Building belonging can be tricky.

It’s SO easy to accidentally make someone feel MORE isolated.

By Luci Englert McKean, NSRF Assistant Director and International Facilitator

Image of plastic shopping bag stuffed with paper

Recently a teacher posted in social media an activity she used with her students to “leave behind their baggage” at the start of the school year. She was so enthusiastic about her experience, thousands of readers resonated with her desire for students to feel better about their lives and build compassion for their classmates. So readers’ “likes” and “shares” sent the post viral, and it was picked up by a slew of aggregators as well as mass media. 

Clearly this teachers’ heart is in the right place: she wants all of her students to be able to start the year fresh. She wants her entire class to be more mindful of the struggles their classmates and others may be facing. She wants them all to remember to be compassionate and patient with one another.

And perhaps the experience she described was, in fact, completely healing for everyone participating. But at NSRF, we are careful when we build protocols and activities to consider unintended outcomes. We think about building trust and belonging over time, and to avoid actions that crush rather than foster trust. So reading this activity and so many positive comments, we had some strong concerns about it being repeated throughout the country. 

Let’s talk seriously about details that could have caused TERRIBLE consequences in that activity, so you can consider these aspects for yourselves when thinking about leading other activities. Three key issues popped out at us when we read the activity description:  Confidentiality, Consent, and Power. Read on for details.

While the teacher surely had good intentions, here are some of the reasons why “The Baggage Activity” is so ill-advised.

First, considering the audience of this blog are primarily CFG Coaches, let’s just look at it from the perspective of someone running a written protocol or activity (even though this is clearly NOT an NSRF activity).

  • It’s not clear whether she explained in advance that these stories would be read aloud or that they would be kept on display in the classroom. Students will feel very differently about expressing information if they think they’re sharing it solely with their teacher than broadly with their entire class, and having classmates reading the papers aloud makes it extra vulnerable. Participation indicates basic consent by the student (remembering the power dynamic makes it nearly impossible to say no), but if the rules “change” AFTER a student hands in a paper, that can be a profound breach of trust. 
  • In multiple ways, the teacher promised anonymity and then broke it.  First, she asked students (who might recognize unusual handwriting or ink) to read the papers aloud.  Second, she publicly asked for each “anonymous” person to claim their story after it was read, thus ignoring her own power and the power of peer pressure. Third, because the teacher displayed the “bag of baggage,” the physical evidence remains in the classroom tempting anyone to dig through and read, and possibly use the information to further traumatize her students both in and out of the classroom, and even publicly in social media.
  • As mentioned at the top, teachers should be aware of their role and the power they hold when asking for any personal information from their students. There is no evidence of this consideration happening with this activity. If a student is savvy enough to withhold information to protect themselves, then the teacher is putting them in a position to lie or hide, in effect decreasing support. And if a student feels they have no choice, or feels desperate enough to share without considering the consequences (or KNOWING the consequences, since they weren’t outlined), that can be crushing.
  • She selected an activity that has considerable risk as a start-of-the-year icebreaker, assuming that every student in that middle school classroom was already prepared to reveal themselves relatively intimately. In contrast, in our training and materials, we outline ways to gradually get to know one’s students and letting them get to know each other, building trust through intentional, scaffolded actions over time.

Good intentions do not outweigh the consequences of our behavior.

Again, based on the original post, we know that this teacher had the best of intentions: wanting her students to build compassion with one another. We can also presume she posted “the baggage” as an ongoing physical reminder for all to be kind to those who are struggling. But even if the physical “evidence” doesn’t remain available, the memories last, and even the most subtle of injuries reported here (people laughing over the death of a pet guinea pig) have profound effects on trust and belonging.

Revealing intimacies without having first built substantial trust in their teacher and their peers is far, far too risky.

According to Alex Shevrin Venet, a trauma-informed education consultant, research shows that students who are asked to relive a trauma during a school day experience lasting negative effects that may not be visible to the teacher. So even if everything “looks good,” that doesn’t necessarily mean a teacher unwisely wielding this sort of activity won’t inadvertently re-traumatize their students and create “vicarious trauma” in those who are hearing about the trauma of others. Beware of saviorism and remember that owning your impact is far more important than simply having good intent.

Teachers are not therapists (and neither are CFG coaches!). They are unlikely to be skilled in helping an individual student conveying deep trauma, or even skilled in managing a classroom that includes a number of students who will have strong emotional response to these stories. Before you conduct a risky activity, consider less-intrusive trust-building activities that can accomplish the same results (such as ones NSRF has written and vetted). As you build greater trust within your classroom, you can look at somewhat more intimate activities. A first step when considering trust-dependent activities may be to seriously consider how you might attend to everyone in the classroom 1:1 after that activity, or what the outcome will be when you dismiss them to other teachers’ classrooms immediately afterward.  Also consider whether other educators in your building are skilled in attending or prepared to attend to the fallout of any riskier activity.

Always take care not to push too far in a group or too far, too soon in paired activities with your students. The fact that some students may write very intimate details does not indicate trust and safety in the group or of the teacher. In fact, “oversharing” can be a sign of past trauma and need for support, particularly when that happens with someone who shows some interest but has not yet proven they are trustworthy.

Belonging isn’t a given. It’s not a starting point but a process. Even getting “buy in” to the idea of building belonging needs to be a process.

What to do instead?  For those of you who’ve taken CFG Coaches’ Training, remember the activities we did at the start of the week or consult the Suggested Agendas in your CFG Coaches’ Handbook.  And for those of you who haven’t been trained as CFG Coaches yet, what are you waiting for? 😉

Luci Englert McKean, Assistant Director for the NSRF, is co-editor of the Critical Friends Group Coaches’ Handbook used in CFG Coaches’ Training and co-author of the Building Belonging in the Classroom Handbook used in those trainings. She would love to read both warm and cool feedback around anything you read on the NSRF website, including this blog post.

If this content interests you, please check out our Building Belonging in the Classroom training or attend one of our Open Trainings for new Critical Friends Group Coaches.  While the CFG Coaches’ Training focuses on collaboration with your peers, you will learn multiple ways to build belonging and trust among adults that can translate into the classroom. The new Building Belonging training does the reverse: it focuses on strategies and activities to use in the classroom that can also translate into work with your peers. Each training includes an expansive, exclusive Handbook of materials (more than is taught in the training itself) and a year’s membership in the NSRF, giving access to even more protocols and activities to help our members become more productive and successful.