This post was first published in the blog series “Teaching and Traumatic Events” on the website of the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion and is shared here with permission.
We can define the syllabus with precision, but our best-laid plans are subject to the moments when life simply happens. Questions arise. Frustrations are felt. And the sages on the stage better have something to show for all their high-falutin’ learning.
At least this is how I feel when teaching in the midst of traumatic events. I can usually triage the syllabus—shuffling assignments around to give space to the moment. I even know well enough to leave room for the inevitable crisis within my course planning. But what do you actually do when you’re in front of students who have come to class just as raw as you?
There’s no media bulletin that will solve the problem. Trauma doesn’t care about public relations. There’s no master lecture that will bring a master solution. Trauma doesn’t leave room for satisfying answers. But I’m here to tell you that all is not lost.
Every Christmas break, I go home to Houston. My most recent trip was the first time I had been since Hurricane Harvey. And in the days following my return to Pennsylvania, friends wanted to know what I saw. I didn’t have much to respond with except for the watchwords of the human story. We rebuild. We heal. We grow. We learn.
This is what we do in the face of natural disaster. It too is what we can do in the face of psychosocial trauma. But it’s going to take some time.
Unfortunately, I have found myself in the position of consulting a number of institutions enduring the perpetration of prejudicial affronts, most frequently concerning rampant sexism, homophobia, and racism. The biggest mistake I see is the grab for a big fix or antidote to make the situation go away. I have to explain that trauma is an immediate crisis that takes hold of us for the long haul, so our job is to equip our communities to rebuild, heal, grow, and learn as best as we can manage, moment by moment, day by day.
For teachers, this means reminding ourselves and our students that the more we know, the better we can manage the crisis before us. When life happens, I tell myself to adhere to the following protocol step by step.
Gather your composure.
Find your footing even in the midst of your insecurity. Claim your own humanity—the right to feel, the right to hurt, the right to grieve. Eat nutrient-rich foods. Drink plenty of water. Meditate, do jumping jacks, practice yoga, or walk around the block. Your first step is to regain your sense of self.
Take a moment to let a trusted colleague or companion know that you’re about to go into the fray. You have a community. A simple text message or phone call can remind you that you’re not alone.
Lower the bar.
When it’s go time, your job today is to “be you” and “do you” with the students. This will equip them with the confidence to do the same. Before you know it, you will fall back into the role of teacher. They will fall back into the role of student. And you’ll together develop a new stasis.
Preach what you have practiced. Have your students take a few minutes to do a version of what you have just done. Lead them in a moment of silence or even a quick stretch-break. Let people grab a drink of water and return to class. Let them check in with each other as they trickle back into the room. Your acknowledgment of their humanity will go a long way in garnering the trust you’ll need for the day.
Teach the moment.
Present what you understand about the situation and contextualize it in light of what you know as teacher-scholar. Then take a few moments to show how you’re learning. In so doing, you’ll remind students that they are not the sum of their emotions. They are also learners with skills and proficiencies to help them grapple with the day beyond what they could have done prior to class. It also solidifies a basis for community-building amidst the new state of affairs.
From here, you have a “we” with which to work. Come together around a whiteboard and make a list of questions that you all want to pursue as a class. Name the resources you might consult in the coming days in your search for more information. Excavate your syllabus to see not whether there’s anything of use, but what can be used in the moments ahead. Better questions lead to better possibilities.
The work you have put in—together— will bear fruit in the days to come. I know now what else to ask for in the midst of trauma. But until then, use the learning process as a vehicle to position yourselves in renewed strength and community.
Essential Acts of Preparedness
This post, written by Rev. Dr. Kate Wiebe, originally was published September 24, 2019, on the
When people talk about emergency or disaster preparedness, they most often refer to exit or evacuation strategies, communication plans, and stocking supplies. They rarely, if ever, refer to the mental, emotional, and spiritual practices proven to help survivors thrive beyond adversity.
What are these healthful practices?
According to researchers like Peter Levine (2012), Bessel van der Kolk (2014), Nadine Burke-Harris (2018), and Nagoski and Nagoski (2019), the keys to thriving beyond adversity are:
... paying attention to how your body feels restored will help you make key decisions about what will sustain you during long-term recovery.
Perhaps what is most compelling about research into the practices that help sustain resiliency is that these acts often are the very elements that make up a community's culture. The food, the dance, the art, the patterns of rest, the family gatherings and neighborly interactions. These are the very things – research is showing – that we ought to embrace in times of crisis and not neglect.
