“This framework is centered on compassion and care, fierce commitment to viewing students as knowledgeable and capable, and viewing the invitation to bring life experiences into school as integral to day-to-day teaching and learning.” —Dr. Elizabeth Dutro
In a recent interview, I spoke with Dr. Elizabeth Dutro and Alex Shevrin Venet concerning the need for trauma-informed teaching. Dr. Dutro is a professor and chair of the Literacy Studies program at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. There, she draws on past classroom experience and her extensive research to design pedagogies that make space for difficult experiences to be honored as knowledge in schools. Her publications include her book The Vulnerable Heart of Literacy: Centering Trauma as Powerful Pedagogy. Venet is a Vermont-based, industry-leading trainer, educator, and writer helping educators implement trauma-informed practices across the country. Her first book, Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education, was published in spring 2021.
KS: How would you define trauma-informed teaching and how did this framework emerge?
AV: In some ways, I resist defining and frameworking trauma-informed practice because a core element of trauma-informed practice is embracing complexities and nuance. That being said, definitions are important. Where I landed in writing my book was with this: “Trauma-informed education practices respond to trauma in the whole community, and also prevents future trauma. Equity and social justice are key as we disrupt the things that cause trauma.”
Part of how I came to that was in reading a ton of the literature about trauma-informed practices and a lot of the teacher-focused resources really rely on this false dichotomy in which there are some students who experience trauma somewhere else and then bring that trauma into school, and then we as educators have to be responsive. Something that Elizabeth talks about a lot is that there truly is no dichotomy possible between traumatized students and then teachers as saviors or healers, because teachers are people who also experience trauma, and students are healers who can aid in the healing and support of one another and their teachers.
How I came to this definition was looking at that from a really expansive view that, in my mind, it's not just about addressing the trauma that happened somewhere else, although that's a big part, but also recognizing that trauma happens in schools. There are things in schools that cause trauma, like racism, harassment, bullying, sexism, transphobia. All those things exist inside of schools, and schools can directly cause trauma through things like curriculum violence, which is a concept that Stephanie P. Jones talks about where students are directly harmed because of the actual framing of academics that perpetuate harmful narratives or erasure. Trauma-informed education has to be accountable to addressing those conditions.
ED: I think one of the things that is so important is, like Alex said too, resisting definitions because they tend to compartmentalize what trauma is. When you go to many trauma-informed workshops that aren't run by Alex and likeminded people, it's not clear what trauma means, and so it can become this very dangerous term that becomes yet another label for children.
I think with that I'll just then say a little bit about the framework that emerged in my collaborations with teachers and students. Again, teachers and I were in classrooms thinking about what happens if we try to design some pedagogies together that provide rich invitations in a caring, compassionate context for difficult stories from life to matter in school. We came to what we called “pedagogies of testimony and critical witness” and it emphasized teachers recognizing and sharing their own vulnerability in grade-appropriate ways.
Being witnesses to one another in school needs to be reciprocal. It's often framed as teachers being witnesses to students, and that quickly falls into the very dangerous teachers-as-saviors narrative. This framework is centered on compassion and care, a fierce commitment to viewing students as knowledgeable and capable, and viewing the invitation to bring life experiences into school as integral to day-to-day teaching and learning. Children get positioned as witnesses which recognizes their humanity and their agency as learners.
KS: I would love to hear a bit about strategies teachers can use as they try to attend to trauma in this moment.
AV: I'll preface again by saying that I'm allergic to the word strategies. One of the things I always say to teachers when we talk about being trauma-informed is that there's not really such a thing as a trauma-informed strategy because what you do has to be rooted in care, in relationships, in an understanding that includes equity and social justice. As we think about relevant approaches for this moment, the number one thing I would say is always coming back to our shared humanity at the center of things. You can set up all the routines you want for yourself, but at the end of the day, humans going through extraordinarily stressful times need space, and flexibility, and just to be met with care. Finally, using your voice and being an advocate for yourself and your students to attend to those things that cause trauma. If your school is reopening in a way that is going to harm students, don't be silent and go along with it. If your state is refusing to take action, contact your legislators. I think a lot of teachers struggle with thinking of themselves as activists, but if we want to be trauma-informed, we can't just say, "Oh, well I can't do anything about all of the stuff that's causing trauma." Every one of us can do something.
