Summer Social-Emotional Support: Momentum Amidst Restoration

Counseling In Schools and Healing Schools Project discuss support even when school's out of session

Summer Social-Emotional Support: Momentum Amidst Restoration

Context in Culture and Community: Understanding the Concepts of Counseling

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

I’m really pleased to be here with Dr. Wenimo Okoya, who is the founder and director of the Healing Schools Project.

Wenimo Okoya, Ed.D., MPH  

It’s awesome to be here. 

Katherine Potts  

We’re glad to have you. We are almost in July, and I’m wondering – what do we do now? Do we wait around until the next school year? Don’t we do anything for teachers and students? What does that look like from a mental health space, as we’ve worked hard this year to integrate that as a priority? We can lose some time over the summer, and it makes it hard to come back. What are your organizations doing to remedy that?

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

The issue you’re raising there, Kat, is so present for me in Counseling In Schools work this year, connecting with schools and school communities. When you get to this time of the year, people are looking forward to getting some rest. This year really feels different. I think over the last two years, people have tried to hold a lot for students as well as themselves in their own lives. I don’t think it’s going to work just to turn the page because the calendar page turned to summer break. There’s an idea that distance from the work will help us get rejuvenation, but there’s a strong recognition from the people who work in schools as well as our staff that that just isn’t the case. I’m excited by what Healing Schools Project does in general, but certainly what you’re focusing on in the summer.

Wenimo Okoya, Ed.D., MPH  

I’m happy that there’s attention and that organizations like ours are paying attention to this. I taught in Newark, New Jersey, years ago. And I remember getting to June, being super excited for the break, and then excited to come back in July. My restoration was sort of on my own. But this year, because of the compounded trauma and burnout that teachers are experiencing, I think we’ve got to be really proactive about supporting them. Last year we said, “Okay, cool, that year was rough. Next year will be better,” and then we just expected this year to be better. But it was more complicated because kids returned with more complex emotional challenges. We were coming back with more emotional challenges, and school just kept going. So this year, at Healing Schools project, we’re trying to focus this summer on giving educators opportunities to engage in joy and rest and intentionally prioritize their healing.

We’re doing a couple of events, like an in-person event focused on self-celebration, to focus on joy. We’re going to have a DJ. We’re going to have a dance instructor. Folks who don’t dance can just bop to the music. Tap the foot, whatever works for you. We’ll do some differentiated celebrations for folks. We’re just excited to bring people together for opportunities to connect. In our work throughout the year, we mostly hold healing circles with educators and school leaders to branch connections to bridge connections. And I’m always surprised that the response is, “Wow, it’s so great just to sit down and talk and connect with my colleagues.” That’s just so critical at this moment. 

Katherine Potts  

To that point around connection, Kevin and I have talked a lot about the importance of human connection. Would you say what happens typically over summers, as teachers go off into their own lives, that they feel siloed, and then they come back into the year feeling even more disconnected?

Wenimo Okoya, Ed.D., MPH  

I think we’ve got to throw “typical” out the window because there’s no typical anymore. I’ve been thinking a lot about inertia. I think I experienced the inertia of isolation a lot, and many teachers were experiencing it. Usually, in summer, we want to go out and do things we enjoy, creating connections. But because we’ve been so isolated for so long, I think that if we’re not intentional about connection, we might fall into this inertia of just isolating. It might feel like we’re restoring. After all, we’re sitting in front of the TV binging Netflix and not necessarily seeing our friends because we need space from everyone. But, science says that what we need to heal is to connect. So even though we don’t feel like that’s what we need to do, it’s what’s needed. I’m a little worried that if we just do what we feel like doing, we might fall into a continued period of isolation because we’ve been in that for a long time.