In what ways do you or your community maintain healthy cultural practices, even and especially in times of crisis? How have you seen these practices sustain you? Share in the comments below.
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In a recent conference call for faith-based leaders, I referenced a term I've used in many settings to describe the process of assimilating or moving through the affects of challenge we can experience in small or large ways throughout our daily living: metabolizing adversity.
When I use this term, I am referring to the range of activities that have been proven to help a body process stress hormones.
We experience stress hormones on a daily basis. They are not only related to crises or disasters. If we do not establish habits in our lives that help us regularly decrease those elevations by increasing our hormones related to self-agency and self-care, we are more likely to eventually develop diseases, including potentially heart disease, diabetes, auto-immune diseases, or cancer, as well as potential disorders, including high rates of anxiety, depression, or suicidal ideations.
How best can you develop daily habits that help you metabolize adversity you experience?
Sleep, regular movement, healthy meals and snacks, drinking water, interacting with people you care about and who care about you, and practicing your faith, are all ways proven to help you metabolizing stress or adversity you encounter.
You can practice these, and you can encourage the people in your households, work environments, and neighborhoods to practice them too.
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The Essence of Your Leadership is Contagious: What Kind of Person are You in an Emergency?
This post, written by Kate Wiebe, originally was published on the ICTG blog.
As ICTG donors, volunteers, and staff, have researched and explored most effective pathways for healing and thriving beyond adversity, we have found one essential practice for getting "prepared": practicing how you want to be in an emergency. You can have all the flip charts, exit strategies, and "stop, drop, & roll" mantras you want, but if you are prone to freezing, dissociating, or freaking out, you (and your group) won't be able to follow your well-laid plans and procedures. While it is important for everyone to consider the type of person they hope to be in an emergency, it is especially key for leaders of schools, businesses, nonprofits, and congregations to consider. Their leadership largely determines how their group will proceed, and the essence of their leadership is contagious.
Here are a few tips for becoming the person you hope to be in an emergency. Take some time to answer the following the questions:
1. If an emergency, crisis, or disaster occurs, how do you see it best unfolding? For example, perhaps you hope your staff and constituents all have the information they need to make wise and quick choices. Or, your staff and constituents know and have access to the right contact person. Or, your staff and constituents know how to be in touch with one another and determine if everyone is out of harm's way.
2. As you consider emergencies, crises, or disasters in the past, in terms of your organization at that time, what do you wish had gone better? Were key people absent or unavailable? Was it hard to communicate with one another, and if so, why? Was there misinformation, rumors, or other forms of frustration that inhibited help and care from happening?
3. As you think of those past events, and what you wish may have gone better, recall your mind, body, and spirit in those hours and days. Become mindful of what you felt like. What did your muscles feel like? Were your thoughts racing or flowing with ease? Were you irritable? Irrational? Or easy to talk with? Did you feel nourished or fueled along the way, or did you find yourself realizing it had been hours since you had used a restroom, eaten, drank water, or slept?
4. Right now, today, how are you practicing care for your mind, body, and spirit? This practice is most helpful if you are honest with yourself. For example, try drawing a Venn diagram. On the left side, write out what practices you, personally, find help you make it through. Not necessarily the things you should or ought to do. But the things that actually make you feel better, even just a little bit. Then, on the right side list the things that contribute to your long term health. These may or may not be the same things. Whenever they are the same things, put those things in the middle overlapping section. You may find that the things that help you feel some relief during crises are not necessarily things that contribute to your health long term. You also may find the left side more empty than the right side. That's ok for right now. Right now, it's best to be honest and get your real practices out in front of you.
5. If you found that the left side of your Venn diagram is more empty than the right side, or you found that not much overlap exists between the left and right sides of your diagram, take some time now to consider one or two practices from the right side that you feel you could practice today. For example, here are some things that people often put on the right side that you may choose from:
These are just some of many examples of daily or weekly practices that contribute to a person's long term health. While not all, many of these practices can go on regardless of external circumstances and even during days of responding to crises or disasters. Many people find that continuing these practices through times of emergency help them to re-member themselves or the group to which they belong, especially after feeling temporarily fragmented.
6. In terms of leadership, what do you hope to model for your staff or constituents during times of emergency? If you hope to provide steady leadership that can withstand extreme pressures, what does that mean to you? What is the character of that leadership? What does it look like, specifically? Compare your answers to these questions to your answers to #2 and #3. Are there expressions of leadership that you can be practicing more today?
