I’m going to complain about work a little bit here, so I should start by saying that I have what I can only describe as the best job that anyone could ask for. But throughout my time in education, professional development and trainings have always rubbed me the wrong way. I’ve always found them to be both devoid of useful content while also operating as a kind of circle-jerk where educators stroke each other’s egos.
Over the course of this school year, the staff at my school has participated in a series of trainings on something called “Trauma-Informed Care.” Here’s the gist of it: Many students experience severe trauma at a very young age: chronic hunger, rape, abuse, neglect, etc. A child’s brain has no idea how to process these things, so it goes into overdrive and produces all kinds of hormones. Over time, these hormones have a drastic affect on the brain’s structure and chemistry. Because of this, many of the behaviors that students exhibit later in life are a result of physical damage to their brains as much as emotional. A teacher or social worker who is “trauma-informed” will be better able to recognize and respond to these behaviors than a teacher who isn’t, hence the training.
Unfortunately, even a topic like trauma-informed care – which treats the student as a victim of circumstance whose behavior is often times beyond their control – gets siphoned through the bullshit factory and ends up taking on a fundamentally conservative tone; one that manages to instead blame the students and their culture for their behavior. By the time it reaches our ears, the content of these trainings are injected with pop psychology terms like “growth mindset,” which is a fancy way to say that students are in fact making a conscious decision to have a negative mindset towards school. In this worldview, students’ behavior couldn’t possibly be the result of factors outside of their control such as crushing poverty or an educational system that’s actively trying to disenfranchise them. So why is it that a science-based, progressive theory around how students learn been transformed into into the same old conservative lecture on the value of personal responsibility?
First and foremost, there’s clearly a disconnect between the types of people who conduct trainings like this and those of us who are in the classroom every day. For obvious reasons, the kinds of people who leave the classroom to become administrators tend to be more conservative than those of us who stay in the classroom. And the longer they stay away from a classroom, the more conservative they become. As a particularly egregious example, the person charged with running our training session last week brought some of her own personal experience with trauma to the classroom. She talked about her daughter, who recently got in trouble at her small private (!) school for wearing nail polish. Her daughter had been called into the principal’s office, and she had come home very upset. That’s…. it. The person who was training us on how to be better educators values public education so much that she doesn’t deign to expose her child to it, and her understanding of trauma itself is so vacuous that she thinks that having a bad day qualifies. She’s not alone – a lot of administrators move out of the classroom because they resent the kids who attend public school, and couldn’t possibly take a moment out of their busy days to consider the baggage that students come into their classroom with. These views are fundamentally opposed the the very idea of trauma-informed care, and yet somehow the people who are conducting the trainings are able to hold these contradictions within themselves without spontaneously combusting and bursting into flames.
The other reason these trainings lose all of their meaning is because of their audience. When you’re presenting to a group of teachers, one of the easiest ways to kill time is to get us to talk about how difficult our jobs are. So instead of discussing responses to trauma that our students experience, we end up talking about “vicarious trauma” and “organizational trauma,” which are things that teachers experience when we have tough students or when we have administrators who don’t back us up… or something. We discussed these forms of supposed trauma far more than we discussed anything related to the students we work with. In this way we transform a discussion that is supposed to be about our students into a conversation about ourselves and the struggles that we face trying to educate them.
Finally, it’s hard for me to avoid the conclusion that there is a religious element that pervades professional development as a whole. This is true of all professions, including teachers. Let’s say you’re a classroom teacher who views yourself as Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society or Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds. Now let’s say that despite that belief, your day-to-day job involves a distinct lack of revelatory, life-changing moments for your students or for you. How do you maintain your fundamental belief in your transformative power as an educator? In much the same way that religious people go to church in order to maintain connection to a God they cannot see, educators go to conferences and trainings to ritualistically worship an idea of education that doesn’t exist in the real world. It’s why these trainings, year after year, all seem to come back to the same mantra – “We do good work, the students are the problem. We do good work, the students are the problem. We do good work, the students are the problem.” If you say that often enough, you’re likely to believe it, despite everyday evidence to the contrary.