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

I think a keyword that you’re saying is healing. When I think about injuries and healing like that, there needs to be an intention to get to the healing. We used the word trauma before. I’m describing what we’ve all been experiencing. Healing isn’t going to happen on its own. I was talking to someone in the organization recently who said we were all expecting a bell to ring saying, Wow, the pandemic is overNow back to your regular scheduled program, everyone. And there was no bell rang. There is no regularly scheduled program. We’re all still working our way through. I think the intentionality that you’re bringing to the table with your event and identifying these connection points is the prescription right now for what needs to happen.

Katherine Potts  

That makes a lot of sense. If you take the idea of healing outside of the school context. You don’t take a summer break from healing. You don’t take a few weeks off. It’s an ongoing journey. Taking that logic and applying it to a school system where the students and the teachers need it, we have to use that same thinking. It’s going backward if we just abruptly stopped the efforts in summer.

Wenimo Okoya, Ed.D., MPH  

Exactly. And something that Kevin said made me think how we’ve experienced his trauma, but the trauma happens on a collective level. So while we need to do our individual healing, healing needs to happen collectively as well. I found myself seeking time to spend with friends and family and just ensuring I’m building authentic connections with people and leaning on my community. When it gets to Friday or Saturday or June 30, it’s really easy for educators to think, “Alright, I’m going to take a break.” When I was a teenager, I played volleyball and had to get physical therapy on my ankle. And I went to PT every week until the therapist said I’d made enough progress. But he said to go home and do these exercises. I didn’t do them because I thought I was healed. I wasn’t. I should have continued to do the exercises, even though I was separate from this system of therapy.

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

It takes a certain kind of discipline. You have to push through some resistance mentally. It can feel like work at a time when you don’t want to be doing any work. When people do that work, there’s a different level of energy that comes off afterward. And that resistance turns into positive energy.

Wenimo Okoya, Ed.D., MPH  

I’ve we’ve seen that as well. We’ve had teachers who’ve done circles at the end of the year, in the last week of school, and when people walk into the room, they feel like they just really don’t want to be there. And by the end, they’re saying, “Wow, that is exactly what I didn’t know I needed.” They’re re-energized by it. I think that all of us can relate to that experience. You don’t feel like going out, and then you go out and connect to someone you haven’t seen and think, I’m so glad I did that

It sometimes feels easier at the moment not to reach out and connect. But I also want not to put so much onus on the individual because I think the language around self-care can be harmful. We try to promote community care because we need to provide the infrastructure and consider the context of a situation, which is why we want to create space for people to connect. We know that it’s not people’s default to do that.

Katherine Potts  

For some people, it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel when you’re against that wall. But when you have people around you that are supporting you, and you have an infrastructure, and you’re doing what you’re doing for teachers and creating motivation and support, it is a little bit easier to have someone saying, come out, we’re here to support you. Come for a little bit, come for two minutes, then you’re there for two hours.

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

Part of the synergy between Counseling In Schools and Healing Schools Project is creating that community aspect. These are elements of a school experience. That socialization, that emotional impact that is going to happen but doesn’t necessarily get planned for or is intentionally created. It is rare to have a school come up with something like this that’s meant to be part of the structure of implementing the educational practice. I think that’s something that elevates this conversation and platform to advocate for educational reform that takes care of the educator in a way that maybe the educator doesn’t even know they’re going to find useful.

Wenimo Okoya, Ed.D., MPH  

And it’s not zero-sum. Our tagline is, Heal teachers, heal students. We’re connecting the educators’ well-being so they can show up in front of their students and be their best selves. So when they get home, they can be themselves, and they can come to school more rested. We have to take a more holistic approach to this work. We’ve also started adding administrators to our work and doing healing circles with them because they’re coping with teacher shortages and burnout and teacher stress. I’m worried that next summer, we’re going to be reading about admin shortages and admin stress and admin burnout. We just have to figure out ways to take care of the people in our system. And like you said, Kevin, build it into the structures that already exist and make it just the way that we do school. So healing work be built into PD time and be seen as a professional development moment.

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

Or even redefining the concept of professional development. There’s almost an insinuation that says you’re not developed enough. And people might be feeling like, I don’t know, I’m pretty well developed. But if we treat these folks with an understanding of their humanity and whole selves, that will allow them to pass that along to the group they’re responsible for. And if we don’t, we’re just hoping they figure out how to do it on the next level, which won’t be sustainable.

