Reopening Schools Post Disaster
America’s schools face unprecedented natural and human-made disasters. Read how trauma-informed educators are at the forefront of recovery.
I recently had an opportunity to present at the Attachment and Trauma Network’s Creating Trauma-Sensitive Schools Conference held in Washington, D.C. Before launching into the topic of my session, I want to share this observation: The conference as a whole was absolutely wonderful, enriching and enlightening. It was a gathering of truly amazing 1,200 people dedicated to improving the lives of the students they serve day-in and day-out.
Disaster affects us all — directly and vicariously.
My topic was strategies for reopening schools all across the entire educational pipeline following a natural or human-made disaster — from hurricanes to floods to shootings, and yes, even events such as the Kavanaugh hearings. It is a topic on which I have worked, as in hands-on. Given the rise in disasters and the newfound interest in and focus on trauma, it is a topic that is not going away. Disasters affect us all — directly and vicariously.
I had prepared a set of strategies to share — strategies that can inform the reopening of institutions and better allow a school to get up and running again in a way that fosters student success and enables a processing of the trauma that has occurred. These are strategies that, among other goals, lower the autonomic nervous system response to traumatic situations.
I never suggest that schools or colleges “bounce back,” as that term fails to recognize that trauma changes us forever. Forever. Yes, institutions and the individuals housed within it can find ways to navigate forward and to experience positive outcomes following disasters. But, make no mistake about this: traumas do not stay hidden and the assumption that we can return to where we were ex-ante is simply wrong.
We are more beautiful for being broken.
The strategies I shared started with Kintsugi pottery. I brought along a piece from my own collection. An image of it appears in my book, Breakaway Learners. This type of pottery reflects a Japanese tradition where broken pots (plates and bowls and cups and saucers) are repaired with gold, rather than discarded. And, in addition to remarkably beautiful repaired works of art, the pottery reflects that we are more beautiful for being broken. To repeat: we are more beautiful for being broken.
I suggested placing the pottery around a school where a disaster had occurred, especially in the office of the principal or the President. The idea here is to message powerfully through an object without having to do or say anything except to explain the Kintsugi philosophy. One teacher attending the workshop suggested that she was actually going to have her students create Kintsugi pots — first breaking a pot and then repairing it. What a powerful exercise she suggested. And, it is engaging students in a truly meaningful and lasting way.
I also suggested activities that engage the senses as a way of breaking into the autonomic response. For example, I had attendees trace their own hands with a feather, which they kept and I hope will reuse, including for self-care. I had them outline their dominant hand with their non-dominant hand and then color or write in the empty created hand outline with their non-dominant hand. Had I had candles, I would have lit them to show the value of scents to reroute our circuits.
Picking up on the use of the senses, one attendee suggested the creation of a garden where students, faculty and staff could get their hands dirty — literally. What a terrific way to both create something new and good — food — while rerouting our brain responses. I wish I had remembered to mention fidgets and worry stones — other tactile items that can help students.
Many of those in attendance shared their own experiences with similar strategies. Others shared that they wished they had had these strategies when disasters occurred in their institutions and raised the question of why we, as educators, are not more knowledgeable about trauma and trauma-sensitive approaches. Still others, those where there was a recent disaster, hoped to take the ideas back to their home institutions. The strategies would have a life across our institutions in need.
I also shared the importance of having trauma-trained educators and psychological providers available to everyone to help institutions struck by disaster. I listened as attendees shared how badly outsiders had done in these situations. More than one attendee reported that they actually made matters worse. They heightened, not lessened, tension; in some instances, their help was actually rejected. My own experiences were quite different but I suggested that insiders be the first point of contact for students — not outsiders. Trust is threatened when there is trauma and best to have outsiders recommended by or endorsed by insiders.
Trauma is not short-lived. Recovery isn’t easy or fast.
But, with all the strategies, I actually think the most powerful message for attendees is that trauma is not short-lived and recovery is neither easy nor fast. Indeed, we want speedy recovery. We want to move beyond to avoid the memories. But, the reality is that if we don’t process trauma, it lingers and its effects are profoundly negative. What’s more, the speed of processing depends on the person.
For some, a new trauma activates an older trauma, adding to the depth of the harm and the struggle to regain balance. And, there is no printed timetable for trauma or disaster recovery. It lingers; it reappears. Trauma is powerful. The expectation that we reopen a school and three weeks or three months later, all is well? Nope. It doesn’t work like that.
I have done many workshops over my professional life of four decades. I have to say that this particular session — and its attendees — was perhaps the most powerful and impactful of all. I am not sure I can put my finger on why. I know as a presenter that sometimes I am better than at other times. Teachers and actors know this too. We are more effective some days than others. But, there was something in the air, or the room, or the time, or maybe even the dynamics that made the session something remarkable and organic.
For all this I am deeply grateful, and want to thank those who attended. The insights they provided and their willingness to engage — with intensity — affected me and their suggestions will now be incorporated, with attribution but no names, into my work both in presenting and with working in schools when disaster strikes. Their ideas then can help many others. That’s about as good an outcome as one can have. For real.