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50. Is Talking About Traumatic Topics Doing More Harm Than Good?

by Lindsay Lyons
October 21st 2021

In today's episode, I am diving into the most common questions I get from educators developing a curriculum for justice- When do I start? When do I have enough skills so my work doesn't cause more ... More

wow, I cannot believe this is episode 50 of the time for teacher ship podcast. We're halfway to 100 in this episode. Just a heads up for folks who are like, I do not want to deal with this topic at this moment. There are mentions of trauma and specific trauma, including sexual assault in this episode. If that's just not for you at the moment, no worries at all. Feel free to turn off this episode, return to it another time or not at all. I just want to give you a heads up, let's get into the episode. Hi, I'm lindsey Lyons and I love helping school communities envision bold possibilities, take brave action to make those dreams a reality and sustain an inclusive, anti racist culture where all students thrive. I'm a former teacher leader turned instructional coach, educational consultant and leadership scholar. If you're a leader in the education world, whether you're a pro Principal Superintendent instructional coach or a classroom teacher excited about school wide change like I was, you are a leader and if you enjoy nerd ng out about the latest educational books and podcasts, if you're committed to a lifelong journey of learning and growth and being the best version of yourself, you're going to love the time for Teacher ship podcast, let's dive in in this episode, I want to address a question that has come up several times in working with educators around developing curriculum for justice and that's the question of kind of, when do I start, when am I kind of knowing enough, having enough content knowledge, having enough skill developed that I can comfortably and that's the key here comfortably or perhaps, um, knowingly engage with students around a challenging or even traumatic topic in a way that does more good than harm.

And so asking the question is talking about traumatic topics doing more harm than good. The question that's really framing this episode, I think it's about ultimately when to start, when to implement and to identify some of the things that might be barriers to holding us back from implementation. So let's go ahead and dive into a series of responses to this question. I know we're just gonna scratch the surface, but let's dive in. So first I want to address the initial question that I originally would get and I have a very quick response to it. It's grounded in science and research. And so I think that this episode does not need to spend much time on it. And that's the question of if I bring up topics such as race, does that make kids more racist by just bringing it up particularly at young ages? So typically I get this question from elementary school, really young teachers of young students and what the research tells us is that kids begin to perceive racist ideologies from as early as age of two.

And so this research is clear that if we don't talk about it, that does not mean that our students, our Children are not internalizing the things that they're seeing in society, the things that they're hearing um in in various settings from various media's that's what the research says. And so right off the bat, I want to be clear that bringing up these topics does not make kids more biased more racist more insert ism here. So it is important to bring them up if that is your point of resistance and thinking that it might do more harm than good in that sense. What this episode for the remainder of the episode is really going to touch on is thinking about the real fact that bringing up topics in class and encouraging students to talk about topics that really surface and in the moment can add to their trauma with particular either ISMs or events or experiences around particular topics that we're talking about.

And so we want to be mindful that when we encourage dialogue, when we invite students to talk about things that can be traumatic for them or that are based in historical trauma, that that can be harmful, right? That can be if not done well harmful to students. And so of course that is the fear that some teachers have that many teachers have, right? I think everyone that does this work with thought and intention has the spirit at some point. But what we want to talk about today is how do we move forward with this work enabling us to have these conversations in a way that is generative perhaps even healing and not increasing trauma for students. Some folks, I think in behind this question, as I mentioned at the opening of the episode, kind of feel like I'm not ever going to get it right or I'm not at a place where I'm gonna get it right, quote unquote, like going to ever get something perfect, right? And so I don't want to start and so I fear that I'm doing more harm than good and I'm just not going to bring anything up.

And so underlying that is a is a bunch of layered responses. I'm gonna bring in some voices of some authors and some various things that read that I think help inform a response to this question. Of course this episode is just going to really scratch the surface, but I want to kind of uncover some of those layers and bring them up. So, I think the first layer is of course it takes a commitment to do the work, right? We are never going to get it perfectly right. We're always learning and growing. We're each on our journeys in different places and we're always kind of moving forward towards justice ideally, right? So we're going to need to learn particularly because many of us were taught with content and pedagogy that was not anti racist, that was not feminist that was very much steeped in oppression and undoing. That requires an un learning of a lot of content, a lot of framing a lot of pedagogical strategies that were harmful. And so that is a very long journey. We are going to learn that and unravel that and and learn new strategies that are affirming for students identities and experiences as we go.

