By Dana Asby, CEI Director of Innovation & Research Support
A lesson that COVID-19 has reinforced for many school communities this year is that to overcome difficulties, we must work together to support each other. The trauma of this global pandemic has affected each of us in different ways, at different times, but having trusted colleagues in the fight alongside us has made shouldering the burdens of this challenge a little easier. Kristen Levesque and Dwayne Conway, Childhood-Trauma Learning Collaborative (C-TLC) Fellows and administrators in the Maranacook, Maine community, have demonstrated the power of working better together to lift up the staff, students, and families in their school communities.
Mentorship: A Tool for Mutual Learning
For years, Dwayne was Kristen’s mentor, in the role of school administration. Now, both Kristen and Dwayne are principals in the district, Kristen at the middle school and Dwayne at the high school. While Kristen is the formal mentor for Dwayne with C-TLC, the reality of it is that there is a long term mentorship relationship between the two of them. Learning goes both ways, and they rely on each other to support their mutual growth as mindful educational administrators.
In this year of rocky roads, mentorship hasn’t always come easy as the demands on administrators have outstripped their resources and time. Kristen and Dwayne recently presented Mentorship: Lessons Learned at the Spring C-TLC Fellows Meeting. In their presentation, they discussed the importance of making time to learn from each other, but admitted that without a more formal schedule and system of accountability, the mentorship became less about sharing tools and resources or problem-solving and more about getting through the administrative to-do’s on their plates. After some reflection, Kristen and Dwayne have recommitted themselves to carving out time to help each other continue to grow as compassionate school leaders addressing trauma and mental health.
Visioning Together for a Compassionate School District
Both Kristen and Dwayne have been interested in the positive effects of trauma-responsive practices for many years. For Kristen it started when she worked at a camp for children with a trauma history during her high school years:
This experience profoundly changed me as I started to see the impact that abuse, poverty, separation, and neglect had on children. When I was older and started my career as a high school counselor, I quickly saw the impact of trauma on academics. Overcoming trauma takes an immense amount of resiliency and vulnerability. This is often insurmountable to do when the trauma is still happening. Even once the trauma is over, trust and strength take time. All of this is a lot to ask anyone, but especially a child or teen who is trying to learn and prepare for the rest of their life. This is ultimately why trauma-informed practices became a passion of mine—schools are responsible for preparing youth for life after high school. This includes the development of academics and social emotional skills.
Dwayne’s upbringing motivated him to learn more about how trauma affects student behavior:
When I eventually entered into education, I often would find myself resonating with some of the students that seemed to have one barrier or another which impacted them from learning. Almost daily I am reminded of how important it is to see the whole child when working with students. I know that every student and adult wants to learn and grow, but often past experiences and situations inhibit our ability to engage and grow. I am so thankful that more than ever we realize the impacts of trauma and the importance of social and emotional learning. What an exciting time to be in education!
Now that they are both administrators in the same school district, they are thinking about how to share trauma-skilled practices not just in their schools, but throughout the district. As Kristen has taken on a role coordinating social emotional learning (SEL) programming for the district, she has been able to advocate for its importance, because as she knows, “To help a child gain the most skills possible, first, they need to be safe—emotionally and physically.”
Inspiring Schools Throughout the State and Region
In addition to wholeheartedly implementing social emotional learning, Maranacook schools are also communicating their intentions to stakeholders in the district and the wider community so that everyone knows what’s essential to recover from COVID-19 and build the resilience needed to overcome any future challenges. Kristen and Dwayne’s district released a public statement that SEL is the top priority for the schools. Dwayne said, “This has continued to be the sentiment made and reminded to the community, teachers, and administration. That is one huge step. Restorative practices are also playing a big role at both the middle school and high school. Finally, our advisor system and implementation of an SEL curriculum has helped to support the SEL of students. This adult plays a major role in the student’s life, and that adult is often identified as the ‘safe’ staff member that the student will go to at school when they are in crisis.”
Through their work presenting to other school leaders across New England in the C-TLC and sharing resources and strategies with colleagues in their district and state, Kristen and Dwayne have been able to inspire other administrators to put SEL first so that students who have experienced trauma are able to build the emotional regulation and executive functioning skills needed to achieve academic success.