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. 

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 devastating long-term affects? Always, the research says.

And that has been my experience too.

Way back in 1997, the now-renown ACEs study (Adverse Childhood Experiences), documented that traumas in childhood predictably alters the quality of a person’s life FOR the duration of their lifetime (increased risks for major diseases, cancer, divorce, substance abuse, and other self-harming behaviors). 70% of all US citizens have at least a score of 1 ACE. Divorce, for example, counts as 1. After 6 ACEs, your life expectancy decreases by 20 years.

Rut -roh

Unless…

ONE caring adult finds out about the trauma, acknowledges it, and provides a stable, caring sounding board for the student. It is the first proven mitigating factor in the long-term devastating effects of trauma.

It starts with knowing what constitutes trauma or Adverse Childhood Experiences. A parent who is emotionally abusive, physically abusive, or sexually abusive easily comes to mind. But what about the parent who threw the pan at my best friend’s head, hitting the wall instead? “She missed,” my friend said. “That’s not physical abuse.” Which is why we have to be taught what is abuse in childhood. Yes, a pan at the head, whether it hits you or not, is physical abuse. Divorce is trauma to a child. So is homelessness, homophobia to a student who is gay, or a father berating a mother.

It turns out, when the list of traumas that affect students’ developing brains and bodies is spelled out in its entirety, very few of us have been exempt.

Which brings me to the one place that is teeming with kids from trauma backgrounds and could use an adult stepping in….schools.

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 tattooed RIPs onto their bodies as 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 is always personal.

I didn’t ask about the student hurts in plain sight because I didn’t want to make students sad or embarrassed. I thought it was 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 to make visible a person who is absent.

Trauma is personal and no two traumas are alike. Addressing trauma is the least a teacher can do, and I should have known that. 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.” 

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. Handcuffs and flashing lights in front of what felt like half my school.

In response to chaos at home, I started leaving school early several times a week. My grades dropped. On the softball field, I went from team MVP to a player who couldn’t catch any ball hit to right field. Trauma in plain sight. But no one wanted to embarrass me by saying something.

I saw my school counselor when she called me in for my once-a-year check-in. 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. 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 or a counselor can can do. Because school staff are the people students see most often. School staff are the people students look to as the authority figures when their parents are not there.

That’s why school staff are the detectives AND first responders in hidden student trauma. When clues are there, we have to ask about them. Someone could have asked me, “Jessie, I saw your dad getting arrested at the ball game. That’s awful. How are you?” It’s not nosey. It’s caring. I was thinking about it anyway. When you talk about it, you take shame’s stinger out. It is 

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.

Hidden trauma can only be revealed through the right kind of prompts and through the vulnerability school staff are willing to exhibit. Once I figured out that what I did as a teacher created opportunities for students to reveal hidden student trauma, my world changed, as did the lives of my students.

I never push students to tell me information. I think of classroom prompts 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. I 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 Hidden Student Trauma has worksheets and guidelines for safe prompts and teacher-led student sharing.

I used to think I’d have to BE a counselor in order to have an empathetic response. Then I took a 9 month life coaching course and learned that everyone can respond to hurt with a compassionate, “That sounds hard. Tell me more.” Some students elaborate, others just relate that is IS hard, it WAS hard, and it continues to BE hard. That, as it turns out, is enough.

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, “Have you met the counselor? Let me walk you down to their office. Counselors are great people to talk to.”

We model care, compassion, and ask the uncomfortable questions that bring the hurt into the light where it can start to heal. Teachers, counselors, and school staff rock like that.

To have me speak at your school about combating visible and hidden student trauma, email me at: JessieDorinCoaching@gmail.com

Take the ACEs Quiz