In Plain Sight: What We Miss When Talking About Student Trauma

In a nutshell, This is ACEs education…

Jessie Dorin Coaching

8E2AAA1D-6FE2-4F1D-8677-B0C048ACC812If a tree falls in the woods…no, wait. If a student experiences a traumatic event but no adult authority figure acknowledges it, does that event have adverse affects? Always, the research says.

And that has been my experience too.

The ACEs study (Adverse Childhood Experiences) has documented that traumas in childhood predictably alter the quality of a person’s life later on (increased risks for major diseases, cancer, substance abuse, and other self-harming behaviors). Most people have a least a score of 1 on the ACEs scale of 1–10. Divorce, for example, counts as 1. After 6 ACEs, your life expectancy decreases.

Rut -roh


Every unhappy family is unhappy in its’ own way, so Tolstoy tells us in Anna Karenina. For 12 years, I worked in a last-chance high school full of students who wore trauma around their necks in the form of placards of friends and family…

View original post 1,119 more words

You can be Heartbroken AND You can be Brave.

Teenage suicide, especially by girls, is at an all-time high in the United States. Boys are murdering children with AR-15s in schools. Depression is on the rise on college campuses.

Something is so very off for our children. 

It is time to bring in the adults.

After 12 years teaching in last-chance high schools and two years in general education high schools, I saw first-hand how all student self-harm was a symptom of students feeling alone, damaged, and unheard–no matter the economic status or cognitive ability of the student. I learned over time that students need at least one adult who is willing to model being vulnerable, imperfect, and give students opportunities to share any hidden crisis that–left hidden–would otherwise lead to self-harm, addictions, depression, or violence against others.

Here is the traditional argument against teaching teachers about compassionate listening: What?! Teachers aren’t counselors! Schools are for learning math and English, not talking about feelings.

My question is: Do you have to be a counselor to listen compassionately then refer a child to a counselor? If kids don’t get themselves to counselors, when do they talk about feelings?

I’m from rural Idaho, where there are lots of guns, and no one I met as a teenager liked to talk about feelings. While I didn’t shoot up my school, I was an “A” student who had my share of hidden hurt. That hurt internalized until I wet myself every day for a week while walking home. At the time, I blamed myself. I know now that I was having an amygdala-triggered, physical reaction to being so afraid of another weekend with my bipolar dad. I wasn’t about to take myself to the counselor’s office, but I would have opened up to a coach or a teacher if any of them had known how to ask and what to say once I let the hurt out. (Here’s a hint: “That sounds hard” and “Let me walk you to the counselor’s office” are always compassionate responses).

At the last school at which I taught, compassionate listening led to students opening up about: cutting, suicidal ideations, bulimia, depression, bullying and LBGTQ issues. My job as a teacher was to integrate into the curriculum a safe means for students to reveal hurt if they needed to. Then I passed students along to proper supports, like the counselor. These were students who wouldn’t have gone to the counselor on their own either.

After the latest school shooting in Florida, as a mother and a teacher, I’m done pretending like business-as-usual in schools is going to cut it: It is time to grow up and be brave about where we spend our efforts (and our money) in schools. How much are children learning when they are stewing in anger? Or despairing in silence about their parents’ divorce? Or a child is who so lonely, yet so well behaved or so on the spectrum that the adults assume the child prefers to always be alone?  If adults do not intervene, kids learn that adults don’t care and that they as people don’t matter.

Especially on the heels of the No Child Left Behind/ Every Teacher Blamed/ Watch out for Triggers/ Litigation era, teachers have veered away from having important conversations with students about students’ emotional lives:

“You seem sad. Everything okay?”

“You wrote about being angry at your dad in your essay. I was angry at my dad growing up, too.”

“I’m sorry it feels so hard for you. Can I walk you down to the counseling office?”

While teaching workshops on hidden student crises, teachers’ top fears consistently involve the following: Listening to students’ hurts will somehow make a student’s situation worse or the teacher will somehow become responsible for the student’s situation. Unless they are taught safe vulnerability practices and compassionate listening strategies, teachers shut down or avoid conversations with students about feelings and hurt altogether.

In reality, the opposite is true. Kids are thinking about these hurts whether their teachers acknowledge it (and them) or not. Talking about it means that the child or teenager is heard. That child or teenager feels like they matter. They know they are not alone and how to ask for help. This is violence prevention. 

It is really so much easier than our minds make it out to be. As it turns out, to be the person who turns a student’s life around, all a teacher needs is a little direction and a lot of permission. And that starts with the public being brave enough to put the focus on feelings and students’ hidden crises rather than test scores. Focusing on feelings, student loneliness and trauma boosts test scores anyway—but we are an image-obsessed, get-it quick, FOMO, helicopter parent nation, and logical solutions require that everyone to take a deep breath, grow up, and be brave.

So while I am heartbroken, I am also embarrassed and emboldened to become a more responsible adult. It should not be the children who are tasked with leading the revolution. Adults are in charge because we are the people who make the hard decisions that keep kids safe.  It’s now time to tell our children that we are sorry—we were distracted. We are back now, and we will take care of you. Our children deserve nothing less than that.