We don't need to have every tool and strategy and understanding imaginable because no one has that to get started, right? But it is helpful to get started and I'll get into that in a little bit. But I want to borrow from larry fellas. Oh, who's a high school teacher who's written this article in which he says culturally responsive teaching is not a quick fix. Nor is it a simple strategy to add into your lessons. It takes reflection upon your and your students cultural lenses. It takes an inquiry stance and an audit of practices that may be limiting student access to your curriculum above all. It takes a deep connection with students and their families and a commitment to support their cultural needs, even if what is required is for you to get outside of your cultural comfort zone. End quote, This is a huge piece, right? If it's our discomfort that is holding us back. If it is our commitment to making those relationships. Taking time to build those relationships within class time, right?

Which as we're always trying to compete for time, right? There's already so many things to do. There's so much content to cover at the end of the day when I ask myself what is my priority. Often times in a given school day, it's to make a connection with the student, to make eye contact to say their name too. Just make them feel seen and valued and like they belong here. And someone cares about how their day went at the end of the day. That is what's the most important for really fostering a sense of of students, humanity and dignity and sense of belonging in my class. And if they don't have that, they're not going to learn all the academic stuff that I'm trying to cram it, right? So that's the piece, right? It's a commitment to doing the work. It's creating the time and prioritizing those relationships with students, even if it makes us uncomfortable. And in that day, and I want to think about this next kind of underlying question is it? And I'm thinking mostly I'm speaking to whites teachers here, but is it white teacher discomfort holding us back? So it's our discomfort that's actually holding us back from starting because we don't want to be perceived as racist, Classist, sexist, homophobic?

You know, whatever it is, because we say something incorrectly because we don't catch something that happens with a student, we don't catch a microaggression and address it immediately in class or we just have a misstep ideally we don't want to have missed us. We don't want to make mistakes, but we will inevitably make a mistake, we will inevitably miss an opportunity or say the wrong thing. And the goal here is that we don't let that fear of discomfort, that fear of imperfection hold us back, right? Perfection is a tool of white supremacy. It holds us in place. We are going to learn from the mistakes that we make. If we're committed to doing the learning and committed to doing this work, we're going to learn and we're never gonna make that mistake again. But we have to be able to dive in and do the best we can with what we have now with the pursuit of continuing to learn, continuing to respond to any mistakes that we do make with gratitude for someone pointing it out to us with the commitment to say I will do better next time.

Um and and to do better. Right? So that discomfort piece Dina Simmons, who I absolutely love, has written an article in which she says the educators I work with are mostly white, which matches the lack of teacher diversity on national level and often share that They do not feel comfortable talking about race. But when we shy away from opening conversations about race with young people, we sow the seeds of prejudice by inadvertently sending the message that something is wrong with people from another race. End quote I think this is huge. Right? So by just avoiding the topics of race, of gender identity, of sexual orientation, of all of these things that we might want to talk about if we avoid it, there is this inherent thing that students will pick up, which is saying that something is wrong with people who deviate from, you know, the mythical norm, right? This idea of a white cis gendered male who is heterosexual, who is christian, who is middle to upper class, right?

Like all of these kind of mythical norms that Audrey Lorde refers to. If we deviate from that, something is wrong. That is the mess that were inadvertently likely unintentionally sending, but which students are absolutely picking up in us avoiding those questions. If we avoid questions or topics that relate to students identities were also invalidating and avoiding seeing them as whole people were saying this isn't important enough to bring up in class. So, I think that's a really important frame to consider more on perfection. If we're waiting for having more time or getting all of the facts, we're getting ready to never make a mistake, right? If we are waiting and waiting until we're going to get it perfectly right before we actually start. We're doing a lot of harm in the process of waiting, right? We're not surfacing those topics for discussion. We're not valuing and affirming the identities of our students right? As Dina Simmons is referring to. Right? So, and thinking about this, I wanted to bring in a phenomenal Education Post article by Sharif El Mekki, who is the founder and Ceo of the Center for Black educator Development.

