When supporting students, Ginwright encourages educators to ask themselves, “How can we create strategies that allow our young people to come out of trauma and be transformed?” For example, continued systemic racism has compounded the COVID-19 experience and created stress and trauma for Black students. Many students felt helpless after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and it prompted teachers to make space for students to talk about how they felt and the changes they would like to see in their community. Ultimately many students were inspired to take action from protesting against police presence in schools to organizing neighborhood clean-ups.
Following ever-changing COVID-19 safety guidelines meant that students and educators felt like things were out of their control. “Even as leaders, you sometimes felt incompetent through it all because you thought you understood what you were supposed to do and only did it to find out the next day that it was something different,” said Dr. Sheila McCabe, assistant superintendent of educational services for the Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District in California. Although the people of the district could not control the whole situation, they found opportunities to exercise their agency. Identifying and creating district-wide goals has helped many people feel like they have some influence in their environment.
Transactional or transformative relationships
In the school setting, according to Ginwright, relationships fall into two categories: transactional or transformative.
Transactional relationships relate to a person’s title or status. For example, being a manager is not devoid of power dynamics vis-à-vis the staff. “Transactional relationships are effective and efficient relationships, but they are not enough for healing,” Ginwright said. “Transactional relationships are easy to break because they are not about people. These are titles.
However, transformative relationships may require adults to learn to be more vulnerable with each other and in turn cultivate a safe environment for students. Transformative relationships, he said, are built on pieces of our humanity. “And when we let our humanity flow over each other, we create a bond that matters.”
In the Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District, administrators are using HCE to take action to address chronic absenteeism among their students.
Deputy Superintendent McCabe said contacting students to find out more about why they can’t show up to school revealed that many chronically absent students live in lower-income neighborhoods in the district and are more likely to experience persistent stress. “We believe that part of [the solution] really develops strategies to make an authentic connection with our students and their parents and, through those authentic connections, helps re-engage children,” said McCabe. One strategy the district has used to create more transformative relationships is to check-in early in conversations with students. “The questions could be something like, ‘Share with the group the best thing that happened this week’ or ‘What are you most proud of,'” McCabe said. “We’ve been really using this technique for a few months now and staff members have shared that they feel their conversations, even those that might be difficult ones, are more meaningful and productive.”
In the McCabe District, they don’t just build relationships in the classroom. They also build relationships between staff. McCabe said his colleagues start each meeting by grounding the team with a breathing exercise. “It would take maybe three minutes out of an hour-long meeting, but every time I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m here.'”
Getting caught up in the daily grind can cause people who work with children to lose sight of why they are engaging in this work in the first place, which is to build community, facilitate healing and well-being, and to support young people in restoring their humanity. “We need to remember the purpose for which we are committed when we work with young people. We must also remind young people of the larger, grander and deeper purpose of their engagement. Ginwright said maintaining a sense of healing-centered engagement simply means there is continuous focus on the things that matter.
COVID has made being a teacher and being a student incredibly difficult. However, it’s equally important to keep considering a possible future, Ginwright said.