When she stepped through the doors last year as principal at Salisbury’s Hanford-Dole Elementary School, Stephanie Sanders quickly noticed that the school’s student population was extremely diverse. And, Sanders said, she also began to learn that many of her students come to class having experienced trauma outside of the school day.
It’s a scenario that was at the forefront of her mind as she dug deep into Hanford-Dole’s academic student outcomes and saw discrepancies between white and minority students’ achievement scores.
“We’ve since had deep conversations about what instruction looks like—and, more importantly, what it looks like for minority groups,” said Sanders. “And as we begin to understand the trauma that so many of our kids have gone through, we must develop a more concerted effort to be empathetic to those experiences.”
Principal Sanders and her staff have embarked on this journey—to understand how trauma impacts learning, to realize that it disproportionately impacts their minority student population, and to determine how they must recognize their own implicit biases and work to move past them as they educate and care for their students—with the help of the Public School Forum’s NC Resilience and Learning Project.
Last spring, Sanders began working with Christy Lockhart, the Resilience and Learning Project’s program coordinator for Hanford-Dole, to engage in conversations with staff about fixed versus growth mindsets as well as identifying what trauma looked like and how to adjust practices inside the school building to accommodate trauma. “What came out of that work is that we need to have more of an emphasis on equity—and we have to look at equity from the lens of trauma-informed practices,” said Sanders.
When educators talk about working with kids who have experienced trauma, race has to come into play, Sanders said. “Staff need to recognize that we come to the table with implicit biases. Even myself as a black woman, a single mom raising my son, I have some implicit biases. So sometimes, coming from my perspective and set of experiences, I have a hard time being empathetic.”
Talking about equity is also difficult. “Lots of people want to say, I don’t see color,” said Sanders. But none of us are colorblind, she said, and it’s important to understand how race and our implicit biases shape our educational practices, our relationships with parents, and our relationships with colleagues.
With the help of the Resilience and Learning Project, Sanders and her staff are tackling these tough issues head on — this school year, the Resilience team took them out to a community that represents where some of Hanford-Dole Elementary’s students live. “It’s nearly a half of a mile just to walk to the bus stop,” said Sanders. “Imagine walking that with multiple kids. So we talk about that burden alone that exists for many parents, and how to be empathetic to those kinds of basic challenges when they impact the classroom and a teacher’s ability to connect with parents.”
Ultimately, Sanders says, she wants to develop a school-wide mindset shift, and she believes that can happen with the help of the Resilience and Learning Project. “We’ve started reading a book called Growth Mindset Coach, which breaks down how to support a growth mindset in the classroom and school, month by month. We’re talking about that and it’s great to see teachers eliminate the word “can’t” from their vocabulary. We are building on those small successes.”
Looking forward, the staff at Hanford-Dole Elementary will continue to work with the Resilience and Learning Project throughout this school year, meeting twice a week. This month, they’ll look at demographic data for discipline referral rates.
“Who are we disciplining more? Are there racial disparities? Other subgroup disparities?” said Sanders. “We’ll look at attendance and discipline and academic data, the disparities that exist and strategize about what we can do to bring about positive change.”
Sanders stressed that the biggest thing to recognize in this work is that it’s not a a quick fix.
“Any time you start on a journey of looking at something — in this case, trauma — through an equity lens, you have to have uncomfortable discussions and you have to be a thought leader alongside staff, versus a top down approach,” said Sanders
“Be comfortable with the uncomfortable.”