A group of protestors from the immigrant and black communities march silently and in single file along Grand Street in New Haven to the New Haven Green to show their solidarity in fighting against racial injustice last June. Cloe Poisson / CTMirror.org

Whether we should teach the whole student is no longer negotiable. It is an absolute and necessary methodology in these tumultuous times.

During what is the worst period of racial unrest in this generation, I’m challenging Connecticut teachers and educators everywhere to rise to the occasion and adopt culturally responsive pedagogy in their classrooms and in every student interaction.

This country tends to cling to old ways, appreciate familiarity, and embrace a mentality of ‘If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.” But the reality is that the system is broken. As a result, students and teachers of color are experiencing compounded trauma at the hands of preserving the status quo.

Our educational system is no stranger to this. But through the years it has become more evident that we are failing to adapt.  As the needs of our students change, especially in our urban schools, the approach to teaching must also change. Legacy educational strategies have become obsolete. Virtual classrooms are an obvious and clear way that change is necessary, now.

Connecticut’s teaching force is predominantly white and students of color in urban districts are likely to have a teacher from out of district who doesn’t look like them. That’s why a deep understanding of urban trauma and the work it takes to ensure every student — regardless of racial background — can learn and be whole is more important than ever.

Oftentimes school life and home life for students are treated as two separate entities — when in fact, we know that one has a major impact on the other. In order to be responsive and truly equalize opportunity for all students, teachers must be aware of how the racial trauma experienced outside of school affects a student’s ability to learn.

As a field, education reform has spent a significant amount of time working to close the “achievement gap” by focusing solely on improving academic performance. This oversight neglects the social-emotional needs of the students and ignores the obstacles outside of school that may negatively contribute to the academic performance of diverse students.

Through my work in urban trauma, I’ve seen the disparities that plague our communities as a result of these practices and oversights. Inevitably, students who struggle with a traumatizing event outside the classroom or have underlying mental illnesses will face a decline in performance.

Students can often feel defeated and alone when this is the case. There is added pressure in pushing these outside obstacles to the sidelines to achieve academic success while continuing to face trauma on a possibly daily basis. That’s why teaching practices that place a higher value on education than it does on the quality of a student’s life outside the hallways is not anchored on racial equity.

There needs to be a shift. We can no longer accept teachers separating the trauma from the student, especially districts that are focused on racial justice. There must be as much emphasis on social and emotional wellness as there is on academic achievement. This requires curricula that are culturally responsive as well as mandating that teachers receive specialized training on racial trauma. The era of teachers’ reluctance to educate all aspects of a child is coming to an end.

It’s maladaptive and naive to believe that the same strategies and approaches that are effective in a suburban school district will garner similar results when applied to an urban district. The vast majority of students in suburban schools are entering the school halls from a place of privilege through the financial backing of their communities. These districts are abundant in resources and urban or racialized trauma is minimal. If we ever hope to close the gap, we must address these inequities — starting with addressing racial trauma.

I believe we have an opportunity to create a healthier social and emotional environment for urban schools while teaching a true and congruent history within both urban and suburban districts. Through this, students from all walks of life can share a common history and knowledge that will change the perpetuation of hate by developing healthy adults that are anchored in love and unity instead of misinformation.

I challenge teachers, especially those that come from outside our urban districts, to view their positions differently and invite the students’ whole selves into their classrooms.

This imperative is, in part, why I recently released urban trauma training courses to ensure that allies in all professions, especially those working with young people, are equipped to make an actual impact and understand racism’s effect on people of color. These courses allow you to better understand the principles of Urban Trauma which will serve to help you in living an anti-racist life.

This course was created for educators who are interested in being a part of the solution and want to learn more about Urban Trauma in order to fight for racial justice. Urban Trauma Informed and Urban Trauma Certified courses are available online today.

Our nation is presently immersed in the thick of racially and politically charged turmoil, our students feel that tension everyday in their lives outside of school. Students should be able to view school as a safe space, one where their outside problems are acknowledged, validated, and considered when concerning their academic works. Teachers must immediately adjust their modality to fit the students whom they serve, learn the demographic of the school in which they teach, and truly immerse themselves in understanding the outside influences and how they may present themselves in school.

Our young people are innately intelligent, they know when they are being heard. They know when a relationship is authentic and transparent. If this adjustment cannot happen, teachers will be left behind as parents and students will begin to take control of their own education and well-being. Our youngest generations have the ability and drive to organize and create change in the midst of a pandemic and I’m confident that they’ll use that same drive to take control of their education.

We can’t afford to be unresponsive to this moment of racial unrest, and neither can our students. Without major changes to what is expected of teachers, students will either suffer compounded trauma or take the change into their own hands.

Our students will change the field of education if we don’t!

Maysa Akbar PhD, is  Founder and CEO of Integrated Wellness Group in New Haven.

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