And his article is a response to an article written by a white educator and uh article entitled no, you should not be teaching black Children if you reject anti racism. And it's a phenomenal article is quite long. So I won't be quoting all of it, but I do want to just pull in some pieces in it. He responds to the white educators question, are white teachers still welcome in nonwhite charter schools? And he says, yes, this is a quote here, yes, anti racist ones. And those striving to be anti racist, the only prerequisites they must understand contrary to what some insist that we do not live in a post racial society. They must be able to handle candid feedback even about their color blindness and racism. So again, if we recover from our mistakes, if we respond with gratitude, right, these are the prerequisites we have to be committed to the work. And then he said, yes, obviously anti racist. White educators are certainly welcome to teach black and brown Children.

Yeah. And he also addresses the white educators in a false dichotomy that they bring up in the initial article about being an effective teacher or an anti racist teacher. So he responds to this dichotomy that the white educator sets up and saying, you know, that's a false dichotomy, right? You actually have to be both. You have to be an anti racist teacher to be an effective teacher. And he uses a wonderful quote from Toni Morrison to emphasize this point, right? She says the function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again. Your reason for being there will always be one more thing. End quote and so Toni Morrison's words I think are so profound in so many ways, right? If we distract from the issue of talking about racial justice, right of talking about gender justice, of talking about intersectional justice. We are distracting even by saying we want to do this work.

We want to do it well, we don't want to do harm. We are just afraid of making mistakes right? We're distracting from the value of bringing these topics and conversations into the class and seeing them and having our students see them as important. But we're making it about us and our discomfort and our fears right? There's always gonna be one more thing to learn or to know there's always gonna be a mistake that we're gonna make and regret. But if we can get past that if we can get past that fear and discomfort, we will learn, we will grow. There is a magazine article, Greater Good magazine which is out of UC Berkeley that talks about this principle of harm, right and the fact that we don't want to do harm. They say quote, the cautionary principle of first do no harm doesn't mean that organization should stop such dialogues and they're referring to dialogues around race here, but instead invites a pause for organizational education, introspection and commitment. End quote. They really talk about throughout the article that racial dialogue does carry trauma and the potential to revisit that trauma or to bring about new trauma as we engage in it.

They also say there are a lot of ways to make dialogue healthier. One is to stop looking at the micro level, the individual interpersonal level and look at organizational structures. How is the organization, right? In school systems? How are organizations having school policies or practices that perpetuate injustice? What can we do as a school to make things better for students? They also mention it's incredibly important not to invalidate or put parameters on the emotional responses of people who have been harmed when they bring that up in discussion. Right? If we're opening up these topics for discussion and we invite people to respond and they have a lot of emotion around very emotional things that is normal. That's a normal human response and we invited that discussion. We can't go ahead and put parameters on it and say your anger makes me uncomfortable. Please tone it down. These are important things to consider, right. We want these conversations to be affirming of students experiences and adults for that matter when we talk to adults as well.

We we want them to validate students identities and experiences and emotions. This is not the time to say students need to self regulate if we are inviting them to share about a traumatic experience the other thing and I will get back to this because the article also refers to this leader. The other thing is, we don't want to say you have to share a traumatic experience because we need to learn from your traumatic experience. We need you to open up and be vulnerable. And that's the only way we're gonna learn about this topic, right? That's not on students to bring that experience to our class to teach us, right? And so we'll get back to that later. But I do want to just add that caveat in there as well. But that's a really important thing to remember, right? We are the ones who are responsible as educators for bringing in topics, framing them in affirming ways. And of course inviting students responses to these topics but not putting it on students to educate us in their own experience. So I'll speak just to my experience with trauma as a students. So, sexual assault was discussed a lot in my classes in college because I was a gender and women's studies major and that is a really important component of having a female identity, right?

