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Creating the Conditions for Healing – What Leaders Can Do Now

Promoting Wellness and Mental Health Through the “Three I’s”

  • Educators are under increasing pressure in the post-COVID world to show performance gains
  • The threat of violence in schools at any time is real.
  • Controversies about books and curriculum strain the fragile bonds of the community, school boards, school leadership, and teachers
  • We’ve all seen the headlines about the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that many children carry with them through the schoolhouse doors

These aspects of the all-too-real life of schooling today converge as an endemic trauma that hangs over many communities like a dark cloud. That dark cloud often leads to poor student performance, but as we’ll see here, not always.

To access the part of our brain where cognitive processing takes place, students must feel safe and secure. As one neuroscience researcher recently told us, “If students are in a state of high stress or trauma, the part of the brain that facilitates learning becomes inaccessible. Student academic achievement rests on the shoulders of student wellness.” Thus, if students who experience trauma are to have a shot at academic achievement, educators should play a critical role beyond instruction. However, educators who aren’t secure in their own emotional well-being may unintentionally contribute to student trauma and impede academic performance.

Addressing trauma is not just another initiative, it is the set of practices that can help educators reduce the impact of various challenges they and their students currently face, such as “lost learning,” book bans, curriculum restrictions, and workforce shortages.

Meet Anitra Gallegos, Principal of Panorama Middle School in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Panorama has a diverse and transient population, with 80% of the students receiving free and reduced lunches. If any school exemplifies the twisting tentacles of trauma that affect students, faculty, and the community, it’s this one. Yet, here is a principal celebrating the return to school, convinced that the improvements in academic performance from last year will be replicated this year.  Trauma is real, but it may just have met its match because Anitra Gallegos is a fighter, and she leads—and succeeds—with “three I’s.” Under her leadership, Panorama Middle School is trending to become a high-performing school despite its community’s high poverty.

Anitra’s “Three I’s” in her own words

My leadership style is based on integrity, instruction, and inspiration.

Integrity – I believe in being honest about everything, whether the ugly truths or the pretty packaged ones. Being able to operate with honesty and transparency is integral to being a transformative leader. Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear. Tell me the truth. And I will tell it back to you. I’m able to see past a lot of the filters and the facades that students, teachers, and community members put up. I’m able to drill down and speak to their hearts.

Instruction – I focus on instruction because where focus goes, energy flows. If I want my teachers to be great instructors, as the leader, I must focus there. If I focus on all this other nonsense – the daily distractions – then I’m going to get nonsense back. And we’re starting to see the results. Our performance numbers are ticking up, so our focus on instruction is working.

Inspiration – I recently had a conversation with a young lady experiencing a significant amount of abuse at home, and it was showing up in her relationships with other kids. So, we had to step in and engage in some restorative practices with her and a girl with whom she was becoming violent. I sought to inspire her through her own story. I said, “Look at what violence, aggression, and meanness directed at you now causes. You are now moving in mean, aggressive, and unkind ways.” I said, “Do you want to continue the cycle of what you’re experiencing? Or do you want this to be different for your life? Because if you do, you need to behave differently.” She looked me in the eye and said, “I don’t want to be like that.” And I said, “Let me help you.” And that’s the inspiration right there. Kids can often be inspired by their own stories to change.

We profiled Anitra in a recent episode of the Cultivating Resilience – A Whole Community Approach to Alleviating Trauma in Schools podcast, now in its second season. In addition to Anitra, we’ve also heard from Horacio Sanchez, author of The Poverty Problem: How Education Can Promote Resilience and Counter the Impact of Poverty on Brain Development (2021), Afrika Afeni Mills, author of Open Windows, Open Minds (2023), and Michelle Trujillo, author of Social Emotional Well Being of Educators (2022).  These episodes and the ones that follow along with the 35 episodes from Season 1 are archived at the Trauma in Schools website. The goal of all these conversations is to provide listeners with strategies they can use to alleviate trauma in their own environments.

This year, we’ve added a research component to our Cultivating Resilience series. The series is sponsored by the Compassionate School Leadership Academy (CSLA), a joint research effort of the Center for Educational Improvement and Yale University’s Program for Recovery and Community Health. CSLA researchers and staff are engaging with school leaders to develop individualized, compassionate school action plans for each school. School leaders will have opportunities to participate in monthly learning communities to share and problem-solve with other leaders as they implement practices to improve their school climate and alleviate trauma in schools. This effort is funded by the U.S. Department of Education, under award Number S423A220092. CSLA is currently seeking middle schools interested in participating. (https://www.edimprovement.org/compassionate-school-leadership-academy). Interested parties should contact chrismason@edimprovement.org for details.

Written by

Christine Mason is Executive Director of the Center for Educational Improvement, Jesse Kohler is Executive Director of the Campaign for Trauma Informed Policy and Practice, Jeff Ikler is the principal at Quetico Executive Coaching, and Victoria Romero is an author and consultant with Corwin Press.

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