“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” -Audre Lorde
After one of the most tumultuous and fraught elections of our lifetime, Joe Biden was chosen to be our next President, and Kamala Harris the next Vice President. A time for celebration in many corners, to be sure, but let’s not forget that over 70 million Americans voted the other way.
And we cannot forget that, just two weeks ago, Walter Wallace, Jr. was senselessly murdered at the hands of the Philadelphia Police Department and, before that, Breonna Taylor’s killers went unpunished and lack of accountability across the board signaled to everyone that business will go on as usual. 2020 has been punctuated with tragedy after tragedy, trauma after trauma—the ongoing convulsions of a national reckoning with racial inequity.
The election was clearly a divisive, stressful time for our country, and especially for our students. And this stress came on top of a nation already in shock and mourning from COVID-19 that is still forcing us to face the deadly racial and social inequities worsened by four long years of a discordant administration where many of us were made to feel unheard, unvalued and unsafe.
The trauma and mental duress resulting from all this is real, and the accumulated weight affected us all, but especially our students. And students of color, most of all.
As educators, we are responsible for acknowledging these realities; without doing so, good teaching is impossible. But we cannot stop at this shared awareness. It’s our responsibility to give them the context to understand what is happening, the tools to cope with it, and—yes—the permission and the mechanisms to heal from it, and actively take part in coming up with solutions.
We cannot separate ourselves from our students’ healing because healing is a collective act, one rooted in community. We strengthen these ties when we make room for self-reflection and care, when we seek to heal for ourselves, and provide a model of healing for and with our students.
That is why I look to Our Words Heal, a trauma-healing campaign built on the truths that 1) we can heal from trauma and 2) the process of healing is different for all of us. What is vital to emphasize is that hurt people can heal themselves and help heal others. And, while this is not a free pass for those who inflict trauma directly onto our students’ lives or casually sign off on policies that continue to traumatize our students, I believe that there is power of healing within our communities. While we are going to collectively continue to demand justice, our children cannot wait for that war to be won. They need us now.
With this in mind, how can we heal and help heal our students? For those who want to teach with decency and integrity, but feel ill-equipped to have these necessary discussions about healing from the very human reactions to the sustained traumatic stress that’s leveled at our communities, here are some basic pointers.
- Acknowledge trauma. Make space for yourself to consider how the world, your community, and endemics of oppression affect you and your students.
- Ask students how they are doing, then listen carefully and compassionately to hear what they say. Honor their vulnerability. Reflect on how race, power, and anti-Black mindsets permeate our systems—including, and especially, in schools. Think about how you can be best equipped to be there for your students and for your fellow educators.
- Create safe and brave spaces in your classroom and school for students to identify and start solving problems they see. Then be responsible for preparing them to engage and become agents of change.
Who taught educators to check their humanity at the classroom door? Who taught them to stifle their students—the very students closest to the trauma and the solutions?
As educators, our work should never be disconnected from the lived experiences of our students, and the families and communities who birthed, nurture and love them. This requires also looking into ourselves, our lived experiences and pain, and seeing how we can heal for our students.
Trauma healing, not just being trauma-informed, is a requisite to educational justice and racial justice. As such, our work, ultimately, should be about educating young people in ways that equip them with the shields, armor and tools necessary to survive in our society, recognize what is truly strange and inhumane, then take part in making things a lot better.
We must wage political warfare, but it all begins with healing.
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.