilton outperformed similar schools in English Language Arts. Lastly, in 2017 (98%) of students felt an adult at school cared about them. The curriculum "Leader in Me" was highly acknowledged and contributed greatly to the successful implementation of Trauma-Informed Care. Principal Portell acknowledged that educators give students strategies for improvement, but it requires opportunities for practice. The "Peace Corner" provides a place for students to reflect as well as demonstrate growth to allow teachers to separate behavior from the person in real-time in the spirit of Restorative Justice. This approach empowers the Healing-Informed teachers with emotional intelligence as it shifts the mindset to create transformational change. Furthermore, Hiam Ginott, a renowned teacher and child psychologist, drew an inference between the teacher and a child. He concluded that:
            "Teachers possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a                  tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or                    heal. In all situations, my response decides whether a crisis is escalated or                             de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as                   they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help                       them become what they are capable of becoming."
ACEs awareness can create a sense of critical humility among communities who desperately need it. Challenging the dominant culture by making the shared institutions redistribute their resources equitably establishes the change in the system where it values the cultures that reflect their students. Creating a Wellbeing Center can utilize ACEs screenings (e.g., to measure trauma and adversity) as a functional assessment to potentially address suspension/expulsion rates and student learning outcomes. The new breed of teachers will have insight into how to create learning environments that are ACEs aware and healing-informed because they will understand the effects that adversity has on social identities and the neurological conditions that occur with those who fail to thrive at school.

More importantly, teachers must believe that students of color can produce academic excellence. Poverty is a circumstance that can be better addressed with empathy and access to educational and economic opportunities. Teachers have to recognize that there is a fundamental difference between a handout and a hand up.

SELF Model

The Safety, Emotional Management, Loss, and Future (SELF) Model is a conceptual framework to address the critical learning and failure to thrive gaps that exist when students experience trauma, given the evidence that risk experiences accumulate to impact children's outcomes. Lydra Bills believe SELF, "is a conceptual tool that guides assessment, treatment planning, and multidisciplinary teamwork." SELF is not a staged treatment model, but, instead, it is a nonlinear method for addressing very complex challenges in simple words. It is not constrained by gender, age, race, religion, or ethnicity because the domains of healing that SELF represents are human universals, unbound to any time, place, or person. SELF is a compass through the land of recovery that can help guide individual treatment, staff decisions, team treatment planning, and schools. The Sanctuary model can be an effective way to introduce (MTSS) Multi-Tiered Systems of Support.

In fact, the SELF Model can assist communities in building trauma-informed cultures by establishing open communication, emphasizing social responsibility, and working toward culturally relevant learning. Resilience is endorsed by the positive psychology movement and is considered an essential prerequisite for personal emotional and psychological growth and general wellbeing. In 2017, Rigles explored resiliency and discovered that “resiliency can vary over time and depends on the circumstance and can decrease depending on the severity of the adverse experience and the cognitive ability of the child.” The variations that measure resilience are internal (e.g., intelligence, sociability, and flexibility) and external (positive parent-child relationships and social class). Becoming aware and informed about the factors allows a teacher to develop culturally empathic skills to address overwhelming experiences and understand the value of having a life-work balance.

Educators will need to be more included in the policy decisions that impact classrooms. Far too long have educators followed policy. It is time for policy to follow educators to place the necessary value on Social-Emotional Learning through a culturally intelligent lens and advocate for more support to educate children in ACEs aware, healing-informed environment so that students can thrive with excellence. Restarting schools will be complex and rigid, but humanizing coming back together can make all the difference.

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