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The View from Here: The Power of Educators to Change Systems and Structures

By Michael Piccirillo, Ed.D, CASDA Executive Director

Greetings! By now you have likely settled into the rhythm of the school day, week and year. I am pleased to be sharing some insights regarding CASDA’s work with schools and educators two months into the school year. We have been engaging with educators in a variety of settings facilitating exploration into topics like adult and student mental health, poverty, restorative practices and absenteeism to name a few. Through facilitated discussions of CASDA created case studies, the training of educators and students conducting community building circles and a focus on asset-building approaches, we have assisted educators to consider the roles we can play in changing systems and structures that create and exacerbate the challenges to support students, families and each other. This truly has been an eye-opening and impactful first two months of the school year.


Through our many interactions with educators we continue to hear about the struggles of the past two years, the challenges currently being faced and the successes individuals and schools are realizing as they interrogate inequitable systems and restrictive structures. CASDA’s Fall Newsletter focuses on the power of educators to change systems and structures to be more equitable and human-centered.


In the book, “Equity-Centered trauma-informed education”, Alex Shevrin Venet (2021) describes four shifts for schools to become “fully trauma-informed and equity-centered” (p.15). In describing one of the four shifts to becoming trauma-informed, Venet (2021) describes, “... seeing trauma-informed practices as the responsibility of individual teachers to embedding them in the way that we do school, from policies to practice” (p.15). The significance in this shift is the lens through which individuals view the systems and structures they often have a hand in creating or certainly in operationalizing on a daily basis.


The importance and complexity of changing systems and structures is highlighted by Venet’s (2021) reference to “education as a full ecosystem” (p. 124). Using trauma-informed education as the example, Venet (2021) says, “For trauma-informed practices to fully change the entire ecosystem of a school, they need to be implemented at all levels and supported by all school staff, from dedicated teachers to strong leaders to engaged support staff” (p.125). Feedback we receive from educators on our work with them centers around a feeling of powerlessness. Fully recognizing that individuals can exert only so much influence on a system we turn to Venet (2021) who grounds efforts to shift systems and structures in two principles, being systems oriented and human-centered. It is through a human-centered lens that our energies are continually focused on the needs of students and educators.


In “Community: The structure of belonging,” Peter Block (2018) states, “Belonging is best created when we join with other people in producing something that makes a place better” (pp.xvii-xviii). He connects the ideas of belonging and community asserting, “To belong to a community is to act as a creator and co-owner of that community” (Block, 29018, p.xviii). In our work with educators we often speak about the opposite forces of deficit-based and asset-based approaches. Community is one of the most impactful assets educators and schools can draw from. To tap the deep well of community assets, we encourage educators and leaders to challenge their own narratives about certain people or parts of the community. As Block (2018) notes, “In our attraction to problems, deficiencies, disabilities, and needs, the missing community conversations are about gifts” (p.146). What gifts do people and groups within our community have to offer in support of students and schools?


To close, what do we mean by the phrase “community conversations?” To bring full circle the theme of this message “community conversations” must transcend the historic focus group, town hall meeting or survey. These are systems and structures of the past. Truly empowering conversations with the community will require educators and school leaders to as Brene Brown (2018) says “rumble with vulnerability” and by what Ishimaru (2020) describes as “enacting equitable collaborations” (p.4). Equitable collaborations “... begins with the premise that nondominant families (which includes young people themselves, their caregivers, and extended relations) represent a largely untapped source of expertise and leadership for achieving educational equity and justice” (Ishimaru, 202o, p.4). This will require the courage to challenge narratives and we at CASDA are ready, willing and able to assist at any time.