Preventing school shootings requires that teachers and school staff are trained in empathy, vulnerability, compassion, and looking for signs of trauma. Peer-to-peer and staff-to-student. It isn’t hard, but it is brave to make that choice over fears about test scores and college admissions.

After all, what if my child’s teacher gets trained in vulnerability, compassionate listening, and and looking for signs of student trauma instead of that PD on academic rigor? Sure, my child will go to a school in which no student is overlooked, bullied, or unheard, but will my kid still get into Stanford?!

Though research proves that emotional wellness increases academic performance, we have been making our children crazy by telling them that being a superstudent will ensure them lifelong happiness and financial bounty. Take more AP classes! Diversify your application by taking another sport and attending three more clubs! We would do better to ask ourselves how much college admissions matter right now to grieving patents in Florida. How much do admissions matter to the traumatized students who are burying their friends? 

Let’s give vulnerability and empathy a chance. Trauma research shows that the earlier that students  in crisis who have ONE connected, compassionate adult with whom they can share their hurt (often, a teacher), the more resilient that child is in later grades and in their physical and emotional health over a lifetime.

When kids can’t be heard, some find guns. I don’t care if no one uses the professional development that I teach schools. I DO care that schools start focusing on what our kids need to be emotionally healthy and feel like their lives matter.

Teacher and staff training in vulnerability, empathy, compassion, and signs of trauma is the most effective form of:

Preventing school shootings

Suicide prevention

Bullying prevention

Alcohol and drug abuse prevention

Mitigating student stress in high-achieving schools

Mitigating the affects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) on students’ brain development

Supporting students on the autism spectrum

Supporting students with ADHD

Helping students in the #1 skill that will add years to their lives: Creating and maintaining friendships.

Be heartbroken AND be brave:

Do you know a school board member? Have this conversation and ask that your schools get this training. 

Do you know a teacher or principal or counselor or school staff member? Have this conversation and ask that their school get this training.

Do you know other parents? Have this conversation and ask that their children’s schools get this training.

When the adults start modeling and teaching vulnerability, empathy, compassion, and bravery, our children become better prepared to parent when it is their turn.


Contact me for a professional development workshop at your school on Uncovering and Addressing Hidden Student Crises (or to refer you to resources):



Tell Your Story. One Baby Turtle Step at a Time.

My friend, Genyne, wrote historical mystery lesbian romance novels. They were as fabulous as they sound. She opened her home to the writing group to which I belonged. She fed us. She scolded us over grammar and plot mix-ups and phrasing. She wasn’t afraid to voice her opinion, and we ate up her love.

My friend, Ethel, had been in the writing group far longer than Genyne or I. Ethel was from the Bronx. Her thick accent and thicker glasses were just the beginning of her unforgettable personality. She wrote about her family’s flight to the U.S. amid the backdrop of German concentration camps. Most arrived safely at their new home, and listening to Ethel recount her childhood took me to a world that was only known through Ethel’s eyes.

Gynene was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in 2013. She moved across the country to live with her sister. I last saw her when she and a friend visited her old friends in California. I didn’t know it was her farewell tour.

Ethel published her memoirs, “Snapshots and a Bagel” a few years ago. At her book launch, the local bookstore was packed with friends, family, and book lovers. Oh, and Isabel Allende introduced her. Ethel’s books were stacked into tall piles on a table at the back. The room glowed with love.

Genyne and Ethel died on the same morning of the same day: One on the West coast, one on the East coast. Ethel’s book is in the world. Genyne’s beautiful work is not. David Whyte wrote that when someone dies, we also miss how they loved what they loved. Genyne loved my writing group and me in a particular manner that was all her own. She loved her characters in a manner that made her work glow. I miss Ethel. I miss Genyne.

What stories do you have inside that want to find a home in the world? I found that taking baby turtle steps was the only way my story could be written. Sometimes It Looks Like That began as a baby turtle step.

  1. First, I wrote down a “You’ll never guess what happened…” story about one of my first days teaching at a continuation high school–because I couldn’t believe it had happened.
  2. Months later, I joined a writing workshop.
  3. I shared the “You’ll never guess” story in the workshop and was encouraged to edit and keep going.
  4. That story became a chapter.
  5. I realized that I had a few more related stories to tell, so I wrote those down and shared them in a writing group too.
  6. And then an interesting thing happened: The more I wrote, the more I found I had to write about.
  7. I joined many workshops to share my work and learn the skill. Each one was special, as were the friends I made along the way.
  8. In addition to workshops, I had so many wonderful readers give feedback. I listened to each one, grateful to learn what I couldn’t have understood about my work on my own.
  9. Ten years and a million baby turtle steps later….

Here is my beautiful novel.  And I know that Genyne and Ethel played a huge role in bringing it into the world. With love.

Screen Shot 2018-01-23 at 9.46.33 AM


And from Ethel’s book launch in 2016, still on BookPassage’s website: 

Ethel Seiderman – Snapshots and a Bagel

Saturday, February 20, 2016 – 4:00pm

In conversation with Isabel Allende

“Snapshots and a Bagel is a collection of stories and photos, mostly focused on growing up in the Bronx and on the significant influences that span a lifetime and shape a life. Ethel Seiderman’s prose is gutsy, colorful, and presented with love, gratitude, and a wholesome sense of pride.”

I love you, Ethel. I love you, Genyne.

Teaching Practices that Create Classroom Connection

I was getting ready to teach my workshop on hidden student trauma to staff at a local high school when my husband made the passing comment, “Better build connection early, because by the time students are failing mid-year, you’re gonna need it.”

What is the term they use now? Mic drop? My thought at the time was, Oh, shit.

When I first started teaching professional developments on how to create connection in the classroom, I had another workshop on the back burner: “Differentiation Begins With Your Ladder: How to Create Rungs on the Curriculum Ladder to Allow All Students Access.” A long title. And though incredibly important, it wasn’t as important as addressing hidden student trauma. Unless, of course, it is.

What my good-looking husband so brilliantly pointed out is that students are only going to continue to feel the benefits of the connection and support you’ve worked so hard to create in your classroom if they ALSO feel that how they are learning honors where they are starting on the curriculum ladder. And, once on that ladder, helps them learn that falling off doesn’t mean failing. Which is not the same thing as everyone gets As, and it’s also not telling a student, “I’m so glad that you were able to reach out to me to talk about your mom’s depression. Also, you’ve failed English again.”

So how does a curriculum ladder work and how do you help students attach safety ropes to it once on? I think of it like this:

Your academic standards are the top rung on the ladder. I was fortunate to teach with an colleague trained in International Baccalaureate, the standards for which dovetail perfectly with Common Core and, more importantly, common sense. Collaborating with her revealed that those standards were the top rungs.

In my experience, most students have a knowledge base at least two rungs below that standard. For example, 9th grade students know what citing your source means, but they don’t know how to accurately cite sources in essays (Don’t even get me started on what’s wrong with EasyBib). They know that you should quote your sources, but not when or how. They also are still fuzzy on topic sentences.

Then there are the few students who are like, essay? What’s that? Those students scrawl a few sentences on a piece of paper and may or may not turn that paper in. And they will be completely shocked when they don’t pass the class.

Putting bottom rungs on your curriculum ladder doesn’t mean dumbing-down curriculum. You are dealing with the equivalent of short people versus tall people trying to get onto a ladder whose rungs typically start 5 feet up. Nothing is wrong with the ability of short people to climb. Of course short people can climb to the top rung or curriculum benchmark when starting further down than everyone else–as long as there are ladder rungs that extend to their reach and there are more rungs put in along the way. The same is true for English Language Learners, students with learning disabilities, and…pretty much the rest of us. Everyone has the ability to learn anything. Some of us just need a few more rungs. If my teacher doesn’t see that I need more  rungs, I don’t feel like the teacher is invested in my success.


  • Creating bottom rungs means breaking a task or assignment into skills or learning targets that are bite-sized. Too many directions on a page or too many skills integrated all at once = meltdown for those of us who are grasping for the first rungs on the ladder. (And guess what? Breaking down the task is also a steam-release valve for high-achieving students. Win and win).


  • Vocabulary reminders are a huge part of students’ understanding of content. Especially in science class, a student who may otherwise know content can get bogged down in the text’s vocabulary.


  • Use exemplars, not examples for what you want the final product to look like. Students who struggle have missed partial information in the past. They’ll miss the direction that what they are looking at is an example, not an exemplar, and, instead, imprint on the model that has flaws, studying it and turning in their best version of it. BB33B577-1464-489A-94A4-BD23D538B6C7
  • Exemplars also allow the high achievers who need lots of attention to work off of an exemplar rather than asking every 3 minutes, “Is this right?”…”How about now?”…”Is this how I should do it?” You’re welcome, teachers of grade grubbers.


  • Use examples of weak, developing, and strong work that demonstrate where students often go wrong. Refer students back to the examples when they make those mistakes.


  • Build time into your curriculum plan for those who are managing a few more rungs.


  • If every assignment is truly important to learning, not accepting late work won’t cut it as a  teaching philosophy. Dock a certain percentage amount, but not enough to cause the student to receive a failing grade. Did I want them to learn it? Yes. Did they learn it? Yes. Then mission accomplished.images-7
  • For any assignment or project that is truly essential to learning, do not give the student a final grade until their best version has a chance to come in. I want to be graded on my best try, not my first try (For information about how to do this and not lose your damn mind, fill out the contact form below).


  • If every assignment is truly important to learning, students should never be sent out of the room for something like not having a pencil or paper. I am not their future employer. My student may even end up working at a job that gives their employees limitless supplies to get their work accomplished! If my school can’t afford to supply pencils and paper to students who forget or don’t have the supplies, WTF is wrong with the allocation of my school’s funds?8959cc10057bac98f0ea18a23395e273--a-pencil-math-teacher
  • If every skill or content knowledge is truly important to a students’ education, then tests should be offered multiple times—in class (gasp!) 
    • Offer the test 3 times–and only accept 100% correct for passing the first 2 times. (Grade grubbing students love this).
    • Struggling students often don’t make it back for after-school or lunchtime make-up tests without a lot of teacher prompting. Skip the nagging, offer the test in class and get more bang for your class time.
    • For more tips on how to do this and not lose your damn mind, fill out the contact info at the end of this blog.


