My Personal Why: Why I am writing my thesis with a focus on trauma-informed education

Picture a fancy art gallery. You know the kind I am talking about.  They’re small, with narrow, cluttered hallways. Art of various sizes all over the walls. Shelves and display cases askew around the room. Sculptures of varying breakable material in every direction you turn. You kind of shuffle through and do your best to look and appreciate the art, but your shoulders are hugging your ears. Your smile is more of a tight grimace. You try to look and nod and smile and say “oh” and “ah”, but really, you are just in constant alert of not breaking anything, getting in trouble, and having all eyes on you; your fears are revealed.

That is kind of like what my entire childhood was like. I lived in fear of having any more problems happen. I had enough chaos that I was barely able to manage, I did not want more. That meant eyes down, mouth closed, hands and feet in the car at all times. Some people who have experienced trauma might describe this same sensation. This constant war between trying to succeed and move through in life; to get over it, but also being almost fully incapaciated by fear. Never being able to let go.

I think a lot about how I navigated through school as a child and teen. How I am, honestly, hazy on how I really did much. I know I did pretty well in school. I know that I had the word conscientious written in my report card comments multiple times. I somehow did the work, participated (or, to continue the metaphor, acted like I enjoyed the art gallery), but I don’t remember feeling any sense of accomplishment or success. It was a means to an end. Once I got out of the art gallery, I could relax my shoulders. I wouldn’t need to be afraid to break anything anymore.

At some point in my early adulthood, I decided I was angry at my teachers. No one specific teacher, just at school and teachers and, really, the entire school community, in general. Who let me do that – stand in the art gallery and not appreciate anything past my fear? Who was accountable for my learning in the art gallery? Who didn’t notice all I was doing was living in fear of breaking everything? How could an adult not see through me? I have no proof of this. 

Any adult in my school community could have known and seen the struggle, and just decided not to do anything. It’s probably better to ‘let it go’ and ‘let them press on’ than bring to attention that, they might have thought, rather than “Hey! If you stand here, you’re less close to the breakable shelves. You might be able to enjoy the art more. We have insurance if you break anything.” But no one did. And, really, I grappled with that. My thought process was something like, “So now that I know and wish someone was more attune to my trauma, I am going to help other children!” and I think I put fists on my hips, and raised my chin. Superhero stance.

So I became a teacher. I wanted to help. I wanted to take my experiences and help others. I remember one of my first days of school in my first year of teaching, looking out over the sea of faces of my students, and thinking, “Some of you are going through hell, and you’re just focused on not breaking anything. I may not know who you are now, but I will and I will be there for you like teachers in my past were not there for me”.

Clearly that did not happen. So I felt helpless. There was a curriculum. There were clubs. There were marks. There was no time to dig deeper, and I realized I couldn’t dig deeper into student’s lives ethically, anyways. All I could do was be there for them, and be consistent.

As years passed and I became a better teacher (and I still have a long way to go to being an even better teacher, but that’s another story), realizing that, yes — there were things I could do and provide for all students, thinking of those few trauma students who were in the classroom, going through the motions, but stuck in fear.  I realized that I could research and dig deeper and learn more about how to be trauma-informed. It all started with me writing a blog of my inspirations, and moving forward from there.

So, why am I writing my thesis? What do I truly hope to get out of this process? 

  • To share my learnings and experiences, and hope that someone else gets something out of my thinking. At least, re-thinks how they teach or interact with the world. I want to share my work widely to ensure access for anyone interested.
  • Self-healing:  I feel like the process of researching, thinking, and writing about trauma-informed education will help me navigate my own experiences and understandings. I understand that I actually went into teaching for the wrong reasons, and now I want to reconsider the wider lenses of being trauma-informed.
  • Self-accomplishment: Sure, this is selfish. But I think any sense of pride or accomplishment was never really realized in my mind in my past. Remember: I was always thinking the artwork was going to crash, and I was trying to hold my body away from being the cause of the crash. There was no place in my mind to actually celebrate the art.
  • A better educator, and, honestly, person. When I was in the throes of trauma, I felt isolated. Even if someone did want to talk to me about it, it became this other; a life of its own. This other that any person I disclosed to suddenly had to dance around. I could sense a change in their interaction with me. Hence, friendships have always been tricky for me. So, once I started to realize all the ecological ways trauma affects a person, and, therefore, my students, why wouldn’t I want to pull back and look at the macro level understanding of trauma and do and be better? Saviorism isn’t going to help; empathy and true understanding is. 
  • Learning more. I mean, this is a journey. As more research and thinking presents itself, as I immerse myself more and more in the process, I want to learn more. I don’t want it to end. Writing my thesis will force me to organize and make decisions I otherwise struggle to do. It will force me to synthesize and consider and prioritize. It will empower me to make hard decisions about what to write, and in turn, where to go next.

One response to “My Personal Why: Why I am writing my thesis with a focus on trauma-informed education”

  1. Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski Avatar
    Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski

    Your post is so thought-provoking and matches some of the thinking I’ve been doing lately around how to help children going through trauma. I was recently speaking with an educator who revealed that she lived in an abusive situation her whole life and no teacher ever knew or intervened. Are you getting a masters or doctorate in this work? It is admirable that you want to help other educators learn more about this important issue.

    Liked by 1 person

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