ED: I do think the pandemic, as well as the activism against systemic racism, provides such a unique and important opportunity for educators to think about what's shared when we think about trauma and what's very distinct when we think about trauma. It's very important to tap into both. The pandemic means every single child, family, and teacher has experienced loss of some kind. There's grief of some kind, and then there are such distinctions in the way that children, families, and teachers are experiencing this. Many based in privilege, particularly racial privilege, certainly class privilege. We can think about responding to individual families and students with knowledge of what is happening collectively and individually, and we have to realize that we can't always know all students are experiencing, but we need to assume that there are impacts that then lead to the necessity of embracing those central ideas that Alex shared.
Then on the advocacy front, I think the everyday advocacy we can do as educators is to interrupt in ourselves the larger narrative that's happening around schools. Children are not sliding, they're not slipping; they're also living through this. We have to challenge any narratives that are deficit-based around children sliding, not learning, not learners. Teachers can recognize when they encounter justice-centered approaches to trauma that emphasize shared humanity and children's knowledge. It's important to have critical justice-centered work happening in that arena. That can happen in classrooms by honoring children, and then it can happen with colleagues and in the larger community.
AV: I've been thinking a lot during the pandemic about grief and the depth of understanding that you develop when you go through hard times yourself. I'm hesitant a little bit because you never want to glorify trauma but students might be bringing to their classrooms a sense of how to navigate grief and loss that their peers and teachers could learn a lot from. What would it mean to make space for that deep knowledge of what it means to live through hard times rather than turning to this deficit narrative? Many schools are saying, "Oh, we have to bring those kids back to school because they're experiencing trauma at home" but there's all of this really coded language.
ED: Absolutely. I think it’s so important to recognize that life experiences, including trauma, are sources of knowledge. And you're right, children can exhibit a certain depth of relationship and connection that many adults don't have. Teachers get nervous when they haven't had a similar experience and sometimes say to me, "you’ve experienced much harder things...I don't have those stories to share." Well, what we've learned is that there's no sense of stories having to be equivalent.. It just needs to be something that deeply matters, or a book with a theme that allows connection for the big experiences and losses of life. Children in a justice-centered, nurturing environment feel invited then to use the knowledge they've gained from their lives in the beautiful way you were describing, Alex.
KS: Are there insights or recommendations that you would share with school leaders who want to promote trauma-informed learning in a proactive way?
AV: One of the most important things for school leaders is to recognize that trauma-informed practice requires systems change. It's not something where you can just send your teachers to a PD and then they're going to come back and say, "Okay, we're trauma informed now." For teachers to enact trauma-informed practices, they need to experience a trauma-informed environment for themselves. For school leaders, I think it really requires a lot of reflection and analysis of whether you have policies at the school that are still very trauma insensitive or trauma inducing. Then the last thing would be to have clear expectations and systems about boundaries. In every state, teachers are mandated reporters and that carries legal obligations. I think it can be confusing for teachers who want to engage in this reciprocal witnessing because the expectations may be very unclear about who within the school does what.
ED: I would say that school leaders ought to be sure that they're informed on what it means to be trauma-informed and the range of approaches that exist, think about whether equity is at the center, and watch for the use of certain keywords in those approaches and in their workplace. If words like “damage” or “broken” are foregrounded, it’s a time for leaders to push back and say, “No. That is not how we are going to view children in my school. I know there are alternative ways to think about this that are much more humane, that are anti-racist." Find those models and use them.
Resources Recommended by Dr. Elizabeth Dutro and Alex Shevrin Venet:
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Facing History invites educators to use our Back-to-School Toolkit which offers a location-flexible teaching unit designed to support teaching in the opening days of any course. The unit has been constructed to develop students' social-emotional skills with the goal of helping them co-construct an open and inclusive classroom community in these unprecedented times.