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):



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.