Sometimes ideas from far sectors of my world converge in ways that send me spiraling (recursively? interpolatively? extrapolatively?) into some new inquiry that I could never have imagined before. That is what is exciting me and driving my thinking today, after reading an astounding piece by Richard Elmore about school improvement, hearing about the effects of fear on some significant changes in the life circumstances of my yoga teacher, and reflecting on an increase in my understanding about somatic responses to trauma that I’ve been offered by a colleague of mine with considerable expertise in that area (that last combined with my experiences with a brilliant somatic therapist who helped me address some of my own generational trauma). I am deeply grateful for these disparate sources of wisdom in my life, and then to see that in some mysterious ways they are weaving together a new understanding about my work just exponentially enlarges that gratitude.
Elmore describes the organization charts of most school districts as the “geological residue of generations of other people’s ideas about what schools need to do.” He sees those changes as serial and persistent, and as being the main source of incoherence in school systems. Each compartment in the organizational structure has its own self perpetuating constituency, and is self-reinforcing. He goes on to describe the incoherence across compartments (layers in this organizational geology) as constituting the central obstacle to large-scale improvement.
Those of you who have ever visited the Grand Canyon, maybe even hiked down through the layers of geologic history exposed there by faulting and erosion, will immediately have a visual image or visceral experience of this kind of deposition. It may start as soft mud or the dissolving bodies and shells of millions of years of crustaceans accumulating on an ocean floor, or the windblown cross-bedded layers of sand dunes in a desert. But over time those layers compact and harden, and become solid rock, and then through tectonic shifts, rise up or subside, and new layers of different materials begin to accumulate on top of them, weighing them down, bearing little resemblance or relation to the layers below. Keep that image in mind.
My yoga teacher, Abby Tucker, wrote last night, in a FaceBook post, the following:
“Fear gets you nowhere folks. Being scared of being disappointed or hurt is a scourge. It freezes you in inaction; imprisoning you in settling for less than what you dream of. And you don’t just hurt yourself in the process, your fear leaves a wake and strong ripple behind it. Thriving and fear can’t sit next to each other. There’s a reason nearly every murti has at least one hand in abhaya mudra [the mudra of fearlessness or, more apt, since we will all experience fear at some point, courage in the face of fear].”
Imagine the experience of fear freezing not only you, but leaving “a wake and strong ripple” throughout your life, like the metaphor of the butterfly’s flapping wings causing a hurricane somewhere distant in time and space. The wake and the ripple invade the lives of those around you, freezing everything, imprisoning you and the community of family and friends you surround yourself with in a world where you cannot reach or connect with what you dream of. Imagine the rigidity of a frozen world that cannot, because of that rigidity and fear, thrive. This narrowing, this constricting into brittleness, is what Gregory Bateson refers to as an “uptight system,” the brittleness of which cascades from one initial factor throughout the system to freeze everything, and result ultimately in system collapse. Certainly not thriving.
So that brings me to thinking about trauma, and a somatic perspective on trauma. As many of you who have visited a Rolfer, or acupuncturist, or many other kinds of body workers, or practiced yoga might know, there is a view, strongly supported now by neurological research, that the body “stores” trauma in various locations in muscular tensions, neurological patterns, and restricted energy flows. Many of these practitioners believe, with good evidence, that trauma unaddressed will manifest in a variety of physical and psychological conditions and diseases. Our body literally “freezes” into certain unhealthy patterns as a result of unaddressed trauma.
In effect, trauma layers rigidity into the geology of our bodies, just as Elmore describes educational bureaucracies as the geological residue of generations of ideas about what is the best new thing to make teachers do. I could argue that these generations of ideas, including the latest (hopefully slowly ending) decade or two of high stakes testing and punitive accountability systems and policies, constitute a state of chronic fear-based stress that has layered itself into the psyche and the bodies of all of us who work in the educational sector, and deeply into the neurological fiber, and the organizational “bodies,” of our school systems. This generational trauma has frozen us into a state of brittleness that makes us “settle for less,” quite considerably less, than what we dream of for our children and for ourselves, leaving the whole system unable to thrive, and vulnerable to collapse. We are working in a system so traumatized by fear that it has become like hardened layers of rock, vulnerable to fracture and erosion as the tectonic plates of global change shift and move beneath us. This may be the “central obstacle to large-scale improvement” that Elmore describes. Certainly, it is not a system that is thriving at present.
Now add to that geology the fact that a large percentage of our urban children and youth come to school in a state of chronic stress and trauma, not post-traumatic stress, but ongoing, daily traumatic stress, due to everyday conditions in their families and communities. That is not to say that there are not powerfully positive assets in the urban low income community that we could, and absolutely need to, mine, but that our students are, many of them, re-experiencing in our classrooms every day the triggers of trauma they also live out at home and in their neighborhoods. That trauma ripples through the classroom and school, triggering and traumatizing our teachers with what is called “secondary trauma.” So we have an additional daily layer being added to the already toxic layers in our educational system’s geology.
A “Blameless Critique:”
But lest you think I am somehow standing in some “holier than thou” position outside this system and critiquing it, let me say two things:
First, as Peter Senge says, there is no “outside” the system of education where anyone of us can stand to critique it objectively, whether we teach (which my wife does), work in education (which I do), are a student, or are a parent or other community member. Debbie Meier famously said, “We all of us [the adults, anyway] have at least thirteen years of experience in knowing how education is ‘supposed to be.’” Robert Penn Warren wrote this seemingly paradoxical admonition in his powerful “tale in verse and voices,” Brother to Dragons:
“The recognition of complicity is the beginning of innocence.
The recognition of necessity is the beginning of freedom.