Or or a gender nonconforming identity in our society the way that it exists, right? And that's a very popular topic that would come up a lot and as a survivor of sexual assault, I was okay with that. In many cases, I actually felt like having those conversations in class and studying this topic, it felt validating to my experience. Like it was an important enough topic that other people were also interested in talking about it. They felt like it was a worthy thing to discuss and to talk about How do we support survivors? How do we end um you know, Entitlement and and what causes sexual assault right in this power dynamic and and all that stuff. It felt like a worthy topic to discuss in class and I felt like, okay that means my experiences are worthy of conversation. But in one class which was not a gender woman studies class, it was a non major class. We were shown a clip of a rape scene from a movie and when I shakily responded my emotions and the opinion that I shared were invalidated, Other students were allowed to say that what we watched was consensual with support from the professor and my attempts to discuss this club in written assignments at later points in the class were silenced because I was told we were done with that topic and we can't return to a former topic in a later piece of course.

This is just my personal experience and it's just around one topic that I happen to have personal experience with. But my takeaway from this set of experiences is that when I was given the space to respond with my full emotions in spaces where I was met with empathy and acceptance was actually very healing. It was validating that we were even talking about something that was important to me, where it became harmful for me was when I wasn't allowed to respond with emotion or even to respond at all. Once I had shared my initial one sentence reaction with the class and that's the difference for me as a facilitator as a teacher who's kind of having these conversations with students. We have to ask the question, how are we enabling students to respond if we're enabling students to respond as their full human selves, the full range of emotions, them or at least creating an environment where healing is possible or more likely than one in which we're shutting conversation down. I think that also refers to topics that are brought up that are not in a conversational lesson.

So I have two instances where I remember one was my first year, so my first year of teaching, a student had responded to an image that I put up and said, miss, take that down. And I thinking that I was teaching the content said, well it's really important that we look at this and you know, here's why and then I moved on and took the picture down. But it took me an extra few seconds to because of my own stuff rationalize like this is okay for me to show this image, even though clearly it was traumatic for my students and I totally messed up that one, right? That's something I still think about today. It's like, that probably hurt the relationship that I had with that student with the class probably with his ability to learn the rest of the day, um, that I didn't respond, but like, oh, of course I will take that down of course. That's traumatizing for you to see a picture like this. Um, in later years, I had students, I was showing a video and there was a scene that was disruptive for them and they just asked to, I'd set the class up with co constructed agreements where students would, you know, be able to share what they thought would be helpful for them if something traumatic came up or they just needed a break and, and needed to step out that they could just quickly, you know, ask can I just take a walk.

And so I had to students who had the same response to this video and they were able to take a walk. They were able to find someone to talk to that understood their experience because they had a similar experience in their past and they, you know, came back to class later and, you know, the next day, um, like, just let me know, you know, how, how they were doing. I just kind of did a very informal check in, I didn't want to dwell on it, but I did want to acknowledge, you know, this, clearly, there was something going on. The person they had talked to had had mentioned to me, um, you know, that they had spoken and it just, it was much more the students responded in a way that to me said that they felt much more affirmed they were like, it was, you know, something that bothered us, we were able to step out, we were able to talk to someone, We're good now. Thanks for giving us the space to process that we appreciate that you were showing it because we think the class should see this and and recognize the things that we've experienced.

Um, but we also needed that space and time for ourselves to to go be alone or to be with someone who understood and to be able to not be in the room while the rest of that scene was playing out totally makes sense. Um, and so I'm not saying I handled that situation perfectly by any means, but I think that was a really big learning moment for me, where I felt like I had an opportunity to redo something that I had done terribly the first time around. So again, that space that we hold, even outside of classes that are about discussion. Um, it's really important in just immediate student responses and being able to recognize those responses for what they are and respond appropriately or give them the freedom to choose how they would like to respond and support that decision. So, back to the greater good article. I just want to return to a few other quotes here. They say quote recalling personal experiences with racism may arouse post traumatic stress disorder symptoms which have been linked to experiences with racism for black and latino people. In addition to being distressing, discussing experiences with racism can be emotionally exhausting and quote, dr Thelma Bryant Davis later in the article also explains in a quote, not only do we have to educate others on our wounds, but then people want to regulate your emotions that you shouldn't be upset as you explain things that are upsetting like this is an outrage.