  • At regular, 3 week intervals, hand students slips of paper with their missing assignments listed.
    • Many students are still not technology inclined. They need a reminder in their hand to acknowledge what is missing and to do something about it. Tech savvy kids will throw away the reminder slip, but now they know to check their online grade and be properly shocked and outraged.images-6
    • Offer class time during that week to help students who have not completed assignments. The rest of the class gets to do an enrichment activity, possibly for extra credit. Everyone likes this because everyone wins.
    • The following Monday, call home for any student who has not turned in acceptable work (Email won’t suffice).

If you are interested in examples, exemplars, or have questions about specific classroom practices mentioned above, fill out the contact form below to get on my mailing list. In the comment box, ask about ideas for your classroom, ideas to help your child who is struggling in school, or  to make sure that not only your students feel supported, but YOU feel supported as well. Because if Mama ain’t happy, well, we know how that goes…..






Students, Vanity Fair, and #MeToo

Last December, my daughter, Lucy True, was born into a world that included a man who had openly bragged about sexually assaulting  women being voted into our highest office. Thank God she was also born into a time when women finally got tired of taking it. I love that we are now in a #MeToo era because that is what my daughters will inherit. They, too get to matter. They, too get to own what happens to their bodies.

I wish I had spoken up when I was in my first teaching position and the special education teacher came into my classroom. He put his foot up on my desk and announced that though his wife wasn’t interested in sex anymore, he was. This from a colleague I had said hello to once at the copy machine. I spoke to the union rep who told me that I had to make it clear to him that he was being inappropriate before anyone from the union could speak to him. This was when I was 23. I was too shy to tell a waitress that I would like creamer for my coffee, let alone tell a colleague at my new job that he was being inappropriate. That, and I thought it was just me. I thought there was something was wrong with me and that was why I was targeted.

A former model, Paulina Porizkova, recently described sexual harassment as a “compliment.” She, too, took it personally. She took it to mean that she was found pretty and therefore “worthy” of harassment. But sexual harassment and sexual assault are not personal.

Now, after each new wave of #MeToos, it concretizes for me how un-personal sexual harassment and assault is. In fact, it is the depersonalization aspect that makes this a predatory behavior, and that affects everyone. If it was never about me, then others were at risk too. I know now that me not speaking up meant he could have gone on to harass other female faculty members, or, even more appalling as I think about it now, female students.

Which brings me to JLo’s booty. Now, I need to make it clear that I’m not anti-booty. My favorite booty shots include Beyonce’s covered-though fabulous performance in “Single Ladies” seen here and Pink’s booty shot during an ethereal “Glitter in the Air” performance at the Grammys, seen here.

This photo, though, the one of JLo’s booty?
IMG_3688This was in the December 2017 issue of Vanity Fair. The photo of the booty is in a spread about JLo’s and A-Rod’s relationship. My first thought? She does have a nice booty. My second thought? Something about this bugs.

Again, to be clear, I’m not putting down JLo’s booty. I think the reason why this photo bugs, though, is that it is HIS hand that is pulling up her skirt to reveal her butt. And their faces are turned as if someone is watching a scene that is private. Kind of like a photo that gets passed around social media without the person in the photo giving consent. And those two aspects together create a different narrative than JLo simply hiking up her skirt to show off her assets–or Beyonce strutting her stuff with her dancers. No one watching Bey could say that she doesn’t own every bit of her performance and her body. But this photo? It feels off.

I know, I know: It’s a lot of fuss over a photo. On one hand, I could say the photo is about about JLo, her butt, and if we only had perfect butts too, we would be wearing the diamond studded undies. But this picture isn’t about a perfect butt. It’s about a man taking control over a woman’s butt, and that ain’t personal: It’s the very kind of depersonalization–dehumanization–that the #MeToo movement is calling out.

If my older daughter is going to show her booty to an audience, then believe me, at three years old and a raging threenager, that girl is going to show off those buns. But I don’t ever want her to think that letting someone else show her butt to the world, in a magazine or social media, is okay. And I have to teach her that. Because if Vanity Fair didn’t get the memo, at least my threenager will.

This is a critical moment in time when women are speaking up about our rights to our bodies, and our students and children are paying attention. How we talk about what is happening will determine whether children and teenagers will feel they have a right to speak up too. Kids don’t have much life experience and even less life context, but adults do. We can let them know that we have their backs if they speak up. They aren’t to blame, they aren’t alone, and they matter as people who own their own bodies. But empowering our children starts with talking about what is happening in the news, what is wrong with this photo, and saying out loud to my threenager and to my students why I wish I had spoken up seventeen years ago.

And, looking at JLo’s expression here, I do wonder if a more appropriate caption for this photo might read: Me Too. 


Identifiers for sexual abuse in teenagers CAN include:

  1. Tattoos
  2. Excessive piercings
  3. Hair color that is unnatural (pink, blue, green, etc.)
  4. Cutting
  5. Wearing emo or goth clothing.
  6. Not bathing
  7. Overtly sexual behavior
  8. Drug or alcohol abuse

These are all ways that teenagers take back ownership of their bodies.

To bring this information to your school in the form of a workshop, go to or email

“Who’d Want to Read About You?”

