It may be obvious what school mental health practitioners are supposed to do as components of trauma-informed networks, but it is rarely so clear what teachers should do. I’m here to help synthesize what the experts are saying about the role of teachers in trauma-informed networks.
Prominent voices in the trauma-informed education world including Arlène Casimir, Addison Duane, Dr. Elizabeth Dutro, Latoya Nelson, and Alex Shevrin Venet each contribute to clarifying the teacher's role. Some of their thinking includes that teachers: are fellow humans, equally vulnerable to life’s adversities and capable of connecting with children in healthy ways; must be mindful when discussing difficult topics to remain open to the raw emotion of adversity; avoid and/or dismantle savior complexes; set and manage clear boundaries; and be familiar with the resources available in the community.
In this post, I’ll speak to the concept of teachers’ humanity and vulnerability by outlining Elizabeth Dutro's "Testimony and Witness". I want to quickly attend to a caveat. Dutro actually moves beyond the terms testimony and witness, emphasizing "testimony and critical witness" to indicate a more critical stance evoking equity and social justice issues. See her article for more details on what makes critical witness so critical.
For this blog post, I am using the terms testimony and witness because I'm presenting a simplified version of Dutro's model to get you started in your process. I encourage you to read into the concept of critical witness and move beyond simply serving as witness to take action and dismantle oppressive forces in your classroom and community.
I confess, when I first heard about Elizabeth Dutro’s concept of testimony and witness, I felt really uncomfortable. Testimony and witness is a powerful tool to make literacy instruction trauma-informed. Want to know why it made me squirm? Keep reading to find out why and learn how my thinking has dramatically shifted!
Testimony and witness
The testimony in “testimony and witness” refers to teachers sharing stories of their own adversities with students. Things like the deaths of family members and pets, break ups, incarceration of loved ones, the trauma of inhumane immigration policies, struggling to fit in at school, getting lost and scared in an unknown place, and so much more.
Does that make you squirm, too? Not until I read Dutro's book “The Vulnerable Heart of Literacy: Centering Trauma as Powerful Pedagogy” did it all click.
Dutro finds in her research that when teachers are vulnerable alongside their students, dynamics in the classroom shift. New typically unsanctioned topics become fair game for reading, writing, and discussion.
Instead of getting the same or similar responses to a cookie cutter writing prompt or story, teachers hear students’ individuality. What’s more, students are much more motivated and engaged when discussing things they find deeply meaningful. The classroom community shifts to one in which students, who served as witnesses to their teacher’s vulnerability, may feel free to voice their own testimony, developing deep connections.
how do you successfully navigate your place in a classroom that sews threads of testimony and witness?
Start by brainstorming things that have been really difficult for you, that have challenged you, and that you either overcame and are proud for having done so or that you’re still struggling with.
Ways to do this include journaling and chatting with your colleagues, friends, or loved ones. Decide what feels appropriate for your students and what feels comfortable for you. Dutro points out that teachers typically underestimate two things: students’ abilities to handle difficult stories and students’ compassion and empathy when bearing witness. Keep that in mind when considering what to include.
Also, take baby steps. See my previous post on overcoming the discomfort of allowing trauma stories in your classroom for some specific steps to take to get from terrified to ready.
what can i expect from students?
First, realize that students will not always (and may never) share their own testimony. That is not the point. The point is for them to see you as human, feel validation that their life experiences matter, and know that their stories are welcome, should they choose to share. Students, in Dutro's research, have overwhelmingly showed compassion and understanding, witnessing trauma stories with grace.
Should students experience difficult manifestations of past trauma during your own sharing, in the sharing of peers, in reading trauma stories, or in sharing their own, you must realize you are not alone. In fact, before beginning testimony and witness, it may be wise to connect with your school mental health practitioners to make sure you know the conduits for connecting students to services.
Even so, a "first aid" of such trauma responses can be simply listening quietly and/or letting students know they are safe. The same goes when students share their own testimonies. Bear witness by listening with your whole being. See my blog post on reflective listening for some tips on listening deeply.
The role of teachers in trauma-informed networks is not always very clear. One practice that helps teachers find footing is testimony and witness, as described by Elizabeth Dutro. It refers to teachers sharing their own adversities with students to begin cycles of sharing and hearing life's difficult and important moments.
My name is Erin E. Silcox. I'm working on my Ph.D. in Literacy Education, focusing on the intersection of trauma and literacy. I want to deepen our base of knowledge about trauma-informed practices in schools and help teachers apply findings right now.