Sometimes I think I have PTSD from failed change efforts.
I am not kidding. I have developed symptoms from living through nearly twenty years of failed education reform efforts. When I reflect on the many change efforts I participated in, I shudder. I try to block it out. I avoid discussing it.
There is an “activating” body memory (SE™ talk) for me that is associated with prescriptive change efforts. When I encounter a stimulus or trigger, like someone talking about a new protocol intended to bring about change, I cringe. I literally experience a contraction or tightening in my chest, a quickening of my breath. It happens when I hear people begin a sentence with, “these people…” implying that the problem lies outside not within. I am not making light of PTSD. I am referring to the powerful body stress response that ensues when someone encounters a trigger of a cumulative adverse life experience.
Last night, I note that my children’s school district had published something online about it being one of the “best school districts” in NH. When I review our proficiency scores at the high school, 53% of students are deemed proficient in reading and 37% in math. As I read these statistics, I can feel my blood pressure pumping in my ears.
I just about guarantee that these figures are more or less the same as they were before the enactment of “No Child Left Behind” legislation in 2001. The “status quo” of performance has been the trend across much of the country for over a decade. In my opinion, it’s because we have gone about change all wrong and it’s a significant fear I carry for the trauma-informed movement.
So it begs the question, why have my encounters with education reform efforts become a cumulative adverse life experience? Frankly, because the change efforts intended to help others do “better” have been about everything BUT THE PEOPLE.
Case in point, I remember working in school district that had a large discrepancy in the academic performance of special education students and non-identified students. What I refer to is better known as, “the achievement gap.” I wanted to be a part of the solution; I wanted to give voice and effort to equalizing the achievement potential of all students. So I volunteered to participate in a “focused-monitoring” initiative.
The focused monitoring initiative had stated objectives of narrowing the achievement gap with a “systems approach” and to significantly change the delivery of services, instruction, and assessment to students experiencing disabilities. These objectives excited me. I imagined really getting into the “meat” of inequity in education. Yeah…NO!
We met monthly for two years. Two consultants, “two experts,” led the group. They arrived with papers, agendas, articles for us to read. We had “assignments” to complete. We selected “interventions.” We reviewed data, identified KPI’s (key performance indicator), crafted a matrix of goals and dates to accomplish them. The whole experience conjured a deep “dread” within. Within myself, and within the group.
We were trying to function as machines – follow a linear sequence of steps, in a predictable, and most importantly, measurable fashion. The problem is…we aren’t machines.
The change effort was devoid of human process. There was no consideration of the whole, no cultivating collective wisdom, no deepening relationships between key stakeholders, no giving “time and space” for what may emerge, no discussion for underlying or systemic causes of an achievement gap. There was nothing about it that was about the human experience. The assumption was that students under perform because there was a failed method of instruction, a gap in curriculum, or an absence of proper assessment. The flaw was in the “mechanics” of education, not in the human systems.
The trauma-informed movement is facing much the same challenge.
We cannot become “trauma-informed” systems by simply modifying our modalities of treating PTSD, complex or developmental trauma. We cannot follow a simple road map or a 1,2,3 step guide to making change. The reason this fails, in the words of Ron Heifetz, professor of public leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School, is that the system, “is the way it is because the people in the system (at least those individuals and factions with the most leverage) want it that way. There is no such thing as a dysfunctional organization, because every organization is perfectly aligned to achieve the results it currently gets. The people are the problem and the people are the solution.”
Becoming a trauma-informed system is about creating conditions that mobilize people into thriving not just surviving. In order to move toward this kind of adaptive capacity, you have to generate huge gobs of psychological safety.
Curtis Ogden of the Interaction Institute for Social Change, is someone I have long admired. He writes it best, “working [change] through [systems] calls on a specific set of skills and sensibilities that may or may not be present in organizations and communities. This includes leading with building relationships and trust across boundaries (geographic, cultural, disciplines), understanding existing patterns of connection and what these facilitate in terms of outcomes and possibilities, creating space for open conversation and emergent thinking, valuing actual contributions over formal credentials, and embracing diversity and divergence.”
Someone must skillfully facilitate the aforementioned kind of human process so that a collective can assess the systems functioning from a 50,000 foot vantage point. Someone must guide conversations about uncomfortable topics such as, “what laden assumptions do we possess about those we employ and those we serve?” There has to be a willingness to speak and listen authentically and mindfully about power, privilege, and preference in the system.
Without good human process in the change efforts occurring in the trauma-informed movement, I fear that we will be end up exactly where we started – with the status quo. But I am not discouraged!
I have met the some of the smartest, most caring, most dynamic people in this movement. It’s beginning to heal my “change effort” PTSD. But if the human process thing is new to you, give me a shout. I love “geeking out” about how to do this trauma-informed movement with the “whole of us” in mind.