Today on the podcast we’re joined by Arlène Casimir and Alex Venet as they discuss the ethos of trauma informed teaching practices. They explore the community building power of trauma informed teaching, common misunderstandings, and how to start the work with ourselves. Both Arlène and Alex are educators and authors with vast backgrounds in healing-centered education. They recently co-wrote a piece called Slowing Down for Ourselves and Our Students on the Heinemann Blog, which we invite you to read.
Arlene and Alex began their conversation by examining the value and necessity of slowing down…
Below is a transcript of this episode.
Arlène: Hi, Alex. I'm so excited to be here and talk with you.
Alex: I'm excited to talk with you as well. I always love when we talk, and it was fun writing with you. What made you interested in writing about slowing down together?
Arlène: Well, I think about the piece that we did together in the Change the World: The Social Plan Book for Change. And I was just thinking about that piece and just so many things that we've done together in this work and how our paths crossed pre-pandemic and how we were being invited to rise to the occasion, to use the wisdom and the knowledge and research from my experiences to support educators. And I thought, "This is exactly who I want to work with. This is exactly who I want to talk with." And I think about that piece that we did where we talked about we're all in the same storm, but we're not in the same boat and so it's important for us to feel our feelings and to really consider self-preservation.
And I thought, "We could take this a little further by considering slowing down." And I just remember sitting in my kitchen one day actually slowing down, having tea as I was talking to you, and we just started sharing stories about what we were integrating from our previous experiences as trauma-informed teachers to the current times that we're existing in now, and slowing down seemed like the perfect way to invite teachers and educators to do the same thing. It seemed like the lesson that we had both learned in our respective roles as teachers.
Alex: And I think in that... the piece you're referring to is in the plan book called Planning to Change the World. And I remember you saying this sentence about, "Feeling is healing," and I think that that's part of the seeds for this idea of slowing down is you can't heal from trauma while you're still rushing through the experience of it.
And something I really value about you and something that I learned from you is that I know you consider yourself and name yourself as a healer. And for me, in my background in trauma-informed practice, I often am really focused on the trauma part and not the healing part. And I think part of that is a function of there's an urgency in trauma-informed work, right, because so many students and so many teachers are hurting. And in my work, at least, I tend to focus on, "Let's look at that hurt and let's make sure we understand how to show up for it and be responsive to it and prevent it and all that kind of stuff." But I don't always focus as much on the healing piece of trauma-informed practice, and something I really have learned from you is how integral that is.
And so to me, slowing down is almost that first step that you have to do in order to access healing practices. And I think why I wanted to write about it was it's really hard for me. And so I felt like almost by us talking about it and writing about it, it forced me to do the thing that we were suggesting that other people do. And so it felt almost like a nice embodied writing practice in that way.
Arlène: Thank you for sharing that. I mean, I think one of the interesting things about healing is that people don't tell you that sometimes the healing hurts more than the trauma. It hurts more than the blow itself, right? And when I think about healing, there's so much slowing down involved with that, right? When you have an injury, and you have to sit with it. And so many of us are suffering from the emotional, mental, and spiritual injuries of these times.
And I feel like I've been spending this whole entire pandemic healing, but what's really powerful about this healing process is something that Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings said to me when I said, "I don't know if I could go on." She said, "We're always healing because we're always acquiring wounds." And so the [inaudible] kid in me said, "So we're out here like Wolverine?" That was [crosstalk] in me, just seeing us as some form of X-Men that are just, or I was seeing myself as a womxn with an X and replacing the E for an X and thinking, "I'm always healing. It'll come back."
But more seriously, I think healing is such a process that involves transforming the trauma, transmuting the trauma, and finding ways to integrate it, whether it's that process of us sitting down to actually slow down and... right, about slowing down, knowing what's different about us? We're in the pandemic with everyone else.
The only thing that's different is that we've been thinking about this trauma before the pandemic. We were thinking about trauma-informed teaching before it was a buzzword. That's what's different about us. So we were doing that inner work. And I think the healing work is something that we can all think about.
And it's not... I don't see it as a progression, if that makes sense? I'm more so seeing it like some teachers are going to school and then having to go back and teach virtually, going to school, and to me that's the trauma and the healing. It's like, "How do I re-build community with kids when they are present? How do I go back home and set up the room that I want to work in around my family?"
That's so traumatic. And there's this healing process that has to happen to even be able to show up for yourself and for others as you do that. And I just think about all the ways we are navigating trauma and healing at these times.
And I've learned so much from you as well. And I've learned so much about the way that we can not only educate people about the psychological implications of trauma on educators as well as the ways that we as educators cause harm to our students and how to be more equitable in our trauma-informed instruction. I've learned a lot about how you're teaching that to people, and I have so much respect for the ways that you are going about that work. And it just makes me think as we continue this work, I am really trying to bring in that piece of healing and have us think about healing in trauma-responsive work. To be responsive to trauma is to heal, is a commitment to heal, a commitment to restore one's wholeness, a commitment to reject being broken.
And it's... anyway, you were about to say something.
Alex: I'm excited to read in the transcript what you just said because that was deep, and I liked it. And that being trauma-responsive is, "A commitment to reject being broken?" Is that what you just... that was beautiful.
What you're saying about healing makes me think about, in the piece we wrote, we quoted Tricia Hersey who is the Nap Bishop of the Nap Ministry. And she advocates rest as a form of healing and as a form of pushing back against oppressive systems. And what you're saying about healing and trauma makes me think of something that she shared recently on social media about the power of holding two different truths at the same time, and that when we can hold two different truths at the same time can be transformative.
And it makes me think about what you're saying with healing because as Dr. Ladson-Billings was saying to you, it's not that you experienced trauma and then the trauma stops and then you start your healing and then you do healing A to Z and then you're done. It's that you're constantly at some part of healing, and you're also constantly, maybe not always, but often are at some point of interaction with trauma. And so they exist at the same time. The pain and the healing are two sides of a coin that you're always holding.
And I think that part of why I sometimes felt resistant to talking about healing in trauma-informed education was that it felt like this really personal thing for students, and I worried about boundaries, and I worried about teachers seeing themselves as saviors. And so I didn't want to say, "We can help students heal" because I felt like that would make things too muddy. But if you look at trauma and healing as really two aspects of the same... I don't know, just the same mess of being a person, then healing practices are part of teaching because all of the mess of being a person as part of teaching. So I just love that idea of integrating healing with our full understanding of being trauma responsive.
I love that you mentioned superheroes and healing and slowing down because something I've been thinking a lot about is harnessing, slowing down as a super power, and I've been saying it's our sloth magic. I've been really embracing the imagery of the sloths as slow intentional movements, and I've been appreciating that as just a visual to ground me when I need to slow down. I'm wondering what do you do when you realize you need to slow down? How do you pull yourself out of the rush when you need to slow down?
Arlène: Well, I love that you include imagery because that is a part of the work. I think we could certainly bring imagery into it, and I try to write about that in my work and in my book to share strategies with teachers. That is very Yungian, to use imagery as a way to embrace what the subconscious is trying to tell us about our experience. So even imagining the sloth and like how the sloth moves and when the sloth moves that way, that is a part of that inner work cultivating your inner life. That's very restorative and healing. So for me, when I'm thinking about the type of images that I evoke to really step into slowing down, the snake is what comes up for me because I think about the pain that a snake might feel from shedding its skin, but the necessity of that process and how it emerges, how a snake moves slow, and it emerges with this new skin.
That is a transformative process. So when I have to heal, I turn to the snake as my image. I grew up terrified of snakes, and somehow that's the image that guides me where I feel this regeneration that's happening that's letting go. It's a very healing process for me to imagine that level of transformation, and the necessary slowing down that has to take place for that to happen is what comes up for me. So when I think about ways in Brooklyn, New York that we could invite children to learn nonfiction and consider how to integrate nature into our work, which nature we know is very healing, children are very connected to animals. Children are very connected studying animals and which ones they feel connected to, and how we could support them with that and movement and breath work.
So I think there's so much healing to be done just by thinking about, which animal comes to mind for you when you think about slowing down and what are the traits of that animal and how does that animal slow down? That in itself is a healing practice to go through that because it taps into our subconscious and it allows us to go into our inner well to find within us what we need to heal because a sloth works for you, but a snake resonates with me, but that may not be what resonates with someone else. Someone else might see slowing down in a different way. So I think evoking images and symbols to connect with our inner selves and cultivate our inner lives is a powerful practice for healing like in these times.
Alex: I love that, and I love the idea of doing activities like that with students because something we wrote about together is that when you are so rushed, you can't even notice what it is that you need. It makes me think about, I think a lot of teachers are excited about teaching students social emotional strategies, or self-regulation strategies, mindfulness, stretching. Things you can do with your body. But to even notice that you need to slow down, you have to have... It's almost ironic. You have to slow down in order to know you need to slow down in a way.
But I like the idea of inviting people to think about things like symbols and imagery, or to do just simple checking in for 30 seconds with yourself so that you can then even notice what you need rather than, "Hey, try this strategy," when it may not be what works for you in that moment. So I love the idea of inviting students into that process to find something that works for them. Also, I'm now just picturing that we can make some awesome t-shirts with a snake and a sloth on them or something.
Arlène: I love it. I love it. Yes, we could. We can make some awesome images. I hear you saying that and for me, I think what it really is is the intention and depth around the way we do this work with children and with ourselves, right? It's not checking off a box like, "Oh, it's 5:00 PM. I'm going to slow down now." That's not how it works. Usually, you need to slow down because you feel like you can't, and it's like that irony that you just... When you need to slow down is the time where you feel like if you slow down, everything's going to fall apart. I think that's the hardest thing to grapple with is the complexity of it, and also the depth of doing this work with kids and with ourselves and carrying that metaphor.
It's not like, "Hey, welcome in morning meeting. We're going to pick the animal today and good luck. Tomorrow, we'll do a new activity." That's not how it is. It's carrying the metaphor through in the ways that when we teach children about mentor texts, we constantly refer back to those stories. We constantly think about, how did that character navigate this issue and what are we learning about that character? And what was that office intention and how will we carry this work forward in our own work? How will we write with these kinds of intentions? How will we read with this critical lens? So what I'm saying is that we can invite people to do that with with their internal landscape, and we can invite them to share the content of it or the process of it. But that would be very difficult to do if we don't do it for ourselves first.
Alex: Yes. That inner work that I know is such a focus of your work, that inner life of teachers is essential. I'm making a connection here too, with a lot of times in trauma informed education, people talk about building up children's self-concept, their self-esteem. Something we talked about in our piece together was that slowing down is also political because the system that we're in is trying to get us to rush to profit off of our labor. Oftentimes, we are being asked to do more than we actually healthily can. When we say, "No," there are very real consequences for people. So slowing down is sometimes this really political and material choice to say, "No, I'm going to resist this environment that you are trying to force me into."
So for kids as well, we can say we want them to slow down, but if we're also giving them a participation grade every day and, "You only get your 10 points today if you participate six times," or, "You're only going to pass this class if you produce X amount of work," or "Your value here is contingent upon how much you are putting out there, producing all of that," then are we actually saying it's okay to slow down? So to me, when I hear in trauma trauma-informed education, building up kids' sense of themselves, part of that is an identity of themselves as an autonomous person with agency who can resist unjust conditions and who feel empowered to say, "No," and feel empowered to actually slow down because slowing down isn't just taking breasts. Slowing down also means, "Hey, I hear that request you're making of me and no, I'm not going to do it." That, I think, is much harder for people to grapple with than just the idea of taking five minutes for some yoga poses.
Arlène: Absolutely, because it's the integrity of it that could be challenging because it's a commitment to one's own well-being. It's a commitment to your humanity and that of your students in a system that devalues our humanity. That's a revolutionary act to say, "I choose our humanity." It really is grounded in equity and social justice to slow down and to deliberately make room for your children, students to be all of who they are. It's sort of like what we wrote in the Change the World plan book. You can do great things, even when you're sad, but you shouldn't have to keep that sadness to yourself or leave the feelings at the door. It's like those scary Pinterest and Instagram lessons, you see, it's like, oh, we got this paper bag and everybody threw their problems in it. And we hung it out the door. And it's like, that is so traumatizing.
Alex: Well, it's that both/and that we were talking about, of celebrating... Something you and I have connected on before is that we've had hard times and grief over the past couple of years. And yet, you and I have both done a lot of awesome stuff in the past couple of years, too. And it's holding that thing of I did this well. I was sad, I accomplished while I was sad, and sometimes I accomplished because I was sad and because I allowed myself to feel. And so it's that thing of saying you don't have to toss your problem in the paper bag and throw it away. You can come with your whole self and that's all welcome here.
Arlène: Exactly. And in order for us to be able to do that for kids, as we have learned in our own research and practice, you have to give yourself that grace. And I think that's the big lesson for everyone, is giving ourselves grace so that we could give students grace. And that's a huge part of just slowing down.
Alex: I've been really struck by teacher's reflections when they do allow themselves to give themselves that same care that they give to their students. You and I have been co-facilitating a community for teachers along with our friends, Rhiannon, Kim and Addison Twain. And it's a gathering where we come together once a month and we talk about caring for ourselves and caring for our students. And the last couple of times, I've been really noticing that just the act of taking an hour and a half on a Sunday afternoon, just for themselves, to come together in community. Just that act of setting aside that time to slow down has been really powerful. And I know it's even powerful for me as a facilitator, as well.
I feel like I read one time that just the act of showing up to your therapy appointment, regardless of what you talked about, supported your mental health. And it makes me think of slowing down because it's that act of choosing to take the time, regardless of even what you do at the time, but just the choice that you made to show up for yourself is so powerful.
Arlène: So glad that you brought that up, that you brought up nurturing the nurturers, because that is the question. Who takes care of the caretakers? How will teachers ever be able to be there for their students if no one's there for them? I mean, we come from school systems where you never learned self self-love. I mean, maybe we might read about narcissists and how you shouldn't look in the mirror too long, I mean, in the water too long, you just might fall in and drown at the obsession with your own reflection. But we're talking about real self-love that allows you to honor your feelings, respect your boundaries.
Be honest with yourself about what you're feeling. Show up for yourself. Show up for your passions, your dreams, no matter how difficult and challenging life is. To believe in yourself, to be determined, to turn your wounds into wisdom. These are the kinds of things that are not being taught. And these are the kinds of things that actually make the greatest human stories that we're studying in biographies. That's why we read biographies and autobiographies. It's like, how did you do it? How did you overcome all of those obstacles? How did you care for yourself, despite the odds?
Alex: You're making me think of how in English class you look at man versus man, man versus nature, man versus self. You study the types of conflict, but you don't study the types of love, right? Or relationships, or look for that caring within texts. And it just really, that gets to me at the heart of being trauma informed, is making room for all of that human experience, the bad stuff and the good stuff. And slowing down allows you to hold that complexity, right? Like if you're rushing, then you don't have room for complexity. All you have room for is stuff that's really clear, that's black or white that has predefined boundaries and bullet points. And slowing down is what allows you to hold the messiness.
Arlène: And it's what allows you to allow your classroom to be a site for healing, because the trauma isn't going away for a long time. We had just begun. And anyone who has been in crisis, people in New Orleans are still feeling the effects of Katrina. The trauma is everlasting. So what do you do? And what I've learned is that all indigenous cultures, even in black culture, what do we know about black people? They have always been healing. Since they came over here, those of them who came through the mid-Atlantic slave trade, how else would they survive the atrocity of becoming enslaved and to exist as a people? They're experts in healing.