The recognition of direction of fulfillment is the death of the self,
And the death of the self is the beginning of selfhood.
All else is surrogate of hope and destitution of spirit.”
I recognize my complicity in enabling this system to continue. I have real hope that we can all find some innocence, some sense of necessity, and then some freedom.
Second, Ted Sizer reminds us that our critique of the educational system is a “blameless critique.” The dysfunction of these geologic layers of incoherent bureaucracy and trauma cannot be blamed on anyone in particular; again, they are the residue of generations of what seemed at the time to be good ideas layered onto one another (this is not to ignore the layers of historic and systemic oppression that so many of our urban students bear the legacy of, and that of course contributes to their trauma; we once again all are in some way complicit in that, and the education system continues to replicate it even as it attempts to right the course and become more equitable in access, experience, and outcomes).
So, now what?
I do not wish to suggest there are simple solutions for this fear-based, brittle, frozen body we have created and inhabit in education. Elmore’s proposed solutions are structural and professional, and center around strategic approaches to supporting enhanced practice in the “instructional core” of the relationship between teachers and students in the presence of important content, all powerful and reasonable suggestions about how to overcome the incoherence of bureaucracy. But they do not go beneath all that to acknowledge and talk about the shadow side of the work, the hidden geology of layered traumatic response embedded, embodied in our frozen and brittle educational systems. Even if we put everything he suggests into practice, might we then yet just be able barely to sustain something positive; would we really be able to approach thriving? Would we be able to reach toward that which we dream of?
In many of our urban classrooms these days, there is talk and action around the use of various practices that help students feel calm, and settled, and safe, and give them the tools of self-awareness and self-management, and the ability to be in the middle of challenges and interact with others in effective ways. This is comparable to my yoga teacher telling us that our practice is to learn to breathe and be expansive, to create spaciousness before engaging muscle to bone, to find a way to open inner spaces, even in the most contracted poses, twists and binds, the ‘seed poses,” that might feel like the world has collapsed in upon us, which otherwise might engender fear and its ripple effects. And of course, what she tells us is meant to be transferable to our lives off the mat. So in our classrooms, increasingly we use “mindfulness” practices, restorative justice circles, ways to create spaces that have openness within predictable structures and processes, that surround our students with the experience of a caring and supportive system, even as we challenge them to take the risks inherent in higher levels of learning. We help students to become aware of the trauma they experience and to find ways to manage it, and in some communities, we deliberately use an engaged approach to the teaching of civics and history, and English, and other subjects to help our students situate themselves, find themselves, in the knowledge of their history and their language, and the power that those things offer to them to give voice to their own experiences, to become agents of change in their own communities, even providing opportunities for them to incorporate civic engagement into their learning and their culminating experiences in school.
These things are clues. Elmore says that improvement processes are symmetrical across levels in the system, that “[t]he same processes of learning and development, the same strategic choices, the same knowledge and skill are evident at each level, and the form they take is appropriate to that level.” So what do geology, fear, trauma, being frozen, breathing, and being courageous have to offer us? And what can we learn from watching the healing process unfold for our students that might be equally healing for us, the traumatized adults, occupying places in this system frozen with fear?
Clearly, there must be more that is needed to overcome fear and develop the courage to live in a softened geology, to create the spaciousness to breathe, to let in the air, to thrive! Perhaps the hand of the murti, raised to remind us that courage is an abiding choice, offers us some freedom to act. I am reminded of a Buddhist saying, “no muck; no lotus.” Besides the coherence strategy Elmore recommends, might we need to explore the dark shadowy, mucky spaces, dive down through the layers of bedrock, ignite the fires beneath the tectonic plates, cause the mantel to breathe and flow, open up some space, break the brittle geologic overburden up?
What might be the muck of our inquiry? What might constitute the courage we need to breathe fire and life into the darker regions, in the face of the hardened geology of fear and trauma?
In my own experience of coming to terms with generational trauma in my family, years of talk therapy (the verbal, transactional, structural world) yielded deep understanding of where it all came from, but little relief from the ingrained neurological and physical patterns that were the frozen geological residue of that trauma. Many years of showing up for and practicing, practicing, practicing yoga (parallel to Elmore’s belief that strategy and coherence come from practice, reflected on in good company, not from ideas or talk alone) gave me a deeper experience of the persistence, inquiry, self-compassion, and courage to create space for healing, and gave me new habits, both physical and mental, that enacted a healthier way of being, an unfreezing, an opportunity to go into the muck and abide there curiously and courageously, and possibly start to grow a lotus. But it was only in the addition of somatic work directly focused on inquiry into that trauma on a bodily level, and the actual fiery tectonic shifts that somatic work enabled, that I was able to break up some of my own geology of fear and find some sense that I could not only survive but thrive. That I could even imagine that I could reach for what I dreamed of.
Again, these are clues for our inquiry. As another yogic story tells us, the lord Ganesha, the elephant headed boy, stands at the threshold of our potential. He decides who passes and who does not. One of his symbols is the twisted trunk, that symbolizes that the pathway is not straight, but crooked. Another of his attributes is his capacity to remove obstacles from our pathway, and obstacles there will surely be. But also, he places obstacles in our way, to provide us opportunities for growth. Might our geology, our fear, our trauma be such obstacles, providing us opportunities for growth, to open up something far greater than we could even dream for? Might thriving be something far more powerful than we have imagined?
All of this implies an inquiry. What might a somatic collective healing inquiry in our educational organizations look like, especially one grounded in persistent practice? How might the practices we are using with our students help with our practice to heal adult systems? What courage, curiosity, and compassion would we need? What softening and opening? What breathing even in our tightly twisted and bound state, our frozen, fear-based geology?
I invite you into this space to explore with me.