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):



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.


The Antidote to Bad PD

Most teachers have had this experience: You’re in a Professional Development workshop, keeping an open mind because the topic is one that you are excited to know more about, when you soon find yourself making this face:


It is the face marking the realization that the presenter will waste your time with irrelevant data, research, and strategies that have no practical grounding in an actual classroom. Indeed, it is clear that the presenter has not been in charge of 32 teenagers in a classroom for a very, very long time, if ever, and all the statistics and theories add up to very little when what is suggested is not feasible with several classes of 32 (or more) teenagers. This is also the face of someone who has so much to get done that you can’t afford to sit in this PD for the next two hours. Or, even worse, the next two days.

Bad PD plagues beginning-of-the-year staff development days, staff meetings, and district mandated professional development days. It doesn’t have to. I offer professional development that shifts schemas for long-lasting, far-reaching, student-centered, teacher-approved supports that are readily applied to however many classes of 32 teenagers you may be teaching the next day. And that makes PD feel more like this:


For more information, email Jessie at: