Why is it so hard to slow down?
As trauma-informed educators, we know how important it is to be grounded and present in our work with students. Yet our days in schools can pass by us in a blur, even more so when we feel intense stress. Because we are so busy, we can then ignore this stress, trying to push through so we can just get our work done. But stress makes itself known.
You may be familiar with the terms “fight, flight, or freeze.” These are all stress responses, and they all share common characteristics: your body diverts all of its resources to survival; for example, sending blood rushing to your muscles so you can run or fight. This also means that your body takes resources away from certain functions that are not essential for your acute survival—the part of your brain that plans ahead and does abstract thinking, for example. Being in survival mode can feel like a blur. When we’re in the midst of a stress response, we can feel like we aren’t thinking clearly—because we aren’t, by design.
Teaching in Survival Mode
What does it look like when teachers are stuck in the rush of survival mode all day? You may find yourself doing some of these things:
- Skipping meals or not staying hydrated because you can’t slow down to notice you are hungry or thirsty.
- Snapping at colleagues, students, or your own friends and family.
- Missing important details or feeling that you are not working up to your own standards because things just need to get done quickly.
- Simply feeling exhausted when you finally sit down at the end of the day or on the weekends, leaving you frustrated that you can’t just enjoy your time off.
Alex recalls a time when she was so busy, she didn’t even notice her own stress, but the stress manifested in her health:
When I was a teacher-leader at my small school, one part of my job was supporting other teachers when students were in crisis. My phone would ring and we were off to the races. These calls could be anything: intervening in an escalating student conflict, assessing whether we needed medical help for a sick or injured student, or fixing an overflowing toilet. These situations were often stressful and needed a quick response, so my body’s stress response system would kick in as soon as my phone began to vibrate. I never slowed down to reflect on how this was impacting me or what I could do about it. The thing that finally caused me to take notice: I started developing stress hives on my arms. My mind wasn’t registering how stressed I was, so my body told me instead.
The Systems Impacting Your System
Right now, teachers may be facing trauma and stress at multiple levels. We are all living through the global community trauma of the pandemic. Teachers in many schools are being asked to teach in new ways, with too few resources and training, while worrying for the safety of themselves and their families. Under these circumstances, many teachers may find themselves going into survival mode throughout the school day, and experiencing the feeling of urgency that goes along with it.
If this all sounds familiar, here are some things to know. First of all, this isn’t your fault. These are not normal times, and your body is responding to stress the way it was built to do. On a larger level, you are not responsible for the toxicity of a society that causes trauma. Systems of oppression, like white supremacy, create traumatic environments, and these seep into our institutions like school. This can show up in our everyday work as a sense of urgency which “makes it difficult to take time to be inclusive, encourage democratic and/or thoughtful decision-making, to think long-term, to consider consequences” (Okun 2000). When we collectively act as though we are in a state of emergency, we stay in survival mode as a community, unable to access our full capacities and skills. Recognize that you are not a failure for your mind and body’s response to these systemic factors.
The Need to Slow Down: Name it and Claim it
Next, it is essential to stop and reflect when you notice you are stuck in survival mode. If you find yourself saying “I don’t have enough time to stop and reflect!” that is a sign that you are very much in need of taking a moment to pause. Take a moment and answer these questions, in conversation with yourself or someone else:
- How does your stress response feel in your body?
- How is the stress of your job, school, and community impacting you?
- How is your stress manifesting in your teaching?
- What do you need in order to slow down?
As you do this reflection, remember to balance a “both/and.” You are both responsible for your own role in managing your stress, and it is not on you to “self-care” your way out of a toxic system. Beware leaders who attempt to gaslight you into feeling guilty. Teachers have shared with us recently stories of education administrators lecturing their teachers about self-care, mere days after demanding unreasonable tasks or imposing untenable working conditions as teachers juggle face-to-face and virtual students at the same time. When we are rushing, without enough time to even name what we are feeling, it can be all too easy to accept these demands at face value, or start to question ourselves: is it really that bad? Could I be less stressed if I just worked more or faster?
When we allow ourselves to slow down, we create space to name and trust our own experiences. Notice how stress is showing up in your body and in your classroom: those impacts are real, and we have to resist any attempts to minimize them.
Once we are aware of how we are impacted by stress, we can name and claim what we need. For some, this might mean simple changes, like setting up more routines for self-care or using mindful strategies throughout the day. But there may also be larger shifts required, like taking collective action as teachers against unjust working conditions.
