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Entering the school year prioritizing the heart, proceeding with grace


When thinking about the start of yet another unpredictable and unprecedented school year, the word that keeps repeating itself in my head is “grace.” The dictionary defines grace as “a disposition to or an act or instance of kindness, courtesy, or clemency.”

Kindness, compassion, lenience, and mercy. Grace for the educators and all student support staff, grace for our administrators. Grace for our youth, grace for our families, grace for the school board members and policy makers. Our own internal capacity to allow a graceful disposition at this moment, to take a breath before reacting, to center our responses from a place of love, empathy, and compassion is needed now more than ever.  We must recognize and remember one another’s humanity in the midst of so much chaos.

I am a big believer in assuming positive intentions and unconditional positive regard. I usually believe that people are doing the very best they can in the best way they know how at that moment. Watching and working with the educators where my children attend school, talking to the administrators and teachers I know, talking to other parents across the country, speaking with state leaders and policy makers, I don’t know one of those humans who isn't doing the very best they can with what they have to work with in that moment. They care so much it hurts to watch. And they are already exhausted….in August. This is not sustainable. We cannot ask those involved in an untenable and unjust system to be more resilient! Be hard on systems and soft on people.

Mathew Portell (photo by Mathew Portell)

Mathew Portell, friend, colleague, and the wonderful principal of Fall-Hamilton Elementary in Nashville, recently joked (but not really), “Being a principal right now is feeling similarly to standing on the highest crate of the milk crate challenge!” (Photo courtesy of Mathew Portell)

All of our most current research and understanding of how the brain and nervous system work emphasizes that a felt sense of safety (psychological, physical, emotional) and feelings of connection and belonging are the pathways to learning and the realm of social engagement. This is for every human body, not just students. In order for a school to achieve academic goals, it must prioritize providing a felt sense of safety and foster a sense of belonging above all else. This is true in all the complex dynamics that exist in a school, between district staff and school administration, admin and teachers, teacher to teacher, teacher to student, student to student, and, of course, out to our families as well.

There are many, many ways to do this. A total shift in school culture with these priorities in mind is the goal, but this is a journey of a thousand miles, and there are small things that can be done right away. Just one step starts the journey. Here are some of my favorite recent resources.

  • Schools are ideal settings to nurture positive childhood experiences (PCEs), the buffers to experiencing adversity and toxic stress in childhood. PCEs such as a sense of belonging in school, feeling supported by friends, and having at least two non-parent adults who take a genuine interest in you are examples that can be cultivated in a school setting. I have been very encouraged lately by the rise in healing-centered schools; you can check out examples in Chicago and the Bronx. There also is an excellent brief from Policy Analysis for California Education on Healing-Centered Community School Strategies. All of these resources offer frameworks and suggestions for getting started. This is the future of the movement.
  • Here’s a resource I love so much that I wrote a whole blog about it: Reimagine and Rebuild California Schools/ Restarting School with Equity at the Center. This has many tools to help districts start off the new year with relationships and equity at the center. The site has a brief, a full report, and a ready-to-go slide deck for you to share with your local education leadership. If you are not from California, that is fine! Some of the funding information is California-centric, but the rest is applicable to all school systems. Another thing I truly appreciate about this resource, and what makes it stand out for me, is that they follow it up with this statement: “Once these restorative practices have begun, education leaders—along with school staff, families, students, and other community stakeholders—must sustain and take further action to transform their schools and systems for equity, permanently.” This report acknowledges from the very beginning that the ”normal” of school was not working for many before the pandemic and we need to do things differently. I was very heartened to see they devoted a whole section to empowering teams to collaboratively reimagine and transform the entire system for the future, with many voices at the table. And please visit their art gallery with downloadable images that promote these ideas --  it is fantastic!
  • Great ideas on building relationships and community, activities that can be implemented tomorrow, and prioritizing social and emotional learning can be found at places like Edutopia (here are their nine strategies for community building).
  • The National Equity Project offers excellent resources such as the Cultural Synchronization Questions and other Equity Tools.
  • The School Reform Initiative has a long list of protocols that encourage equity in voice, collaboration, collective classroom norm building and more.
  • Of course, there is our own PACEs in Education community, where resources and ideas are shared almost daily. If you are not yet a member, please join.

Wherever you go for resources and support, the important thing is to prioritize the heart and proceed with grace. We are in uncharted waters. If we can go forward with the intentions of embodying grace, humanity, love, compassion, and empathy we will be better humans for it in the end.

As writer Anne Lamott said: “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace -- only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”


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  • APortell

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Lara, I am so happy to see that PACEs now has an Education Consultant on staff!

I'm hoping that part of your work will involve speaking with individual communities (virtually, of course) to foster more trauma care in our schools. Please let me know if we can work with you --thanks in advance

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