I wrote a novel. It’s beautiful and flawed and has so many hands and hearts invested in the words on its pages from friends and teachers and fellow writers who read and critiqued and gave feedback throughout the ten years it took me to learn how to write a novel.

Then there was that one person who said out loud what the critic in my head had been whispering for years. “It’s about what? You? Who’d want to read about you?”

At the time, I was shamed into silence. It wasn’t just my inner critic who was asking. It was someone I’d known my whole life.

And now? Now that the novel is a cover away from being published, I do have an answer to “Who’d want to read about you?” I would. I would want to read about me. And the reason for that? If I don’t matter, then I don’t have anything to offer the world and I can’t pretend that you matter either.

We had a whole election won on whom to exclude, whom to condemn, and whom to fear. Because if people don’t believe they matter, then they have to fight others to get theirs. If I matter, I speak up, I channel my anger productively, and I’m not afraid to extend goodwill to others. There is enough to go around because everyone brings something to the table. People who don’t believe their stories matter also don’t bring their gifts to the table. 

How much do we lose by people not knowing or owning what they bring to the world? What do you bring to the world? What do friends say that you do in the way that just you do it that make their and others’ lives better? When you own it, you amplify it, and there are people who need to hear your story in order to see themselves as someone who matters too.

My favorite stories are those that are true. Many websites have prompts to get started, but my all-time favorite prompt includes stories that start from, “You’ll never believe what just happened.” I love hearing students tell their own stories like that. I love it even more when they write those stories down and share them with peers and family who otherwise would never get to hear those stories.

Because something magical happens when you write it down. Not only is the story there available for others when you aren’t available share it yourself, but when you write down your story, the story takes on a reflective quality. There are aspects to the story that are deeper than the first time you casually mentioned it to a friend, and that deeper quality reflects the still and deeper nature of life. That is what resonates with everyone. I see me somewhere in there, in your fearlessness, your grief, your joy, or your what-was-I-thinking mistakes, and that connects me to you and to life.

So who’d want to read about me? I would. And who’d want to read about you? I would. I want to read about the light that you shine as I read it in your story. That is what inspires me to go on. Because I have that light configured differently in me, and it can be scary out there among people who believe that their stories don’t matter. In that way, I don’t just want to read your story, I need to read it. I’ve already read mine, so what is your story that has its genesis in “You’ll never believe…?” Ready, set, go….

For more about the novel and my workshop on helping students find out why they matter, go to


Wild Horses, Black Hole of Death Students, and Original Medicine

When I was 8, my bipolar dad put me on our unbroken horse with the advice, “Roll away from the hooves when he bucks you off.” Even better advice? Don’t let a bipolar ex bull rider talk you into breaking the new family horse in the first place. But I was 8 and loved my dad. So I got bucked off. A lot. Finally, after too many weekends, my dad gave up on my horsemanship abilities. But I never forgot how that horse looked at me. It was a look that clearly said, “Please, don’t break me.” I’m pretty sure my own face revealed the same plea.

Over the years, I’ve learned that there are some students who will never talk about the harms they have encountered because to do so would be too painful. Their eyes will tell you, “Please don’t break me.” So I refer those students to the counselor even though they won’t go. I don’t push them on vulnerability. They will refuse and that’s okay. That is when I turn to the other gateway to connection: Love.

Horse whisperers don’t call what they do “breaking” a horse. They call their method “making” a horse. Teachers can help “make” students by connecting to students through what kids as individuals love and especially how they love it. For example, I have a good friend who is a filmmaker/scientist. My college transcripts will reveal that I don’t grasp scientific concepts easily, but when my friend explains the mating rituals of hummingbirds or why we don’t ride zebras, I fall in love with the natural world. She brings her whole self–personality, insights, and particular way of explaining things–to the non-science-minded. We connect in science through her eyes.

Recently, I had a student so dark, he was my Black Hole of Death kid. He seethed in his seat, refused to participate, sucked other kids into his foul mood, and drew furiously in his notebook. So I sat him next to the cute, chatty cheerleaders and praised the hell out of his drawing. I found ways to include his artwork into assignments. I dragged his his grumpy self in front of the class to present, and it turns out he was a closet comedian. Gradually, he became a part of our classroom community, loved for being himself. None of this took much effort on my part, but it was the difference between having the absence of a student in the room, a black hole, and a very present student in the room.

This matters for his life and it matters for mine. A kid hurt beyond his own recognition of self will hurt himself and hurt others. Someone who is able to see the value of all parts of himself has the motivation to heal himself, and in doing so, he will grow into someone with enormous capacity to help heal others. His particular experience of hurt, the particular way in which he eventually heals that hurt, coupled with his love of drawing and grumpy, slyly humorous personality, will someday all come together to be his particular brand of healing–his original medicine. We all have original medicine, and we all need others, at one time or another, to use their medicine to help us heal ourselves. My science friend helps heal the part of me that can feel disconnected from the natural world. She makes me sit in wonder again.

