Empowering Educators Through Trauma-Informed Education

In 2009, Alex Shevrin Venet graduated from the University of Vermont with a bachelors and a teaching license. Her plan was to become a public school teacher—but she found herself entering the workforce during the Great Recession. She had to redirect her energies, widening her search for any job that would accept her degree. “During my program I believed I was going to teach at a public school, because that’s what they prepare you for,” she explains, but she ended up finding a job teaching at and helping lead an alternative therapeutic school. 

“This was a whole new world to me,” says Venet, and she soon learned why it existed. The public school system had failed to support the specific needs of many of these students. “This really opened my eyes to what these specific students needed as well as what it was that was missing from all of these public schools,” she says. She realized that she needed to learn different tools to serve these students—and she began seeking them out. 

One tool she immediately found useful was Trauma-Informed Education, a framework and practice that specifically emphasizes supporting students who have experienced trauma while making the classroom environment caring and accepting for all. For Venet, this and other equity-based approaches became central to her work as an educator and, increasingly, a thought leader in education. These widening circles of interest led her to return to school—she graduated in 2014 from Antioch University’s MEd for Experience Educators. They led her to found her own consulting practice, to write two books for major publishers, and to come back to Antioch as an adjunct faculty member in the Experienced Educators program, where she shares her passion and insights with her students.

Finding Child-Focused Approaches

The ideas underpinning Trauma-Informed Education have been around for a long time, but they came into the classroom in the early 2000s. “Trauma-Informed care was originally developed in the mental health, behavioral fields, and that was in the ’90s,” says Venet. “After that idea had been articulated, it slowly poured into education and healthcare, only growing from there.”

For Venet, Trauma-Informed Education is complemented by another popular framework: Social Emotional Learning (SEL). This educational method seeks to address the problem of student academic difficulties by addressing both the social and the emotional development of the child. SEL’s founder, James Comer, himself had faced discrimination and a feeling of outsiderness as a Black student studying at a large, integrated university, and he came to see that educational systems fail their students when they focus on teaching a curriculum rather than focusing on the student’s development. SEL tries to take into account and respond to the circumstances being faced by a specific child, which makes it a natural complement to Trauma-Informed Education.

Today, Venet guides her own students through learning the origins of SEL and the ways that this practice has evolved. She also doesn’t assume that SEL provides a one-size-fits-all solution for all educational challenges. “In order to see what fits with me and my students, we look to organizations like the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning,” explains Venet. By looking at what this group and others recommend, she says that she and her students “often find similar themes in a lot of other human-centered education approaches.”

A major focus for Venet’s work is looking at how early in a child’s education these practices are being put into effect. Though SEL and Trauma-Informed Practice are useful for students of all ages, many educators agree that it’s best to begin as soon as possible within the classroom.

Venet says that we really need to transform our whole educational system. “If you have a high school student, and you start inviting them to reflect on their emotions, part of what makes it hard is that we don’t always teach students how to do this as they navigate the school system,” says Venet. She reflects on the school system that recognizes students only for their minds instead of seeing them for who they are as a whole. “As they learn, the school only values them for their test scores,” she says. “So if you start in pre-K and build the foundations there, then it gets much easier as you go through the whole system.”

A University That Matches Her Social Justice Values

As an educator, Venet has always integrated social justice into her work. So when several years into her career she began looking for a university to further her education, she realized that Antioch’s mission and values made it a perfect place to develop her skills and grow her own mission. “This was why I chose Antioch,” she says. “Becoming part of the Antioch community allowed me to find other educators who were also passionate about this.”

Laura Thomas, a longtime Core Faculty member and Director of the Experienced Educators program, was particularly generous and effective in helping Venet find other educators with a similar mission. “I give 99% of that credit to Laura Thomas because she’s excellent at making those connections,” she says. Thomas was Venet’s advisor and encouraged her to go to conferences in order to network and to find the resources she needed during her education. “Even though I was already on a path,” says Venet, “I felt like she really helped me expand from what I was doing in my own little corner in order to make new connections.”

In the years since graduating, Venet and Thomas have kept up a relationship—and it was Thomas who first invited her back to teach in the program. For Venet it’s a full-circle experience to now serve as faculty in the program that had such a big impact on her, serving alongside her old mentor. As she says, “It’s great to now have her as a colleague after having her as an advisor ten years ago.”

Antioch Course Succeeds on Practice

Venet always emphasizes to her students that whether or not they are currently focused on Trauma-Informed Education or Social Emotional Learning, they need to look at not just the in-classroom, teacher-student relationship but also the larger systems of administration and policy that establish the base structures of our educational systems. Venet says that these values can either be in sync or working against each other. “If you’re working with students on creating a safe environment to be vulnerable, then the school as a whole needs to have policies that aren’t harsh and dehumanizing,” she says. “Otherwise you’re fighting against the tide.”

One of the courses Venet teaches, “Weaving SEL with Equity, Trauma-Informed Practice, and PBL,” brings Social-Emotional Learning, Trauma-Informed Education, and Project Based Learning into conversation with each other. This last approach, an emphasis of Antioch’s New England-based education programs, encourages teachers to organize their lessons around larger projects that allow students to use exploration and curiosity as the engines of learning.

In this, as in all of her courses, Venet works to help educators realize that it’s okay to challenge patriarchy in the classroom. They can let go of the old standard where teachers see themselves as the central authority figures. “That’s a huge focus for me,” says Venet. 

One of the tools that she uses to encourage this transformation is something she calls the Whole Child Manifesto. “This is where students look at their core beliefs to determine what a ‘whole-child’ approach is,” she explains. This allows self-reflection, where Venet’s students determine what school means to them. Some of her previous students have come up with inspirational mantras like, “I believe everyone deserves care” and “I believe education can be transformative.”

This project allows students to move beyond buzzwords that are constantly changing and instead go back to the original core values of education. Venet explains that in this practice of writing down one’s ideas, “We can articulate them, and that’s really powerful.”

In general, Venet emphasizes taking time to integrate learning experiences and new concepts. “In my classes I do a ton of reflection time,” she says. “Different students figure out different strategies that work for them about self-care and mindfulness, and more importantly a lot of community building.” She strives to ensure that her students experience this practice of vulnerability and community-based learning being put into place in their graduate school setting at Antioch,.

Working Towards A Brighter Future 

Recently, Venet has been focusing on helping teachers make a change, wherever they are in their careers. Within educational circles she is co-founder of the Nurturing the Nurturers program, which brings together a healing community for educators. She’s also written two books. Her latest, Becoming an Everyday Changemaker, was published by the prominent academic publisher Routledge. It focuses on the idea that teachers have a surprising amount of power—and they can tap into their expertise and strength in order to make changes for more equity and more caring schools. She also keeps a blog at her website, Unconditional Learning, where she shares her own experiences and points to valuable resources for other educators.

And she enjoys teaching working educators through her role as an instructor at Antioch. Today, Venet tries to create for her students some of the same connections were so transformative for her. And she gets to see how new generations of teachers are finding ways to make big impacts on their students, schools, and communities. As she says, “My students really feel empowered and connected as changemakers.” 

All of this has come together to make a career more satisfying than Venet could have imagined, a decade-and-a-half ago, when she was struggling to find a public school teacher job. As she explains her career now, she says, “My work from here is really just to continue to try to empower teachers.”