Slowing Down for Ourselves and Our Students
Finally, a powerful role we can play as teachers is to disrupt the cycle of urgency and stress before it impacts our students. Stress can cascade like an avalanche from leaders to teachers to students. When we feel overwhelmed, it can be all too easy to attempt to regain a sense of control by controlling our students. This sometimes doesn’t even happen consciously, which again speaks to the need to pause and reflect. Arlène recalls a time when this reflection happened in an unexpected moment:
One of the most transformative moments in my teaching was when I recognized that my intentions didn’t have the impact I hoped for on my students. I was teaching the first children to come to school post Hurricane Katrina, trying to give them a progressive education despite the trauma they were experiencing personally, collectively, and vicariously. I believed in holding them to high expectations and supporting them to realize their full potential regardless of their circumstances. Any curriculum was bolstered and scaffolded to support their needs.
However, it wasn’t until we had a guest, one of my teacher educators, come in for support and a visit, that I realized how much I had internalized the notion of urgency at my students’ expense. It happened during a writing workshop. My students knew that in our room, we wrote fast and furiously. We didn’t waste time, because there was so much to learn. After this guest teacher taught them how to zoom into their feelings in their writing, we sent them off to take up the invitation on beginning the task. Once they began writing, we walked around to see what they were drafting in their journals. They were all writing up a storm with passion. As we admired their quick writes, I leaned over a student’s shoulder and read: “There’s no air in this cage. I am spinning on a wheel. I just want to breathe. I just want to feel at peace. I don’t know why, but being in school is starting to feel like jail. If this is it, I don’t want to go to college.”
His narrative was a mirror, shattering not only my heart but also my beliefs around what I thought I was doing. I was thankful that the presence and prompting of the guest teacher allowed this student to speak his truth.
Sometimes the presence of an outsider breaks us out of unhealthy patterns. The guest teacher’s lesson took some of my responsibilities off my plate for the day, which allowed me to slow down for the first time in a while. With the space that was created, I was receptive to witnessing what wasn’t working for my students. Instead of becoming defensive, I listened and accepted responsibility for the conditions I created.
Once she left, I became committed to decolonizing my own [internalized oppressive] way of holding my students to high expectations. I didn’t want my classroom to feel like jail, I didn’t want my students to be discouraged by the idea of furthering their education because of the oppression they were feeling. I wanted to know how to do better. I wanted to teach in a liberatory way. I wanted my students to feel that literacy is freedom. I learned that the how is so much more important than the what.
So first, I apologized to this student. I explained my intention and apologized for the impact. I expressed my commitment to do better and asked what that could be from his perspective. His two words changed me forever: “Slow down,” he said. “Slow down.” I learned that he didn’t mean slow down the curriculum, or slow down the lesson. What he meant was to slow down the frenzy. “Stop putting the pressure they put on you on us.” He continued. “We have a purpose right? We create our future right? So create peace. Make our writing time peaceful and fun.” He used my own words, the mantras we shared in class each day and dared me to live up to them. This experience helped me to see the power of honesty, reflection, and choice.
Take a moment to reflect on a story from this year in your classroom…
- What would a guest teacher witness about how you are managing stress?
- How did your students experience your stress in the classroom?
- What’s one way that you could have slowed down in that moment?
- What will you change about the way you manage your stress while teaching moving forward?
- How will you have this conversation with your students?
- What kind of mantras will guide the way you manage stress as you teach in the upcoming year?
Slowing Down to Reclaim Your Humanity
There’s a belief that we have to work twice as hard with students from marginalized communities, that we have to be vigilant and not waste a minute of learning time in effort to “close the achievement gap” and help them compete with their more peers. What we are now calling an “opportunity gap,” can be interpreted as the many opportunities we miss, as educators, to foster joy, love, and peace in tumultuous times in our classrooms.
In a system that dehumanizes students and teachers, slowing down is a way of reclaiming our humanity. As Tricia Hersey, the Nap Bishop and creator of The Nap Ministry, wrote, “dreaming and imagining is key to our healing and liberation. Grind culture has stolen it. Resist.” (post from September 2, 2020). When teachers choose to rest, we resist. Our wish for teachers as you reflect on 2020 and plan to navigate this coming year: give yourself and your students the gift of slowing down.
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Want to learn more?
Watch a recent video conversation between Arlène Elizabeth Casimir and Colleen Cruz as they talk about the mistakes we make around trauma and ways to avoid them or fix them.
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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.
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.