Caroline McHugh, in her brilliant TED talk, “The Art of Being Yourself,” gives a lovely example of what it is to not look to others when stepping into yourself. Instead of comparing one’s self to others by feeling inferior or superior, she suggests going inward to interiority, which leaves comparison out of the picture entirely. There is only you. Feel the freedom in that for a second. McHugh gives the example of performer Jill Scott being interviewed while waiting to follow Erykah Badu. The reporter asks her if she is nervous. Scott laughs and says, “Have you ever seen me perform?…Everyone comes with their own…queendom. Mine could never compare to hers and hers could never compare to mine.” Scott’s original medicine.

Picasso didn’t give up on painting because people had painted before him. Steve Jobs didn’t shrug his shoulders and say that the telephone had already been invented so what’s the point. We are what we love and how we love it. We are also how we heal and how we share ourselves with others. What would it be to share yourself in a way that profoundly helped other people just by doing and being what makes you so uniquely you? Darkness would have a difficult time hiding out.

My Black Hole of Death student is an example of how teachers can help students who are not going to give up information about the trauma they are experiencing or have experienced. That’s okay. We aren’t here to “break” anyone. Teachers are there to drop a line for students who want to share. For students who don’t, we help “make” them, listening for what they love and finding ways to nurture that. We give students opportunities to share themselves with others and plant the idea that they are people who matter to the class. This is so when those students are ready to heal, they already know there is someone inside of them worth leading out of the darkness.

Contact me at: to have me come to your school and talk about Uncovering and Addressing Hidden Student Trauma, Original Medicine, and Black Hole of Death Students.

And here is a wonderful video of Maya Angelou recounting how she reminded Tupac of his worth.

Maya Angelou and Why Character Development Alone Won’t Change School Connectedness

Social Emotional learning is great. Character Development is wonderful. So is mindfulness. None of those, on their own, will create true connections in the classroom. I point to Maya Angelou and my turbulent past with toddlers to illustrate why.

School connectedness is a new buzzword in the districts near my home. High performing schools are great at getting (most) students to make the grade, but those same students are not feeling connected to their classrooms or their school in general. Those schools use Healthy Schools, a survey in California, as their method of measuring students’ own reporting of how connected or disconnected they feel in school.

Many schools in my local district have placed student feelings of connectedness as one of four priorities for their next accreditation cycle. They’ve enlisted a wonderful organization that uses character development curriculum as the sole method for creating this connectedness. Schools host inclusion rallies, show character-building movies, and create spirit days that celebrate the “other.”

In the case of my local school district, schools put a video clip on their character development web page featuring a Maya Angelou clip from YouTube as their rallying cry. The clip is entitled “Just Do Right.” In it, Dr. Angelou speaks about the time when she left her mother’s house, at 17 and with a baby, and her mother told her, “Now you have been raised.” She knew right from wrong. “Just do right,” were the words her mother bestowed upon her.

Kids, it’s easy: Just do right.

Um, yeah. Here’s why it fails:

A few years ago, after a particularly grueling day teaching and worse commute home, I stopped at my local grocery store. After stomping around the store to get something for dinner, I made my way to the checkout counter. A toddler with her mother was in the line ahead of me. The little girl stared at me, and I gave her my meanest glare back. The kind I would never have dared to shoot at any adult. The kind that tells you to go F yourself. That’s the kind of glare I gave this three year old. Somewhere, a unicorn died.

Yes, I do work with kids. Yes, I do have my own toddler now and am even more horrified at my actions, but then, as, I suspect, even now, the “Just do right” mantra wasn’t going to change me into someone who recognized how far I had slipped from reality on that day.

When you’re having a bad day, thinking about how someone else is feeling isn’t going to transmute you to connection. Neither is mindfully focusing on how you feel on the insides of your feet. I imagine it is the same for a student whose parents are divorcing, who is neglected at home, or whose brother just went to jail, or…any of the crappy life events that happen because it’s, well…life.

No, “Just Do Right” isn’t the Maya Angelou clip that illustrates how to get to connection. On the other hand, another Maya Angelou interview, entitled, “Love Liberates,” is.

In this clip, Dr. Angelou relates a memory of her mother telling her, again when Angelou was a young woman who was leaving her mother’s home, “You can always come home.” And Angelou says, “I went home every time life slammed me down and made me call it uncle.” She recalls, on those occasions, how her mother was always delighted to see her, never gloating over the event that made Angelou need to move back. And then her mother told her, “You’re the greatest woman I’ve ever met.” This from a mother who had abandoned Angelou and her brother to her grandmother when Angelou was a small girl.

Dr. Angelou then talks about her mother on her deathbed, and how Angelou told her, “You were a piss-poor mother of small children, but you were a great mother of young adults.” Angelou says her mother’s love had liberated her, and she wanted to liberate her mother by telling her how much she loved her and it was okay for her to go. It was a seeing of faults and a gratitude for the love of an imperfect mother.

Mindfulness asks students: How does your breath feel? Social-Emotional learning asks students to imagine how someone else feels. Compassion, Empathy, and Vulnerability asks students, “How do you feel?” Then the teacher listens, and goes to a place within themselves that says, “Yes. I have felt that way at some point, too. Let me sit with you while you feel that way now.” It asks teachers to courageously be vulnerable and talk about their imperfections and sadness too.