And so I just feel like having classrooms of sites for healing, having spaces where we can continue to heal and studying the ways that different groups of people have survived atrocities and have paid attention to the emerging story of their life in surviving that atrocity, and the ways that it continues to impact them for generations. Like the healing isn't new. The trauma isn't new, it just takes different forms. I just think that we have our work cut out for us, but there's no better institution than education to do this work, because we have children from the tender age of four up until they're eighteen. And we don't have enough therapists, so cultivating our capacity to hold healing spaces is one of the most equitable things that we could do for this generation.
Alex: And not only do we have kids from those ages, but we have kids in communities, right? Kids are all together in school, even when we're online, we're in groups. And I think so many of those stories of resistance that you're talking about come about through solidarity and collectivism and people working together. And so when people talk about, we'll build a learning community, do collaborative learning, those are really effective for academics, and they're really effective as healing practices and really seeing how building a community of care supports all of what you're talking about. It supports a school being a healing place. And I think too, I was saying before that I sometimes worry about boundaries and oh, are teachers going to feel like they're saviors if they talk about healing, but you don't ever have to unpack somebody's individual story of trauma in order to have a healing environment.
And I think about moments that have felt healing to me even though I wasn't actually talking about what was wrong, and that could be cooking a meal for someone that I love or with someone that I love. Or it could be sitting with someone and laughing about nothing. Or it could be getting really immersed in a project. And all of those things can be really healing because they all slow us down, right? They let us exist in the present moment, but they let us come out of the stress and come out of the rush. And so I think teachers don't need to feel like they have to be therapists in order to provide those moments. And these things that we've been talking about, about finding these symbols or imagery that are powerful or looking at the lineage of resistance and healing in your community, those are all things that you can do without being a therapist and what you can do just in your role as a teacher.
Arlène: Absolutely. And what I would add to that, and yes/and that, is in order to be able to create those building a community of care, building a community of love, you actually have to embrace your own humanity. That's the big piece. And so I think when we think about the desire to be a savior is a lack of humility, in my opinion. It's a lack of humility because you're in a pandemic, too. Who are you saving? And that's what I learned in New Orleans. I was just like, savior, I don't even know how any of us are doing this. And my teaching journey became a healing process because of that. And it was a parallel healing process. Like they're healing, I'm healing. And I'm healing from wounds I didn't even know I had.
For many of us, this pandemic is bringing up so much stuff from our childhood. It's bringing up so much stuff from our family lineage. It's bringing up things in our relationships, and that's where we slow down, and look at it, and witness it so that we are not dissociating with busy work, and all the other things that distract us from ourselves, and then we won't encourage children to do that as well in an effort to pretend that we are helping them reach this higher ideal, this pursuit of excellence and happiness. It's like, we're all hoping to be able to achieve our hopes, and dreams, and goals. We're all hoping to survive this. That is the ultimate goal. But instead of the end goal, I think it's the how.
How are we going about this process? How are we living in this moment? I think about during this pandemic, I went through something really traumatic. I think about how all that mattered to me was being able to show up with a friend for a writing appointment weekly, and that was an anchor for me. That didn't mean that in those writing appointments that we had to talk about... It wasn't therapy. It was a writing appointment and sometimes I sat there and wrote through my tears. I wrote through my anger, but I showed up, and I wrote.
I think about those moments where we want to save children. It's as if we want to shelter them from the pain, and I think what this pandemic has done has exposed us all to our vulnerability as human beings, and has made us realize that none of us have ever lived through a pandemic, let alone as teachers and none of us know what it's like to be a child learning in a pandemic, and so that should allow us to have humility and ask ourselves, what can the children teach us? Because that's the healing, when we realize everyone is a teacher and everyone is a student. We have a lot to learn from how the children are surviving this moment. When you shift to that way of seeing things, you realize, I'm as much of a student as they are teachers. How could I then be a savior to anyone?