But if I look outraged, then that is deemed unacceptable. That I am the problem. People are more concerned about black people's anger than the things that were angry about that is exhausting and problematic. End quote. So, as educators, I really want to bring this together to kind of come up with some things to consider, right? We we should not place the burden to teach on students. Their traumatic experiences should not be our teachers. If students are willing to share something because they've been invited and we've created a space where they want to share. We absolutely can listen, but we have to not demand that students or other adults for that matter, regulate their emotional responses to traumatic topics and as facilitators, it's important that we are able to identify and interrupt and we'll get better at this as we, you know, do this more. What some would call microaggressions. What I think are really just aggressions if and when they should come up in a class discussion, right?

So with our responsibility to identify and interrupt those and if we can keep those things in mind and recognize that we're gonna get better as we do it more. I think it's more helpful. It does more good to bring about topics and show people they are worth talking about things related to their identity and their experiences are valued if they are traumatic, we value them because we recognize that there is a negative impact we want to heal the harm. This is something that we're committed to as a class and we want to stop that injustice from happening in the future and we are committed as a class to take action to prevent harm. And so these pieces I think are really critical if we keep in mind what we need to do as facilitators or teachers in a class setting or even adults in a setting where we're talking to colleagues or friends or family and recognizing the impact that having these conversations can have and that we need to allow people to respond in the way that they need to and so we think about what skills a discussion facilitators should have experts.

Again in this article, talked to us about what those are they say, quote a facilitator who understands the potential for trauma, who can pick up on microaggressions during the dialogue and who has done the self work. Remember it's a journey to recognize their own internal biases so that they don't transpose them onto the dialogue. The do no harm principle requires that organizations aren't swept into the momentum to just do something, but instead take the time to be thoughtful and committed to building anti racist organizations. Dialogue is likely to be part of this initiative, but organizations must do so with the full understanding of what they are asking their racial and ethnic minority employees to give and be equally committed to giving back. So I do wanna name here that they are saying right, we can't just be swept up in doing something and doing something haphazardly. But this is the same article that starts at the beginning to say the cautionary principle of first do no harm doesn't mean that organization should stop such dialogues right? But instead invites a pause for organizational education, introspection and commitment.

So they're not saying don't talk about this, They're saying be thoughtful, be intentional. And I think anyone who's asking the question really honestly about are we doing more harm than good and bringing up these topics for our students with the sub questions being like, you know, recognizing that I have to do all of this work, recognizing I'm going to learn as I go, recognizing all of these pieces and recognizing of course that bring up traumatic topics can be traumatizing to students if not done well, someone who already has all of these understandings in their mind and is committed to doing the work and doing it well in a way that promotes healing and not harm is going to be a person who is going to be thoughtful right and is already considering all the things that they should be thinking about. And so recognizing what they can do as facilitators, recognizing this is a lifelong journey, recognizing that our fear and our desire for perfection can inhibit forward progress and action as we're kind of waiting and planning and not implementing the students that students are, you know, having harm done by just not seeing their identities validated, We're not seeing their experiences.

Um you know, talked about one of the biggest things that I want to emphasize is that we will learn and get better as we go. And so Heidrick nickel is also an amazing educator and fellow podcaster. She uses the saying in an article about anti racism for educators that she frames at the start and the end of the article, she says, how do you eat an elephant, one small bite at a time. And so this idea of one small bite at a time, one step at a time, trying something out, being committed to justice recognizing will make a mistake recognizing we don't have all of the resources, the tools, the content knowledge that we will eventually learn and some, we eventually won't right because we can't possibly know it all that is important to keep in mind. And if we do nothing, we're continuing the harm that has historically been done. If we do something and we keep in mind all of these pieces that importance of the space that we cultivate the space to express and emotionally respond in the way that students need to, the recognition that their students and other people's trauma is not expected to educate us, right, and that we will make a mistake and we will respond with gratitude for someone pointing it out and do better the next time.

These are the important things to keep in mind, but it is better to start be thoughtful but start thanks for listening. Amazing educators. If you loved this episode, you can share it on social media and tag me at lindsey Beth alliance or leave a review of the show. So leaders like you will be more likely to find it until next time leaders continue to think big act brave and be your best self

50. Is Talking About Traumatic Topics Doing More Harm Than Good?
50. Is Talking About Traumatic Topics Doing More Harm Than Good?
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