Navigating Trauma and Nurturing Well-being: Finding Positive Ways Forward Together
“There are things known and things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.” (Aldous Huxley)
In many of our schools today, there are children and families whose life experiences press so deeply on the fabric of their being, that they are left raw and vulnerable, struggling to navigate the many facets of school and life itself. Amidst this raw emotion are teachers and leaders, who, together on a daily basis, attempt to figure out the best way to navigate through the trauma that families are experiencing or have experienced, and to find a positive way forward together. In this blog post I present two approaches that I hope you will find useful in helping you navigate with hope and a sense of positivity, the challenges of student trauma, and to find a way forward with lasting impact on your students.
In my journeys in education as a leader at different levels of a school district, I have worked with educators as individuals and in whole school settings as they struggled with ways to navigate the emotional well-being of students while trying to keep their own educator emotional well-being intact. This struggle is often due to the challenging dynamic that is created as the individuals (the parents or students who were going through personal trauma or had gone through a traumatic event or experience) interact or present themselves in a particular situation. Sometimes what is presented in moments of conflict could be described as severe misbehaviour. Other times what may emerge is a tirade or outburst of deep-seeded anger, and, more often than not, what comes across are outward expressions of mistrust and/or what feels like lack of respect displayed throughout these complex interactions. It is my sincere hope that you will be able to enhance emotional well being in your educational environments this year. Approaches that work to “calm the storm” are shared with you so that you may begin the school year building strong relationships that preserve the dignity of those involved and provide structures for improved success.
The first approach I would like to share is the cycle of conflict, shown in the graphic below. I have used this cycle countless times to constructively resolve conflict with adults and children who are struggling to find a place of understanding with one another.
- The upper half of the circle represents “where conflict resides”. Conflict can be towards another being, or conflict can reside within oneself.
- Within any situation there is a history, a story and a perspective of what transpired as an event. It is from these histories that we bring understanding to future events. We all bring to a situation our personality, our way of being, and, how we see things which includes our set of values and beliefs.
- The bottom half of the circle is where resolution is able to occur. When navigating conflict, your goal is to seek the bottom half of the circle.
- Entering into the conflict cycle (the upper half of the circle), means that one remains within the history, perpetually embroiled in the emotional state of that event, and, in conflict or disagreement around a set of values or beliefs. (Personality connects to how a person approaches or reacts in a situational event., which can include behaviours such as anxiousness, anger, timidness, bravado, aggression, fear,etc.)
- As human beings, we are drawn to the upper half of the circle. We do this:
- By dwelling in previous or old history;
- By attacking someone’s personality or criticizing our own personality;
- By holding on to a particular set of values or beliefs. Through these and other similar elements we reside in the midst of a conflict cycle. The language or actions used in the moments of conflict can become triggers that draw us up into the upper half of the circle, into the conflict cycle itself.
- The key to effectively using the knowledge of the conflict cycle is in seeking out what information from the history or the value or belief is being embodied within the other person’s actions or articulated through their words? What information is actually present and/or what information is missing or is needed? Deep listening is required and an ability to move fluidly between the emotional state that is nested in the upper half of the circle and the “neutral zone” found in the lower half of the circle–the place where resolution can occur.
- In order to achieve resolution, it is critical to determine why this information is important to know, and co-determine what actions or structures are necessary in order to move beyond the current state and move towards an improved, desired state.
- When this cycle is understood and effectively implemented, emotions are de-escalated and all individuals feel listened to, understood and respected throughout the process.
The second approach I would like to share is the Four Directions of Leadership, shown in the graphic below. Roy Henry Vickers, a Tsimshian Elder, Hereditary Chief, Healer and world renowned artist shared this powerful knowledge with me while we collaborated in leadership work together. The Four Directions of Leadership can be used to understand where you are stuck, or where a person may be having challenges as a result of the trauma they may be trying to navigate. The Four Directions, which embodies the ways of the Teacher, Healer, Visionary, and Warrior/Leader, provides a wonderful metaphor for how we might successfully navigate our way towards becoming more whole and centered in our structures and approaches within our educational institutions, in “the place called school” (Goodlad, 1984).
Using the Four Directions as a lens to think through a situation or challenging event can help determine what action is necessary to move forward productively and with positivity. The Four Directions invites you to contemplate what you are seeing or feeling in moments of conflict or uncertainty:
The way of the Teacher:
- Is what I am seeing or feeling about a need for knowledge?