“Love Liberates” provides schools with context and vulnerability that “Do Right” misses. When a student is having a horrible day, “Love liberates” says that parents make mistakes. Terrible mistakes. Even Maya Angelou’s parent. It doesn’t mean that the student will not become successful. It doesn’t mean that that parent is shameful or will be a person who makes terrible mistakes as a parent forever. Maybe they will. But maybe not. Angelou didn’t forget or forgive her mother for her mistakes in the past, but she didn’t define either herself or her mother by those mistakes either. She clung to the love her mother offered later. People change. Thank God.

When teachers offer their own stories in a safely vulnerable way, especially stories that say, “This happened to me when I was young. It was awful. I wish I had told someone.” And students see that you are okay now, they see that they, too, may just make it through this awful spell. And they can feel like if they talk to you about their tough time, they will be seen.

Oh, and the toddler in the picture is mine. Karma is definitely Team Unicorn.

The Gifts of Imperfection in the Classroom

My teaching isn’t perfect, my family was not perfect, and, as far a personal development, I have a long way to go. So why am I supposed to pretend otherwise when I step in front of impressionable teenagers who are looking at me to model what it is to be a human in the world?

I don’t know about you, but on the one day my principal steps into my classroom to evaluate me during during fall semester, it is easy enough to trot out a tried-and-true, dog-and-pony-show. Observation days never reflect the real shit-shows that can go down at any moment when a lesson goes south due to…anything: A sleepy, surly class, a projector not working, the copier not working, the internet down, my brain dulled from a baby up all night and not enough sleep…Anything.

Whomever made up the model for evaluating teachers clearly wasn’t anyone familiar with teaching. A students’ progress cannot be measured by a single test, and a teachers’ efficacy in the classroom cannot be measured by two observations a year. Principals are looking for perfection, and perfectionism doesn’t belong in the classroom. Brene Brown describes perfectionism as: “… the 20 lb. shield. It doesn’t protect us from being hurt, it protects us from being seen.” It also prevents us from being human with one another. It prevents us from connecting.

Perfectionism in the classroom prevents students from being able to connect to each other and to their teacher. Not only are teachers trying to keep up an image, but students are desperately trying to fit into a mold that only exists as a social construct. They want to appear cool, attractive, intelligent, and all of the other status markers that are so important when your identity is being formed in the midst of being judged by your peers. Teenagers don’t know that having all of those characteristics is not only unrealistic, it’s not even human.

We are born into imperfect bodies, imperfect families, and imperfect communities…by design. When teachers can’t be safely vulnerable with their students, they give off the impression that to err in any way (in class, in your past, with friends, etc.) is so shameful that we don’t even talk about it. How then can teens make sense of families that have human dysfunction: Alcoholism, neglect, verbal and physical abuse, mental illness? The list goes on and on. We’ll have to hide those too.

I wrote in my last blog about students who hide their trauma in plain sight. How close can those students feel to a teacher who keeps up a front of perfection or cannot reveal any vulnerable event from the teacher’s own past?

I wish I had learned about the power of vulnerability in the classroom at the continuation schools, but it was at a high-achieving high school when I tried out vulnerability and was shocked at the results. Here was a school with parents who were lawyers, doctors, and engineers. Students at this school lacked for nothing and had every privilege afforded to the ultra wealthy….and these kids were falling apart. 

Because my teaching assignment included culture and identity in literature, for the first time in my teaching career, I decided to share my identity and culture with the class. I told them early on about my bipolar dad, my fear of him, and the fact that I wish I had told an adult about it when I was in high school. All of this without details that might trigger students and without a poor-me-look-at-me attitude: Much like I might summarize something for a much younger audience. Combined with specialized ice breakers and prompts designed to bring the class together, I had more students reveal crises and traumas to me than in the last 12 years working with high-trauma populations.

Everyone is looking for connection, Brene Brown tells us. It is as vital as food, water, and shelter. We can’t be connected if we are putting up false images of ourselves. Besides, it’s way more interesting to see how we are similar in our humanity and reach out to each other for help than it is to pretend we are islands of perfection. I referred so many more students for counseling when I gave up the idea that the teacher should be perfect and started modeling for students, in a guided, safe way, that to err is human: Every family, every community, and every person is flawed and we are all working on our humanity–why not do it together?

Contact me at to have me come to your school to speak about vulnerability and hidden student trauma in the classroom.


In Plain Sight: What We Miss When Talking About Student Trauma

8E2AAA1D-6FE2-4F1D-8677-B0C048ACC812If a tree falls in the woods…no, wait. If a student experiences a traumatic event but no adult authority figure acknowledges it, does that event have adverse affects? Always, the research says.

And that has been my experience too.

The ACEs study (Adverse Childhood Experiences) has documented that traumas in childhood predictably alter the quality of a person’s life later on (increased risks for major diseases, cancer, substance abuse, and other self-harming behaviors). Most people have at least a score of 1 on the ACEs scale of 1–10. Divorce, for example, counts as 1. After 6 ACEs, your life expectancy decreases.

