Loss, Trauma and the Digital Language of Empathy in Schools

My father passed away part way through my second year as a teacher. This happened in the middle of one of our school breaks and I was able to use the time away from kids to take care of family arrangements. What I didn’t do during this break was find the time to process, reflect, grieve.

And so, when the time came to go back to school, I made the rookie mistake of putting on a smiling face and continuing in my classroom as if it was business as usual. The need to process my own feelings and to simultaneously be present for my students and their needs felt counterintuitive. It wasn’t until years later that I was able to properly reflect on how my own experience as a new teacher is one that is shared by teachers frequently. Particularly urban educators, where the loss of a student is something we will likely experience at some point in our careers, I have often questioned the gap in how we may guide teachers’ expertise around empathy and reflection.

A New Age Dean Reflects on Empathy and School Responses to Crises

In reflecting on this topic of social and emotional learning (SEL) and on the needs of young people vis-à-vis social networking and literacy lately I decided to check in with my friend (and sometimes nemesis) Mark Gomez. Last time I checked in with Mark on this blog, we were discussing the start of the new school year at the Critical Design and Gaming School in South Central Los Angeles. Now, however, Mark’s role has shifted on the school’s campus. A self-described “new age dean,” Mark is the intervention and support coordinator across the three different schools on the Augustus Hawkins Learning Complex. It’s a position that I know fits Mark well: his priorities in classrooms have always put students first and his efforts to ensure that his students don’t fall through the cracks have taught me a lot in my own practice.

Talking about his new role, Mark and I discuss how the loss of a student to violence has shaped his understanding of school structures, district responses to crises, and what role social media plays in all of this.

On any given week in the past several years, I could vaguely allude to a viral campaign of excessive violence related to youth and police and readers would know what I’m talking about. And localized instances of these, too, are prevalent in many districts to treat loss and school response to it as just part of the daily lives of youth.

Logging onto my various social networks it isn’t uncommon to see the displays of loss in a community like memorial murals and RIP t-shirts funnel into how youth post on digital walls today. Considering this natural shift in socialization over the past two decades, Mark asks us to consider several key questions:

  • What values are districts and teachers promoting through the use of social networking in schools?
  • What is the role of grief in classrooms?
  • What language do we use to build empathy around it?
  • How do administrative systems treat it with clinical distance?

Toward a Trauma-Informed Pedagogy

There are two interrelated aspects of our responsibilities as educators that I believe we need to cultivate in teacher education and professionalization:

  1. We need to better guide the online uses of social media from within schools.
  2. We need to better sustain and cultivate spaces for grief, understanding of crisis, and safe spaces for processing emotions and empathy.

As a DML community, we spend significant time talking about the first of these points. However, I think there is a danger that we often forget that social networks are inherently social. We act, think, and express feelings of joy, sorrow and loss in these spaces. We often think of these SEL skills that we need to support, build learning around, and guide as perhaps the role of non-digitally focused pedagogues. But that just doesn’t make sense. We bring our full humanity to bear when interacting in these spaces and we need to consider the SEL implications as such.

At the same time, in order to support students around these issues, we need to think about what’s missing when it comes to addressing these two interrelated aspects of a trauma-informed pedagogy. In particular, what’s missing too often in how we think about supporting teachers around these sensitive issues is the role of respect. Mark points out that we place PD at the end of the day when teachers are tired, hungry, and least likely to bring their best, intellectual selves to these meetings. Just as we know that it doesn’t make a whole lot of biological sense for adolescents to be in schools at 7:30 in the morning, so too, can we imagine that sustaining forms of professional growth after a long day of teaching isn’t the most ideal situation. At the same time, we don’t regularly interact with the SEL needs of adults in schools, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Just as students are offered support around school, community, and national crises, how do teachers cope? (This is a topic that I’ve been thinking a lot about with a recent project here in Colorado called Compose Our World.

What is the Language of Grief?

Early in the semester, a new teacher contacted me after one of her students was shot and she wanted to know what to do. I immediately sent back a handful of suggestions for talking with students and adjusting (or throwing out) preplanned lessons to focus on student needs. It was only after she clarified that I realized my mistake: as a new teacher, she wasn’t sure how to personally and emotionally handle the news about her student. Her request for help highlighted to me that we simply do not do enough to prepare teachers to cope, to reflect, to handle trauma. Her request, years after my own experiences with familial loss in classrooms, illustrates how much work we have to do.

Ultimately, Mark reminds us that the role of educators when considering our work with youth particularly around localized issues of crisis must have individualized relationships at the core. We must feel comfortable knowing and learning alongside the community of learners we interact with daily in order to best empathize and support them. And to do that, we need to be in touch with our own social and emotional needs.

Banner image credit: muchO