During the height of an emergency, people often draw upon their muscle and involuntary memories before having access to their rational training. That is why it can be most helpful to practice being the kind of person you hope to be in an emergency in, what we at ICTG refer to as, "times of peace." Those times when you are not "amped up," "clenched," "freaking out," or "stressed." Perhaps, you are in circumstances which feel constantly stressful and unending. In those cases, you may have to be more intentional about carving out space to begin practicing the care you hope to extend to yourself and those around you.
Your presence, as a leader, is contagious. We encourage you to take time to consider the presence you are offering to others, especially in times of upheaval. If you would like help doing so, please do not hesitate to reach out for more information. We'd be glad to hear from you.
Meanwhile, share your best tips in the comments below. What's worked well for you and your group?
After What's Happened
After a crisis or disaster . . . do you "move on"? Get back to "business as usual"? "Return to normal"? Find your "new normal"?
As so many of us know, all of these terms are fraught with discomfort and unease. None of them are "right." All of these terms, in one way or another, can cause those of us who have survived severe loss great offense.
"There's no 'moving on,'" one woman told me this week. "And," she continued, "there's nothing normal in going forward. It's just before and after. What life was like before, and what life is like after."
This sentiment is especially key for organizational leaders to hear and keep in mind. How does your organization's mission take into account the large majority of people today who are living life with strong senses of "before" and "after"? How does your organization meet them where they are? Does your mission enhance life "after" what's happened?
At the Institute, we find those questions are some of the most important for a leader to consider. Because your answer means the difference between being connected or disconnected with your constituents, staff, students, congregation, or community. We also find that too many leaders erroneously believe that allowing members of their organization to grieve, mourn, lament, or even admit some sense of despair will cause further chaos or inhibit any movement forward. So, instead, they strive to return to usual routines and distract their people from negative feelings by focusing everyone's attention on positive momentum.
Unfortunately, complete denial of what's happened, or how it affects people, can lead some to eventual burnout, break downs, or needing to self-medicate through excessive food, substance abuse, or forms of self-harm.
It's tricky, though. For many organizations, it's not appropriate to manage how their people are dealing with loss personally.
To navigate these common challenges, in the aftermath of loss, we encourage leaders to help their people to become mindful of what is personal or may be inhibiting their work in some way. Rather than denying these things, we encourage leaders to identify local resources where their people may turn for support as they identify personal grievances. These may include local talk therapists, art or music therapists, spiritual directors, chaplains or clergy, physical trainers or somatic therapists, physicians, friends or fellowship groups – or any combination of caregivers. By encouraging your people to embrace the local "village of care" often you will find survivors resume interest in and ability to achieve your group's mission. Sometimes, you may also find your mission expands, in light of what's happened in the larger community.
How have you seen the "village of care" at work in your community? How have you seen it enhance your community's response to collective loss? Share in the comments below.
Rev. Dr. Kate Wiebe serves as the Executive Director of ICTG. She is an organizational health consultant and pastoral psychotherapist. She lives with her family in Santa Barbara, CA.
This post originally was published on September 11, 2018, on the ICTG blog.
These days it can feel as though there are few places to turn where you do not encounter the impacts of trauma in some form. Whether you are marking the 17th anniversary of 9/11 today or the one-year anniversaries of hurricanes Irma, Harvey, and Maria, or you are preparing for the incoming storms of Florence or Olivia, you are in the thick of your own crises related to flooding, violence, fire, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, death, or terminal illness – it can be hard not to feel overwhelmed and even hopeless amid the chaos of heartache.
Trauma, of course, is not new. Though it may be decades or even centuries since events like the ones we face today have occurred, the sustainable practices of resiliency remain the same across time and demographics. Here are some of the ways leading field experts, journalists, and scholars are naming them today:
Pediatrician and leading Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) scholar, Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris on the prescription plan for countering adversity:
Collective traumatologist,Dr. Jack Saul, on the four themes most typical of a functional community resilience and recovery approach:
Pastoral theologian, Dr. John Swinton, on the relational and spiritual practices for formation through and beyond loss:
These practices are not merely about being "good" or "healthy." They are proven to be the skills and practices that sustain individuals, families, and groups through widely ranging forms of loss. To learn more about how you or your organization can practice skills for resiliency, browse ICTG's downloadable guides, training materials, or contact us to learn more.
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From 2012-2021, this blog space explored expanding understanding and best practices for leadership and whole-community care.
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