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Centering Wellbeing Through Community-Led Transformation

By Jerome A. Steele, Assistant Director of Research and Professional Development

Another year of pandemic schooling has created turmoil and instability for students, families, educators and school systems. The difficulties we have faced have led to many calls to “reimagine” education. As teachers and students have struggled to negotiate an uncertain daily reality, politicians and policymakers have embraced Churchill’s famous maxim “never let a crisis go to waste.” Former Governor Cuomo established the New York/Gates Foundation Reimagine Education Advisory Council, which convened familiar stakeholders to explore how schooling might evolve to face new challenges. Large non-profit organizations such as the Manhattan Institute have mobilized vast resources to undermine educational equity efforts through local elections and state legislation. Politicians of both major parties have attempted to portray teachers and unions advocating for basic COVID safety measures as selfish for merely attempting to protect the wellbeing of themselves and their students. The grim reality is that many powerful actors have viewed the crises facing schools as an opportunity to advance specific interests that have nothing to do with serving youth and communities.

So how can educators respond to this moment? What would “reimagining” education look like if we centered the needs and interests of students, families, teachers and communities? Throughout the 2021-22 school year, CASDA has offered book studies exploring Alex Shevrin-Venet’s “Equity-Centered Trauma Informed Schools,” which offers valuable insights to help educators navigate the uncertainty of pandemic schooling and develop effective, supportive practices to better serve their students. At the core of her work are six principles that frame “Equity-Centered, Trauma-Informed Education” as:

  1. Antiracist and Anti-Oppressive

  2. Asset Based

  3. Systems Oriented

  4. Human Centered

  5. Universal and Proactive

  6. Social Justice Focused

The fourth principle states “trauma informed education means centering our shared humanity” (Shevrin-Venet, p.13). This simple, but powerful emphasis leads us to ask a different set of questions about the state of our systems and ourselves. To what degree do our beliefs, policies and practices emphasize, or even acknowledge our shared humanity? How might “reimagining” education look if it was driven by a perspective that affirmed teachers and educators alike and refused to treat anyone as disposable? What systemic and structural changes must be pursued to support this transformation and how must we “reimagine” our relationships to each other?

What Can This Look Like?

Antoinette Ryan’s “Conceptualizing a Pedagogy of Wellness for Rural District Leadership: Leading, Healing and Leading Self Healing” (2020) explores how one rural district sought to implement programs to support the social-emotional wellbeing of students and staff in a collaborative, holistic and humanizing manner that were responsive to the needs and priorities of the local community. Ryan defines a Pedagogy of Wellness as “the teaching and learning of an active process to develop personal and collective wellbeing” (Ryan, 2020, p. 454). While she includes widely implemented programs such as social-emotional learning (SEL) and mindfulness based practices (MBP) among the tools to support wellness, she emphasizes that wellbeing is both personal and communal, and that these tools must be utilized in a “holistic, activist and growth-oriented view of wellness that is grounded in collectively held community values” (p. 454).

While community values should be centered in all educational settings, Ryan argues that their importance in rural settings is driven by the fact that “schools in rural areas are often community hubs where educational administrators often support the wellness needs of not only students but also the community. Student support teams - including principals, school counselors, social workers and school-based health care providers - often coordinate this work” (p. 455). The work responded to the unique needs of the community by foregoing the implementation of SEL and MBP curricula developed by vendors and consultants in favor of a more organic model:

By design, we intentionally grew these programs at the local level in schools and districts (in lieu of adopting third-party programs for this purpose), with the first priority given to addressing the needs of adults in schools. Then, we incorporated SEL and mindfulness approaches into curriculum development and instructional practices that would be enacted with students. The early and ongoing struggles that school leaders faced in this endeavor led us to reexamine and renew our vision of education in these rural schools.

This recursive process allowed educators and leaders to carefully develop and adopt programming that would work in each unique community context, while addressing adults’ needs first ensured that teachers and administrators were invested in and supported through implementation. Following this initial foundational work, “students, staff and school leaders intentionally created and operationalized a democratic school governance structure to promote students’ ownership over their own learning experiences at schools” (p. 456). This was more than lip service to student voice, however, as “school policy decisions were made and reviewed collaboratively, with equal voice among students and staff” (p. 456). The power of this collaboration was revealed when:

Approximately five years into these schools’ existence, school leaders, students, families and community members and I collaboratively focused on more holistic educational programming, which led to the development of a new framework for conceptualizing student success that would confront and minimize the impact of the high-stakes measures required at the state level. Cultivation of wellness and well-being became the central focus of defining success.

This human-centered approach aligns perfectly with the vision outlined in Shevrin-Venet’s fourth principle of equity-centered, trauma-informed education and became especially valuable as increasing numbers of students began to experience mental health issues. To better meet the needs of students, the district reconvened the stakeholder groups to engage in the following processes:

(1) rearticulating and emphasizing community values for well-being and achievement; (2) articulating domains of well-being and the learning opportunities present in the system for members of the learning community (including students and staff) to develop in those domains; (3) examining practice and policy alignments and misalignments with learning community values; (4) assessing access to resources that support values and (5) defining care, wellness and learning. The process of this deep, multiyear evaluation of the district as a learning community began and was centered in reflective practices, mindfulness and mindful awareness (p. 457).

Their ongoing commitment to mindful reflection created space for educators and leaders to truly examine if their beliefs, policies and practices were serving the youth in their community. While their initial work had demonstrated some success, their commitment to students allowed their efforts to grow and evolve. Ryan states that “the District approached self-reflection and transformation from the perspective of centering wellness as a collective responsibility and as an ongoing practice that permeated academic as well as social, emotional and physical learning” (p.457). The emphasis on “collective responsibility” aligns with Shevrin-Venet’s principles framing equity-centered trauma-informed practice as both systems oriented and universal and proactive. Democratic governance structures empowered all stakeholders in the articulation of goals and values, development of beliefs, policies and practices, allocation of resources and evaluation of impact. The connection between an equity-centered, humanizing lens and these structures created a learning community in which the wellbeing and growth of students and educators was sustained despite external pressures and trauma.

The work Ryan describes in this district demonstrates the power of asking different questions. Rather than doubling down and reproducing policy, instruction and curriculum that did not meet the needs of students, educators worked with students to co-design systems and supports that were responsive to their community’s specific needs. As educators and school systems face increasing pressures driven by societal inequities, the need to engage in authentic, community-driven processes of reflection becomes increasingly urgent to ensure that schools are sustaining the wellbeing of all who walk through their doors.


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