Katherine Potts  

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel necessarily. It’s like leveling up. And I think that’s probably where some schools get intimidated, thinking they have to scrap everything and start over. We don’t have to do that, but we need to be better for tomorrow and the students. How can we make this sustainable?

Wenimo Okoya, Ed.D., MPH  

An analogy that I often use when talking to administrators about a healing culture is that if schools are a soup, we’ve been focused on the ingredients for a long time. And the ingredients matter. We have high-quality vegetables, or meat or tofu, but it takes careful tasting and a lot of talent to get the broth right. And we’ve not focused so much on the broth. So how can we ensure that we’re doing a bit more broth work because soup does not taste good without good broth. Everyone needs to be on the same page about what’s needed to make the broth taste the way you want it to. How do we try to shift school culture to promote and support community care?

Katherine Potts  

I think some schools or individuals get stumped. What do we do? Is there any interest? 

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

There is a pause and a start to what we’re talking about right now. And I think what we would rather have is continual integrated practice. If we’re coming back from a challenging year, a school might say, Alright, we’re going to take the first two weeks and focus on this. And we welcome that. But that’s just the first two weeks. There are forty-one others to follow. The practice should be integrated into a daily routine. There are routines that you can do in a classroom that helps open up a sense of connection and humanity amongst the group. It doesn’t have to be a big therapy session, but it can just be a way of saying, let’s connect on a human level for two minutes and feel each other’s presence as people in a room. And now we’ll start to move towards what they accomplish as a group and people can feel a little bit safer around feeling vulnerable. Learning is a lot of vulnerability. And when you’re traumatized, and you’re coming in feeling trauma, you are not going to open to that vulnerability. That leads us to all kinds of other challenges. That’s true for the teaching staff as well. 

I think that there’s also a culturally responsive practice in the healing work that’s important to recognize, which is that everybody coming into that building is carrying with them some part of this experience that’s embedded in how they experience the world on their own, and how the world has treated them. You need to find things that create human connection and allow people their own experiences. Saying this is what we’re always going to do, and how we’re going to do it can start to skew towards one cohort of people, one type of person, or one ability.

Wenimo Okoya, Ed.D., MPH  

Healing work is equity work. So much of what we’ve been taught and what we’ve been conditioned to think is is rooted in in racism and white supremacy. This idea that we grind and grind and grind and grind and grind. We don’t consider the people that are most marginalized, and what types of healing that they would need. 

When we designed Healing Schools Project, we actually started by thinking about what educators of color needed because one, they continue to be the smallest proportion of the school. Across the country, educators of color only make up 10% of educators. In New York City, they only make up 20% of educators, despite the fact that 80% of our students are students of color. Research supports that students benefit from being taught by educators of color. But they’re not staying in the field. They have higher attrition rates than their white counterparts. So we thought if we can design for them and create an intervention that heals and supports them but will also support white teachers, if we design spaces and interventions for people of least access like black trans disabled women, we would be done having this equity conversation. So it’s really baked into our design that we really need to consider the folks that are most marginalized in whatever it is that we’re doing. 

The healing circle comes from indigenous practices. And many of the healing practices we use come from communities of color. Mindfulness comes from Buddhism and Asian communities. Some of the healing practices we use come from African traditions and Latin traditions and indigenous traditions. Turns out, white folks also benefit from doing yoga and mindfulness and healing circles and most other practices. But we just designed for the people who have least access. 

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

We’re seeing the impact of what you’re describing and how restorative practices build community. And it’s a human approach to building community. It starts with equity. Something that’s just so visceral when joining a circle is an evenness about them. And it is interesting to see some people who have been steeped in a hierarchy or have their own sense of power come into a circle and struggle a little bit to feel comfortable. It is distinct from that sense of there being more of a triangle that runs things and less of a circle.