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Empowering Educators to Liberate Students

Empowering educators to liberate students
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I was recently sent an Instagram reel from an educator that depicted a Black man giving a White woman money on the street. She responded by telling him that she wasn’t homeless, that in fact she was a teacher. The man’s response was hilariously painful, as he was even more adamant that she kept the money knowing that she was a teacher rather than someone who was experiencing homelessness. 


The reality of our underfunded education system creates more than disheveled teachers. The lack of resources and educator training, plus out-of-date policies and procedures are failing our kids and resulting in a school-to-prison pipeline. 


The school-to-prison pipeline refers to a disturbing trend where students, particularly those from historically disadvantaged backgrounds, are pushed out of schools and funneled into the criminal legal system


I know teachers that enter this difficult profession because they want to change the world. Their motive is to love, grow, and develop students into the future leaders that we deserve. They do not intend to push them into prisons. Too often when we discuss the school-to-prison pipeline we forget our educators’ intention and focus solely on their impact. As I’ve coached, trained, and supported many educators, (I’m also a father of an 8 year old who is statistically on the school-to-prison pipeline) I know educators unknowingly and unintentionally make decisions and have mindsets that are harmful to our students.


My intention in this blog is not to blame or point fingers. In fact, I want to encourage everyone who reads this to move away from pointing fingers at politicians, district leaders, or even our local educators. To truly understand the school-to-prison pipeline and how it is harming our children, we must see the real culprit as a cycle of violence rather than a singular person, profession, or identity. 


The Three Brain States

My friend Cheryl Step from Creating Resilience LLC, has described the impact trauma has on our brain states with a car analogy that I will never forget. In a nutshell, there are three brain states: the survival state, the emotion state, and the thinking state. 


The thinking state comes when we feel safe, connected, and significant. This is where we can dream, be creative, and have the hope to accomplish our goals. It is imperative that our educators can come to work in their thinking state. Many times schools suspend and expel students because they don’t have the resources or awareness necessary to keep teachers and administrators in their thinking states.


When a student comes to school having a bad day for a multitude of reasons, they can cause harm to themselves, other students, and the learning environments. It can be pivotal for students’ growth and development to be able to understand what’s going on inside of them so they can get their needs met without harming others. But this is a process and a skill that must be modeled and taught. Teachers can best do this when they are in their thinking state. 


The emotion state is like being in the back seat. During this state you are filled with emotions based upon the trust and security you feel with the person driving. If you do not trust the driver, you may experience feelings such as anxiety, worry or fear. Unlike in the trunk, you have more choices to consider. You can ask questions, you can try to back seat drive, or you can hop over the seat and fight for the steering wheel. 


We go from our thinking state to our emotion state when there is a disconnect between us and those who we perceive are driving the car for us. During my time working for a school, I often operated out of my emotion state. I hated seeing the harm done to students and I felt powerless to convince the people driving the car to see it as I did and to take it as seriously. I eventually became disgruntled and thought I was the only one who really cared about the students. If educators feel out of control and cannot bring their best selves to the system as it is, how can we expect students to do so? In fact, children have a sixth sense that detects when adults feel out of control which can be a catalyst for much of the behaviors that lead to their punishment. 


The survival state is when we really don’t feel safe so we respond with our fight, flight, or freeze responses. Cheryl compares this state to being forced into someone’s trunk and you have no say in where you are being taken so you can do nothing but kick, scream, try to escape, or just go along with it. 


Our education system has continued to push educators further and further away from the driver seat. Instead of our education system being driven by well-trained passionate individuals who care deeply about our children, it is being driven by detached policies, the fear of school shootings, and trauma responses to post-pandemic life. Many teachers who did not respond to the system through flight and leave the profession are showing up on edge. However, they are fighting for some level of control. Unfortunately the only way to get any sense of control is by punishing students for behaviors not conducive to learning. Other teachers are showing up in a freeze response. They are going through the motions and are not able to tap into the passion that they once had for teaching. Can you imagine being a teacher, let alone a student. in this survival environment?


What Harms You, Harms Me. What Heals You, Heals Me!

Often, asking our educators to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline with restorative justice feels like another thing that they must do when they themselves are trying to survive. They too are being impacted by the cycle of violence. They want to do better for our students, but without saying it, they are asking who is doing better for them? Who is being restorative for them? Who is supporting them to sit in the driver seat rather than the back seat or trunk? 


Our educators need us, as a community, to help restore them back to their thinking state. Instead of just informing our educators about the school-to-prison pipeline and asking them to do better, we want to equip them to liberate students. 

At RJIOK, we have adapted our restorative model to being more than just a tool or program to implement into a school. We know to truly be restorative it requires individuals to tap into their compassion, creativity, connection, curiosity, calm, clarity, courage, and confidence that can only be found in their thinking state. So our restorative justice is infused with a trauma-informed healing framework that helps restore people. 


You Can Empower Our Educators to Liberate Students

Instead of a cycle of violence that is permeating our schools, we want to see a cycle of healing starting with our educators.That is why we are asking our community to support our educators through our Giving Tuesday campaign. 


This year, RJIOK is raising funds to provide scholarships and stipends five local Oklahoma educators to our level 2 foundations course that goes beyond teaching restorative justice practices. The training is a journey of learning, unlearning, healing, and applying restorative justice to the ways we exist in this punitive state. 


Educators are given tools to not only see ways in which their trauma and past harmful experiences show up towards their students, but to begin to make different choices out of their core values. Our course offers a pathway for educators to get back into the driver seats of their brain states and off of a cycle of violence that harms our children. 


Will you join us this Giving Tuesday by donating and/or spreading the word about our movement for restorative educators? Learn more: https://givebutter.com/rjiok2023gt 

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Xavier Graves

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