Could We Have a Revolution in the Lives of Teachers and Students?

One of Lakeside’s very impactful programs is our Institute for Family Professionals in Philadelphia.  This program has trained over 5000 professionals in a variety of courses related to the needs of children and families. We have also had the privilege of training many of the staff within the Philadelphia School District.  We are so pleased that this article written by Rebecca Pepper Sinkler was recently published by SafeKidsStories about our impact in Philadelphia Schools and the lives of both students and teachers.

Conventional disciplines of shaming and punishment are the last thing these children need

“We have prisons and classrooms filled with traumatized people. Unknowingly I have been a part of that.”

This disclosure did not come in the safe anonymity of the confessional booth but in a professional development course. How often do we hear a confession of this honesty and magnitude? What precipitated it? What if anything will it change?

boy waiting for disciplineThe comment came from a school psychologist in a course last June on how trauma affects children and what educators — teachers, counselors, school nurses, principals — can do to heal the impact of violence, neglect , extreme poverty or loss on these kids’ lives and learning.

“I was expecting that I would witness emotional moments,” said a visitor to the class, Elly Porter-Webb. “After all the course was about trauma, but what I wasn’t expecting was the depth of connection among the participants [about 20]. What I saw was a room full of people who cared for each other and about each other’s classrooms and kids. They had bonded through telling their stories of working with children in pain, and sharing stories of their own distressing experiences in the classroom and in their personal lives.”

Porter-Webb, a student in Penn’s Graduate School of Education and Lorene Cary’s teaching assistant, visited the workshop to observe and report on new approaches to working with students’ life experience, had added an extra layer of challenge to learning in a traditional classroom.

The course was given by the Institute for Family Professionals (IFP), an organization based in Philadelphia that, since 2003, has provided training for professionals who work with children and families. Using recent research on brain theory and the effects of childhood trauma, IFP provides researched and proven best practices on topics such as trauma, anger, and discipline. Diane Wagenhals, founder of IFP, says that she has seen “revolutionary conversions” on the part of teachers who realize that the conventional disciplines of shaming and punishment are the last thing these children need.

Best practices, Porter-Webb learned, included simple ideas like rearranging classrooms to soothe anxious kids, using sensory techniques to calm a student, teaching children, even very young ones, that their own outward behavior was only the tip of the iceberg of their pain, and having children pin symbols of their worst experiences and fears on a “trauma tree.”

Porter-Webb reports that the sensory techniques taught in this six-week workshop included applying a cool, wet paper towel to the forehead of an upset child, or providing stuffed animals to hold, squeeze, punch or cuddle. Hugs were permitted, too. “I hug every student at the entrance of school every day now. One hug can calm them for the whole day,” said Cheryl Nesmith, a Southwark teacher. “Sometimes no one had hugged that child when they were born,” she said.

As to the iceberg lesson, Felicia Whitney, who works with third, fourth and fifth grade students, scanned the laminated image of an iceberg provided in the workshop and posted it on the bulletin board outside her classroom. Students were taught that the iceberg analogy represents, “there is more to me than meets the ‘I’ (iceberg),” so it was an opportunity to say “everyone sees me as the tip of the iceberg,” but really I am so much more. I’m loving and genuine, and charming, or “I get sad when I get around other people”. Children began to observe the experiences hidden beneath their own iceberg’s surface. “From that point on the students felt validated, more confident.” And other people looked at her students differently, Porter-Webb reported. Understanding the experience beneath a breakdown helps not only the teacher, but the child, who may be as bewildered and threatened by his or her own tantrum as the adult in charge.

Using the example of the course leaders, Susannah Spanton and Cathleen Watkins, two very positive and affirming women, the participants learned it was safe to share their own classroom shortcomings.

“I was the best teacher,” recalled Sherry McBride, a teacher since 1974. “In parochial school, I was really good at my craft, really confident about my practice. Ten years ago I transitioned to being a “positive support coordinator” in public school, but I didn’t realize till then that I didn’t have the tools to deal with trauma. I thought it was about giving consistency, consequences. But that didn’t work here. People around me said ‘It is what it is,’ and I was not comfortable with that. This course has been a blessing. I feel so well informed now. I am not labelling so much as listening.

“My kids can even verbalize simplified brain theory,” she continues, pointing at the back of her head first, showing how her students say “I know I’m here, and I need to be here,” pointing to her forehead.

Ruth Norris, who teaches second graders, uses a “trauma tree” for kids to tell their own stories, kids displaced from homes, shifted between one parent to another, devastated by the death of their mother, hit by a car. Patricia Hendrick- Emore, teacher at Philadelphia Academy North , summed it up: “I’m in awe of the resilience of the students. It’s amazing they come to school every day. Lots of people couldn’t live a day in the life of these kids.”

Some might say the same for these teachers, who concede that they can become dismayed by what they encounter. But all praised what they called the “tool kits” they took back to their classes. Ruth Garcia, an elementary school psychologist, saw an immediate impact when she changed her cold-feeling office with its three desks, filing cabinets and glaring overhead lights, to a place of warmth and safety for children. Classical music, bean-bag chairs and a scent of vanilla calmed kids, and allowed her to reach them.

Relating this experience draws a communal hum of acknowledgement among the workshop participants, people who have until now felt isolated in their own inability to cope with children in pain.

Best practices indeed. Practices that shun harsh “consequences” — from punishment to prisons — in favor of self-knowledge, safety, and love. The capacity to change their own work is what most of the attendants took away. As Michelle Messer, the psychologist quoted at the beginning of this article put it, “We owe the universe a debt and this class is the currency to repay that.”

A tool kit for our teachers

It is so important that we provide the right tool kits for our teachers so they will be able to be much more effective in caring for the personal and academic needs of their students.  Better informed teachers makes for better managed classrooms and students who can learn and be more successful.  I do hope we can replicate this training for more and more schools in our country.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network


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