Alex: Well, and what you're saying too is that being a savior, it lacks humility, but it also denies us a piece of our humanity. It is shutting off the part of us that needs help and needs to be cared for, and needs to break down that dichotomy of the healer versus the person needing healing, and so if you take that both and the holding two truths together, then you say, "My students are healers, and they also need healing, and I am a healer, and I also need healing."
But I think that's really scary. I think it's scary. I know for me, sometimes, you were talking about showing up to your writing appointment. I was thinking about this spring and fall showing up to teach my Zoom class at the community college. I was sitting in this chair, and opening up my laptop, and just putting on my game face a lot of days. That probably cut me off a little bit from being open to that reciprocal relationship with students. But I think part of it is that it's really scary for teachers to say, "I need help, I need care," because of this system that so many of us are in where our schools, our administration don't treat us like people who need care, don't treat us like people who need support.
It just makes me think of how big and complex all these issues are, but then I come back to just the power of showing up for each other, and the power of finding the connections that you need, even if they're not the ones that you wish you had. I know that part of what's been helpful for me during the pandemic is slowing down to focus on those relationships that I do have and reminding myself of the care and the love that does exist, even when it feels really overwhelming, everything that's going on, slowing down and noticing. Just noticing what is already around me.
Arlène: Absolutely, and as you were talking, it was making me think about how important it is to always create a shared pool of meaning because perhaps when we start talking now, that as teachers, we need to see ourselves as healers, or the fact that I see myself as a healer and to ask one, what is that? What is a healer? What does it mean to be a healer? Because that could easily become synonymous with savior. Actually, a healer is just someone, in my definition, that is transparent and authentic about the process of healing, not in a way that's trauma-dumping, but declaring that I'm actively healing. If we were to see it like an onion, it's like I peeled some layers off, and I'm over here while you're peeling your layers off, and maybe, just maybe, I have one more layer peeled than you.
But it's someone who activates when we think about triggering. I prefer not to use that word of a trigger, and I see it as an activation. So when someone activates a transformation that's happening for you, it's happened in books, it happens in conversations. Someone just says something striking, and it changes you. But what has allowed that person to say that striking thing, it's their experience and the way that they are taking what they're learning and making meaning of it, and so it makes me think a lot about Marianne Williamson. She says that our souls crave meaning in the same way that our bodies crave oxygen, and so a healer is someone who found the meaning in their experience and invites you to find the meaning in your own.
Alex: That, in some ways, is just describing teaching, which is really beautiful because so many of us, we get into teaching because we found meaning in the content or in our area, and we want to help students make meaning. It's just really beautiful that healing and teaching in that way are bound up in each other. I think we could talk about this for many more hours, but I think as we wrap up our conversation, I'm sitting with the sloth, and the snake, and the onion, and just carrying all those symbols with me as I'm going to try to slow down and continue slowing down. I so appreciate any time we get to talk.
Arlène: Me too. Thank you for being here.
Arlène Elizabeth Casimir is a Brooklyn-based activist, educator, herbalist, healer, and writer. Her experience teaching middle school and elementary school in New York City and New Orleans awakened her purpose of drawing on culturally relevant pedagogy, social-emotional learning, and trauma-responsive teaching practices to nurture others’ inner child, inner genius, and inner teacher for sustainable outer change in communities. She founded, designed, and implemented a healing-centered curriculum for her students post-Hurricane Katrina. As a first generation Haitian American, Arlène recognizes the power of community, literacy, and spiritual resilience to help others live with personal integrity, transcend their circumstances, and author their own lives. She is the co-author of a forthcoming book on trauma responsive teaching, available fall 2021. Follow her on Twitter @ArleneCasimir
Alex Shevrin Venet is an educator, author, and professional development facilitator based in Vermont. She teaches at the Community College of Vermont, Antioch University New England, and Castleton University. Previously, she was a teacher and leader at Centerpoint School, an alternative therapeutic school. Her first book, Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education, will be released from W.W. Norton in Spring 2021. Connect with her on Twitter at @AlexSVenet or Instagram at @UnconditionalLearning