A cautionary tale.
Sometimes we can get caught up in a seemingly feel-good story and miss that it might have a dark side. An article I wrote recently praising a middle school teacher's "baggage activity" is a perfect, personal example of this. I saw that the post had been shared widely, looked at the activity through my own lens as a former teacher and current parent of teens, and missed the red flags that those trained in trauma saw in it.
The viral post, shared by a veteran teacher, explained how she had her students write down the emotional baggage they were carrying around, wad up the papers, and toss them across the room. Each student then picked up a random paper and read it to the class. Students could share if they wrote it or remain anonymous. The teacher described how the students were moved by the activity, and how she felt it helped them develop empathy for one another. The bag of wadded papers hangs by the door to remind students "they are not alone, they are loved, and we have each other's back."
Again, I looked at the post through my own lens. My experience teaching middle schoolers was that despite appearances, they desperately want to be real—to share their struggles and have their experiences and feelings acknowledged. So many kids walk through the halls of their schools thinking they are alone, and I see value in letting them know that they are not. I also have a kid with mental health issues who has been helped tremendously by hearing from others with similar issues. And I've seen personal sharing activities like this have a positive impact on people in various settings, creating deeper connections with others.
But in sharing the post and singing its praises, I missed some things—some important things. My lens didn't include personal experience with severe trauma. It didn't include the principles of trauma-informed education, which came about long after I left teaching in middle and high school classrooms. It didn't include how anonymous sharing of abuse creates a conundrum for teachers as mandatory reporters.
Like hundreds of thousands of others, I took the post at face value and neglected to dig deeper into potential pitfalls of the activity. That was a mistake.
As trauma-informed teacher and researcher Addison Duane wrote, "Research has found that asking students to relive traumatic events or emotional moments during the school day can exacerbate a problem. The student may not give off any outward indication but the internal effects, according to doctors, are long-lasting. In fact, child advocacy centers are explicitly trained in not asking a child for a traumatic story more than once, to avoid further traumatizing."
Other social workers, mental health experts, and education professionals have expressed similar concerns with the classroom baggage activity. While well-intentioned, it may have a negative impact on students dealing with trauma. And while the activity was intended to bring students closer together, it also has the potential to create fodder for further isolation or bullying.
In addition, serious emotional issues are better handled by professionals in the mental health field than teachers in the classroom.
"Our students are living through far more traumatic times than we did," says Kellie Cashion, a former middle school teacher and current school administrator. "We should not compound that trauma by asking them to relive it in their classrooms with their peers, led by a teacher not a licensed therapist."
Teaching empathy is important, and finding ways to do that is a challenge. While this teacher may have known her kids well and had a sense for how to make the activity have the intended effect, it's not a model to follow blindly.
Many of us got caught up in the feel-good nature of the story and our desire for human beings to connect on an emotional level—and in the process we neglected the good work of trauma specialists and professional counselors who are trained and equipped to help kids navigate those waters in a healthy way. I know I did.
Let this be a cautionary tale for all of us who are desperate for stories of human connection. Not all feel-good stories are as uplifting as they seem, and while we don't need to look at every story with a negative eye, we do need to use a wider lens. Our optimism and intentions can blind us to reality, so it's vital that we take the time to dig deeper before sharing a seemingly positive story that may actually cause more harm than good.