Why It's So Hard to Understand our Students and Help Them

Why It's So Hard to Understand our Students and Help Them

Karen Gross 18/12/2018 5

Kids are deeply affected by acts of teachers --- and the teachers never know about what happened. I used to say as a college president that, with respect to students, you could do 99 out of 100 things right but the 1 thing that is wrong or bothersome or bad has a seemingly out-sized effect; in others words, we need to be vastly more aware not just of big systemic change but we need to pay attention to smaller words and deeds and acts. Both are important to be sure. But, we tend to focus on the BIG changes and acts; that's the American Way. Think Big.

An example from outside education: Ponder one bad tweet, one poorly worded tweet, one misguided tweet. It can have a myriad of consequences -- enormous ones. And, I am not talking here about an overly nasty and discriminatory tweet a la Rosanne Barr. I mean tweets that miss because the words were not chosen carefully and thoughtfully. Emails can leave a bad taste too -- in terms of tone and content. Texts too. Remember the recent college president who emailed students after the death of one student and complained in that very email about student traditions that put folks at risk. That email was NOT an ideal teachable moment to say the least. Remember the Halloween email at Yale?

Here is another issue: total unawareness of the world in which we live, and the lives of children we are now and in the future teaching. See Bibliography below. To relate to this: Note how hard it is to explain actual childbirth if one has not had a child oneself. One can get a sense; one can see a movie; one can watch it with one's partner or spouse. It is another thing to experience it in one's body and mind. One can "feel" childbirth.

I want to relate this childbirth example to the context of trauma, toxic stress and anxiety.

I was at a meeting recently where there was a sharing of information on and conversations about ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experience scores) with the gathered group. The goal was to share the neurobiology and neurochemistry that accompanies trauma and toxic stress and affects children in a myriad of ways. It has health consequences and educational consequences. Poorer health, poorer grades, poorer progression through high school, shorter life span. The power of trauma and stress -- untreated -- is remarkable. And, we have strategies to help kids who are experiencing high levels of toxicity in their young lives. The meeting was designed to raise awareness and offer strategies to improve educational outcomes for our young students.

At the event, people were asked if they wanted to fill out the 10 question ACE test and put their score only and anonymously in a bucket. Of the 75 in attendance, maybe 55 or so completed the task. The test is scored 1-- 10. Many children have one or two ticks. Anything over 4 places a student at real risk. A substantial number of children -- of all ages and races and genders and ethnicity -- have scores in excess of 3.

The idea of the exercise was to show the audience that they likely had high scores without knowing it and could, then, better relate to the whole set of issues related to trauma and how to help children navigate its waters. Trauma is never disappearing; but, we can learn to manage it. Here's what happened. Of the respondents, many had scores of ZERO or ONE! The average of the audience was well under two. For the record and I have released this elsewhere in public, I have a score of 7. And, I submitted that score into the bucket.

If teachers have low low scores, if administrators have low low scores, if pediatricians have low low scores, it is way harder for them to understand and appreciate what children with high high scores are experiencing or have experienced. In fact, while we don't need teachers who have all been traumatized, we do need teachers and administrators and pediatricians who understand trauma and how to respond it. Reciprocity, plasticity, mindfulness are all aspects of remediation (a word I dislike) as is listening well, building self-esteem and recognizing common warning signs. We need to operate from a strength-based not deficit- based model. (I term this lasticity -- not grit or resilience.)

Here was an audience with an average ACE score of under 2. That tells me that it is no wonder they were shocked by the challenges facing schools in low income neighborhoods. That tells me that it is no wonder they can't fully appreciate the difficulty of making change. That tells me that it is no wonder their suggestions are simplistic and non-nuanced.

I am glad folks are learning about ACEs. As someone with a high score, I was stunned actually -- a tad unnerved -- that those working to help students (those outside not within schools) did not understand the students of today and tomorrow. One can offer explanations. One can show charts. One can read books. One can offer ideas. One can ask for donations of monies. One can lament. All of that is not enough, as important as knowledge is. And, absent awareness, change is tough sledding.

But, it is this absence of understanding and personal experience that enables people to make unconscious statements, decisions, actions and tweets. Folks are simply unaware. Like childbirth, it needs to be experienced. And, if one is without a child (female or male), then one needs to learn from someone who has given birth.

In other words, our best teachers are those who have a keen awareness of who their students are. The challenges are before us. Time to take up that challenge.

Short bibliography: The Deepest Well by Nadine Burke Harris; Breakaway Learners by Karen Gross; It's Not About Grit by Steven Goodman and You Can't Be What You Can't See by Milbrey W. McLaughlin.

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  • Walker McCall

    Effective teachers recognise the value of understanding their students.

  • Paul O'Hanlon

    The more thoroughly instructors understand the differences, the better chance they have of meeting the diverse learning needs of all of their students.

  • Rebecca Tipler

    Most student views issues as black or white, right or wrong, and ‘them’ or ‘us’........

  • Zak Griffiths

    Dynamic learning environments are built on strong relationships between teachers and students.

  • Nathan Brown

    Brillant read

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Karen Gross

Higher Education Expert

Karen is an educator and an author. Prior to becoming a college president, she was a tenured law professor for two plus decades. Her academic areas of expertise include trauma, toxic stress, consumer finance, overindebtedness and asset building in low income communities. She currently serves as Senior Counsel at Finn Partners Company. From 2011 to 2013, She served (part and full time) as Senior Policy Advisor to the US Department of Education in Washington, DC. She was the Department's representative on the interagency task force charged with redesigning the transition assistance program for returning service members and their families. From 2006 to 2014, she was President of Southern Vermont College, a small, private, affordable, four-year college located in Bennington, VT. In Spring 2016, she was a visiting faculty member at Bennington College in VT. She also teaches part-time st Molly Stark Elementary School, also in Vt. She is also an Affiliate of the Penn Center for MSIs. She is the author of adult and children’s books, the most recent of which are titled Breakaway Learners (adult) and  Lucy’s Dragon Quest. Karen holds a bachelor degree in English and Spanish from Smith College and Juris Doctor degree (JD) in Law from Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law.

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