The way of the Healer:
- Is what I am seeing or feeling about emotion that needs to be processed?
The way of the Visionary:
- Is what I am seeing or feeling about finding a new vision for one’s self?
The way of the Warrior Leader:
- Is what I am seeing or feeling about how to lead oneself and others in a new way?
The following excerpt is an extract from my thesis, Optimizing Innovation in Praxis, and presents the teachings as shared by Roy Henry Vickers. As you read these powerful words, I invite you to consider how knowing this might help you as you navigate through the trauma that students and their families bring to their journeys as they move through our schools and educational systems.
“I look to the east, where the sun rises each day and I give thanks for the new day and all the lessons that I have to learn, for this is the way of the Teacher. I look to the south, the way of the Healer, and I give thanks for my healing journey in this world. As a Teacher and a Healer, I look to the west where the sun goes down and I realize that even in the darkness, I can see, because we human beings have been given this incredible ability to have vision that is beyond our eyes. And so, I take my vision as a Visionary, and as a Healer and a Teacher, and I look to the north, the way of the Warrior, and I ask for the courage to stand in the strength and the truth and the beauty of my ancestors (Vickers, 2011).”
The following is what I have come to understand about the Four Directions through my ongoing conversations and interactions with Roy Henry Vickers.
“The way of the Teacher is about listening, learning and growing. It is about a continuous journey of learning and not about a destination or a place of arrival. It is about being open to new possibilities and potential. It is about taking risks, learning from mistakes and failures and constructing new paths to explore. It is about expanding understanding, knowledge building and co-construction of learning.
“The way of the Healer is about learning to process all of our emotions, to be centered in our feelings. The way of the Healer is about nurturing, caring, guiding, supporting, and ultimately, moving out of a space of hurt, anguish and despair into a space of renewal. It is the way of emotions and a place where we must seek to understand and process these emotions if we are to heal. It is also about joy, love and hope because of new beginnings and connections made from the learning we have undergone in the process. It is about the relationships we foster and grow as we work together for a common purpose. We do not move out of a place of pain (hurt/despair) because we stay with the emotions, we embrace and process the emotions in order to move forward without despair. The way of the Healer is about paying attention to matters of the heart, the emotions of pain, joy, anger, guilt, fear, shame, and loneliness. We are given gifts of healing, strength, making amends, wisdom, spirituality, and reaching out when we process the emotions.
“The way of the Visionary is about seeing beyond what is, to be open to possibilities and to intuition, to embrace wide-awakeness (Greene) as we strive to move forward. It is about artful-mindedness (Steffensen, 2012) and embracing a forward thinking mindset. It is about knowing or being in touch with one’s self and with others, and requires using this knowledge in ways that supports creative and innovative ways of being. The Visionary is able to see clearly with the healing and the knowledge, to be aware of the journey at hand and ahead. The way of the Visionary is about embodying the creative process, ignited by inspiration or challenge resulting in the emergence of something quite innovative or possibly new. The way of the Visionary is about using our ability to see without our physical eyes, to be aware of the images that come to mind everyday.
“The way of the Warrior/Leader is about speaking truths, not being afraid to take a stand, to take risks and to seek the changes necessary to move beyond a current reality. It is a place of potential and possibility joined by action. It is a place of leadership that ignites the passion in self and in others, because it is clear, pure and true. It is about enacting and being the change. The way of the Warrior/Leader is about standing in the strength, truth, and beauty of who you are and leading in a good way. “ (Steffensen, 2012)
It is my hope that understanding both of the approaches, the conflict cycle and the Four Directions of Leadership, as shared in this blog post, will lead you toward new insights of your own and will continue to assist you in your work as teachers and leaders. As we begin a new school year, may this knowledge guide you well in the work you do with families, as you strive to figure out together, the best way to navigate through the trauma they have faced and may yet face in the paths ahead of them through school and in life. Have a great year with your students and continue make a lasting difference in their lives.
“When healing is added to knowledge we are able to see ourselves clearly and the path set before us to reach for our dream… to know our purpose.” (RH Vickers, Tsimshian artist, Hereditary Chief and Elder)
About Karen Steffensen
Collaborator in system and organizational change, educational leader and arts educator for over 30 years within three Canadian provinces. Passionate about Leadership, Innovation & Creativity in and through the Arts. Career highlights include Student Achievement Officer with Ontario’s Ministry of Education, Assistant Superintendent of Schools with Surrey School District, B.C., Curriculum Consultant with the York Region District School Board, and Course Director for York University.