Rut -roh


Every unhappy family is unhappy in its’ own way, so Tolstoy tells us in Anna Karenina. For 12 years, I worked in a last-chance high school full of students who wore trauma around their necks in the form of placards of friends and family killed. Some students even etched their trauma into their DNA–tattooed reminders of loved ones gone. These were clues in plain sight. No detective work required. Still, for too many of those years, I lumped traumas together (family member out of the picture, a friend killed, a major illness in the family) and avoided asking about personal specifics.

But unhappiness, as Tolstoy reminds us, is always personal.

I didn’t ask about the tattoos, thinking it better if I didn’t remind students of people gone, sadness in their pasts. Only, RIP tattoos are there because someone wanted to etch a heartache into their DNA, making visible a person who is absent.

Trauma overwhelm is real and it prevents teachers from asking about students’ pasts. What I needed to say was, “Tell me about the person whose picture is around your neck. What were they like?” or “Your mom died. That’s so sad. Tell me about her.” Trauma is personal and no two traumas are alike. Addressing trauma is the least a teacher can do, and I should have known that.

The reason I should have known that is because I was that kid. I lived in fear of my bipolar dad. In high school, my dad was arrested at my brother’s ballgame for harassing my stepdad. In front of what felt like half my school. I started leaving school early several times a week. My grades dropped. On the softball field, I went from team MVP shortstop to a player who couldn’t catch any ball in right field. Trauma in plain sight. But no one wanted to embarrass me by saying something.

I saw my counselor when she called me in to ask about my future aspirations. I could tell she didn’t know me at all–we’d only met once before. I got decent grades and wasn’t a behavior issue. She didn’t ask about my home life, and I wouldn’t have told her anything if she had. She did ask what I wanted to be. I said a fireman or astronaut because they were sarcastic cliches. She wrote them down and didn’t ask questions.

After 6 ACEs, your life expectancy decreases. Rut -roh.

Unless…The one factor that can mitigate the devastating effects of childhood trauma includes one caring adult. On a Friday during my sophomore year of high school, I was in Dr. Wendell’s science class, crying behind my hair. He saw me and handed me a tissue. On Monday, he said, “I was thinking about you. I was worried.” And I rejoined humanity.

That was everything, and that is least a teacher can can do. Because teachers are the people students see most often. Teachers are the people students look to as the authority figures when their parents are not there. That’s why teachers are the first responders, the detectives at the scene. When clues are there, ask about them. Someone could have asked me, “Jessie, tell me about your dad getting arrested at the ballgame.” It’s not nosey. It’s caring. I was thinking about it anyway. When you talk about it, you make it not shameful anymore.

I didn’t recognize my trauma overwhelm until a female student, a girl who’d had wild mood swings in class, stayed with me one afternoon finishing an assignment. I’d asked her to describe an important moment in her past. She wrote about when her mom died from cancer, how her dad didn’t know what to do, and how her teachers didn’t talk to her about it. It was then that she started acting out. The next year, her brother was shot and killed. She changed schools and started getting in trouble, and still, no one asked her what was wrong. No one at her new school knew her past. No one was playing detective. No one allowed her to share that her mom had died, giving her a chance to have a caring adult acknowledge that it was so, so sad. And her brother had died. And that was a whole different kind of sad. We talked about it as she wrote out her story, and her behavior in school improved dramatically.

Signs of Trauma: Trauma is there in plain sight in students who act out, students who drastically alter their appearance, students who come to class on mind-altering substances, those who cut, those who cut class, and those who suddenly change demeanor.

I never push students to tell me information when they are unwilling. I think of it as dropping a line without a hook: I’m just seeing if the fish has been waiting there, wanting to bite, and has never been given a chance. I use non-invasive, content appropriate prompts for students to share about themselves, structure the shares so that students can reveal a safe amount to their classmates and more to me if they want to. My workshop on trauma has worksheets and guidelines for safe prompts and teacher-led student sharing.

I always refer students to the school’s counselor, citing my concerns. I also tell the student that I have referred them for counseling, generally with the fear-calming, “I am starting the process of referring all of my students for counseling, just to check in more often with your counselor. Counselors are great people to talk to.”

When a student’s behavior is puzzling or concerning, I will often call home. I call because email isn’t appropriate for real concern. I also call because not all parents respond to email. Oh, and over the years, I’ve also come to understand that the way I was taught to make phone calls is…well…rude. I started out making phone calls by first ascertaining whether I was speaking to the right person. Parent: Hello? Me: Hi, is this ____’s mom?” Parent: “Who is this?” 

Let me try this again.

“Hi, my name is Jessie Dorin and I’m ____’s teacher at ____ High School. Are you her mom?” When I get an affirmative, then I express my concern. I say clearly that I’m not a counselor, that I have referred the student to a counselor, but I also wanted to keep the parent in the loop. If it is something that the student denies (bulimia, substance abuse, etc.), I say that I may be wrong, but the student is important to me and I still wanted to let the parent know why I was suspicious in the first place. I’ve never had a parent get upset with that. 

Let me be clear: This is not a “poor behavior” call. Parents know the difference between a behavior complaint and real concern for a student’s health and welfare.

So do students. We model care, compassion, and what it looks like to be brave and ask the uncomfortable questions that bring the hurt into the light where it can start to heal. Teachers rock like that.


To have me speak at your school about combating visible and hidden student trauma, email me at:

Take the ACEs Quiz