Featured Fellow: Joelle Brookner Demonstrates Leadership and Compassion in her Western Massachusetts School District

By Dana Asby, CEI Director of Innovation & Research Support

When Joelle Brookner became a Childhood-Trauma Learning Collaborative (C-TLC) Fellow, she was the principal of Williamstown Elementary School, a Pre-K-6 school of over 400 students in the northwesternmost part of Massachusetts. Her leadership in that school for many years earned her the respect and recognition of colleagues, parents, and the community. She has recently transitioned into a role as the Director of Curriculum and Instruction for her district, Mount Greylock Public Schools, where she plans to continue bringing trauma-skilled education to students in the Berkshires.

A Foundation of Connection

Joelle attributes her success as a leader to the care she takes to form relationships with those she works for and with. When we asked her how she supported her students as a principal, she replied,

“I know my students; this is, to me, the most important thing any school leader can do. My assistant principal and I made it a point to greet every child by name every morning and welcome them to school. With the help of their classroom teachers, we got to know them. We made sure they felt seen, wanted, respected, and loved. We communicated regularly with community partners like after school care providers, the Department of Children and Family Services, counseling services, and medical personnel to stay apprised and share about how children are doing and to plan for unmet needs.”

Joelle doesn’t just build relationships with staff, students, and community partners. As someone who has worked closely with children for over three decades, Joelle has always known the value of understanding the backgrounds of her students and their families and has also strived to make connections with families to best support children. In fact, a parent of a student who is a licensed social worker who knew about Joelle’s passion for social emotional learning and who serves on their regional strategic planning committee encouraged Joelle to become a C-TLC Fellow. Her strong background in mental health services and work in both early intervention as well as college-level health education made her an ideal candidate for the C-TLC Fellowship Program.

A Transformational Leader with a Vision to Heal Trauma

“I think I officially ‘arrived’ at becoming trauma-informed when, as principal, more and more students were coming to school with significant behavior issues, from disassociating, to other kinds of withdrawing, to explosion and aggression. More and more of our students were unable to access learning and were creating disruptions in the classroom that were unsafe and/or making it difficult for their peers to learn. Teachers were referring these students to the office often, and my assistant principal and I found ourselves struggling to handle behaviors, because we were not getting at the core reasons behind them.”

This all led to the steps Williamstown Elementary took below:

  • To make social emotional needs a major priority for their school, Williamstown built it into every aspect of what they do in their community. The first goal of their School Improvement Plan was focused on SEL and trauma—educating teachers and the community, while creating safe spaces for children. It eventually became part of their District Improvement Plan. By engaging in strategic planning, the district formalized the need to address social emotional health, trauma, and anti-bias issues, which affects all decision making and greatly influences budgetary discussions.
  • Williamstown also hired a school social worker who quickly became a key member of the school-based child support team. The support for this new position is a direct result of work around school and district planning.
  • Joelle’s teachers are dedicated to doing whatever they can to help students learn, but they needed to recognize and understand trauma so that they could see students’ behavior at more than face value. So, Joelle provided staff with ample professional development opportunities to understand trauma. They went beyond merely the neurobiology and what behaviors can look like. They also explored how teachers can develop classrooms and their school into safe, welcoming, supportive spaces that nurture children regardless of what heaviness they carry with them.

Joelle’s vision for working towards becoming a compassionate school community centers around understanding, communication, and planning: “Strong communication about children is critical; administration, teaching, and support staff need to share information and problem solve about individual students to find ways to help them be successful. A compassionate school community reaches out to families and, without judgement, invites them to be partners to plan for students’ safety and success.”

Bringing Expertise from the School to District Level

The effect Joelle’s compassion and expertise have had on her elementary school did not go unnoticed. Her school community recognized the successes at Williamstown, such as a 25% reduction in office referrals and wanted to see more across the district. Joelle is excited to expand the reach of the work she does in her local community and with the C-TLC: “I am going to continue on my personal quest to make our school district trauma-informed. We’ve done some education on this and will continue to do that. We’re going to see more trauma in the fall. The social emotional learning piece is incredibly important. It encompasses anti-racism, implicit bias, and mindfulness, all under the SEL umbrella.”

As she reviews three possible re-opening scenarios, all of Joelle’s plans include an emphasis on SEL and connection for students, staff, and families. “Our focus is going to be on relationships. How are we going to reset connection? Even if we are distant, how can we strengthen connections?”

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