04.13.21

Reclaiming Humanity in Trauma-Informed Classrooms

by Kimberly Worthy – Washington, D.C.

Kimberly A. Worthy is an innovator, author, speaker, and educational consultant with a lifelong passion for empowering and educating communities she serves. A tireless advocate for educational excellence in urban schools, Kimberly is the 2009 District of Columbia State Teacher of the Year and the National Alliance of Black School Educators Marcus Foster Distinguished Educator Award for 2009.

For the last 19 years, Kimberly has taught throughout the United States and South Africa, where she trained to become a Trauma-based educator. A native of the District of Columbia, Kimberly is a graduate of Spelman College and is a member of the National Alliance of Black School Educators, Pi Lambda Theta International Honor Society & Professional Association in Education, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., and the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. Here is her story.

Introduction

When you come from privilege, you do not think about your sense of safety, control, comfort, freedom, choice, and positive, constructive self-worth. You are born with all of it, for you are born human. You know it, and everyone in society knows this about you.

When you are born in the margins, you are told from your birthing experience until your death, that you are less than human, and that you must always think about your sense of safety, control, comfort, freedom, choice, and search for your positive, constructive self-worth. Let that sink in.

Challenges

For the last 19 and half years, I have taught in urban schools throughout the United States and in South Africa in the following cities: Atlanta, Brooklyn, Las Vegas, Tampa, Cape Town, Johannesburg, and, for the longest run, in Washington, D.C., my home. In all of these schools, the majority of my students lived in fragile communities.

For the sake of this paper, I will define fragile communities as:

Communities where there is a vicious cycle of poverty and violence that creates constant feelings of unsafety, discomfort, and insecurity; where there is political oppression of your rights, your voice, and your freedoms carried out by the police and other figures of authority, including teachers, and, thus, creating and sustaining a negative and destructive self-worth.

I have chosen to teach children who live in fragile communities for 19 years because it is my responsibility to reclaim my students’ humanity. I, too, have been dehumanized in this fragile state we live in; I connect with my students, and relate to their lived experiences. I humanize their stories, to begin the process of reclaiming their humanity.

Solutions

After being named the 2009 Washington, D.C. Teacher of the Year, I was given the amazing opportunity to teach and learn in South Africa. My experience began in 2011. It was then and there where I was trained in the most important skills I have ever received as an educator. There, I learned to be a “Trauma-informed Teacher,” and how to lead a “trauma-informed classroom.” Since then, I have committed my practice to include reclaiming the humanity of my students in the face of power, class, gender, and economic oppression, and who struggle through their unique adolescent development in my safe classroom environment.

I was trained in a school in South Africa then-called LEAP Science and Math School; training took place in their Life Orientation (LO) class. The leaders of LEAP believe that reclaiming humanity is a fundamental requirement for student learning and success in oppressive and psychologically destructive fragile communities, such as their townships and our urban pockets of poverty.

In South Africa, humanity is referred to as “Ubuntu,” and the purpose of the Life Orientation class at the LEAP schools is to reclaim “Ubuntu” – the sense of safety, control, comfort, freedom, choice, and a positive and constructive self-worth – humanity. LEAP explains that “Ubuntu” (humanity) has been lost all throughout the world and that this has destroyed many people’s souls; it has destroyed relationships with each other, and it has removed feelings of freedom, peace, creativity and the motivation to succeed from the lives of many people. Humanity, as explained by LEAP, is the key to being. LEAP believes that “Ubuntu” can be reclaimed through non-judgment, trust, honesty, caring, having the difficult conversations, growing, and changing.

In LEAP’s LO classes, students are modeled as to how to care for one another, hold one another accountable for choices, be responsible for their own choices, and how to give freely and unconditionally to others.

In LEAP’s daily LO classes, students and facilitators have the difficult conversations about oppression, death, AIDS, gender issues, sexuality, drugs and alcohol, families, abandonment, career goals, etc. The entire school engages fully, deeply and honestly in those difficult conversations about oppression and all of the many ways it manifests in their society and schools. The students, faculty and staff courageously share their feelings, which are almost always connected to one form of oppression or another.

They have these discussions daily in a safe space called Life Orientation (LO).

As a teacher-leader, I was able to incorporate LO into my school, when I returned to the United States in the fall of 2011. Unlike LO in LEAP in South Africa, which is held with staff as well, I have only been able to institutionalize it with students here in D.C. At one school I had it incorporated daily; at my current school, I am only able to have LO once a week in my class.

As I continued to be trained by LEAP’s leaders via Skype, I was able to create a constructive, productive, positive and humane way to legitimize, validate, confront, stand up to and resolve the impacts of oppression my students faced here in America.

My version of LO has been an opportunity for my students here in the U.S. to develop and feel a sense of safety, control, comfort, freedom, choice, and a positive and constructive self-worth, which inspires their desire to achieve emotional and academic success. My students have been able to address their pain, break down their walls, and open paths to their success. These natural feelings of humanity are important to have in order to be stable, productive, motivated and successful in life, especially in school.

Outcomes

This year, I taught a student I will call “Claude” to protect his identity. Claude slept in all of his classes, including mine. Teachers spoke terribly about him and made comments such as, “He’s such a loser; all he does is sleeps in class,” and his classmates began saying the same things about him.

Although he trusted me enough to confide in me that his mother was diagnosed with cancer, he still slept in class. I reached out to his family, as I was concerned about the medical signs I saw. Though we spoke, no one took action.

Then, it happened. We were in our circle during class time. Claude never shared. But that day was different; Claude was moved to share. He raised his hand and said, “My dad is a drug dealer. They call him Billy Porter like the famous drug dealer. I used to live with my dad…” Right at that moment, Claude’s heart broke before us, and he began to wail and yell…loudly. None of us had ever seen him like this before; all he had ever done was sleep in all of his classes and stay to himself.

Several class members got up to console him, including the boys. But many other boys stayed in their seats, angry with their fists balled up, and tears streaming down their faces. They could feel him and his pain and anguish.

Claude continued through his screams and tears, “I used to live with him before I came here and before he was locked up! I’m scared! I don’t want anything to happen to my dad while he is locked up! And my mom has cancer! I don’t want her to die! She won’t talk about it. She just goes to the hospital a lot but I don’t know what’s going on. I’m scared.”

The yells continued. The class poured all of their love onto Claude, refusing to let him go.

Lessons for Educators

Trusting the process means allowing the moment to be. It was raw for everyone. I did not rush through the feelings for the sake of time, for in this process, time is not the number one value; one’s feelings are, their humanity is most important. When time permitted, his classmates sat down, shared their stories of empathy, relatability, humanity.

From that day forward, Claude was no longer sleeping in his classes. He was smiling, energetic, and completing his assignments. His classmates saw him differently as well and he appreciated that they saw his humanity, versus seeing him as an “other”: a stupid, lazy thug from the hood. Those days were the heaviest and the lightest days, for at the end of the class, students have released heavy weights that have prevented them from laughing, seeing, feeling, expressing, soaring. And even though the students knew the answer beforehand, they would run up to me the next day, “Do we have LO today, Mama Kim?”

They look forward to every chance they get to reclaim their humanity in this fragile state.

This article originally appeared in the Center for Educational Opportunity’s white paper “A Sacred Space: 12 Expert Teachers Share Stories of Resilience, Success and Leadership.”