Written By: Hans Appel
Are you acutely aware of the subtle sounds of the back door?
During amazing days, we seemed liked the poster family for happiness. We were solidly middle class, had a nice home, and as an only child, I was quite literally the center of my parents universe. From the outside, we looked the part of a perfect family that had it all together. There were wonderful vacations, elaborate holidays, and spectacular arrays of fun. But, there were also dark days. And in comparison, these gloomy experiences were somehow traumatically burned into cognitive dissonance in ways that were hard to put into words.
As a child, growing up in an abusive home, I found myself highly attuned to my surroundings. Frequently my house resembled the verbal equivalent of a war zone. In a house filled with anger, tears, and unease, I became talented at navigating pain and suffering in reluctantly skillful ways. For years, I mediated heated arguments before I was old enough to even enjoy a PG movie. During particularly bad evenings, I’d cry myself to sleep clutching an oversized stuffed bunny rabbit named “Jumbo”; wondering if this would finally be the last straw that would end in divorce.
Children growing up with adverse childhood experiences (ACE’s) become experts in taking the temperature of the room. They’re often able to predict others behavior from subtle indiscriminate signs, words, and feelings that most people might completely overlook. I knew with almost certainty, what type of evening or weekend it was going to be, based on how the back door slammed.
Typically, my dad would arrive home from work Monday-Friday, between 5-6pm. On a good day, the door would quietly latch, closing behind my dad, as he breezed through the door with an ere of enchantment. Dad would invariably be in a festive mood and the house somehow felt lighter and full of energy. On average days, the door would creek closed as he grudgingly made his way into the house with exhaustion, irritation, and annoyance. But there was a different sound that I sometimes heard. This sound is challenging to articulate to those who were fortunate enough to grow up in happy, healthy homes. However, having talked to numerous survivors, it’s a sound that far too many of our students at school have memorized…
On the bad days, I would hear the door well before my dad entered as he aggressively attacked the door knob, gripping it with force as he ripped open the door. Often times the back of the door would slam into the garage wall before he would charge through. As the door gained intense energy from the wall, it would wildly pick up speed as it returned to it’s frame with a loud careening: BANG!!! It was such a loud SLAM, that I often wondered if the entire frame might just fall off the wall. The hypervigilance that I experienced listening for this terrifyingly specific sound was exhausting.
On these days, I would immediately scatter and demonstrate my best disappearing act.
Through the years, school became a safe haven for me. It was a welcomed respite from the chaotic tornado that would blow through my existence at home. For those who wonder where my passion for kindness and school culture came from...the roots can be directly traced back to these early moments in education. Not to say that school was easy for me, as I could fill books on my own personal challenges, from the middle school learning environment. Still, education was a place I could be assured of safety, peace, and perhaps most importantly, the opportunity to be age appropriate. At school, no one expected me to solve complicated adult emotional problems. It was glorious! As I got older, sports became my vehicle to avoid home while subsequently pouring anger, resentment, and fear into a healthy endeavor. Additionally, friends, video games, and reading books on the magical arts were a wonderful distraction in between sporting opportunities.
As a highly introspective, reflective kid, I was attuned to how these distractions aided my own mental health and in college, I shifted from aspirations of a career in magic into a counseling/educational/helping profession. I self identified how these unhealthy moments of emotional hand holding with my parents; ironically, prepared me for a life of serving others. I was always that kid who’s friends confided in him, picked for programs like natural helpers and just seemed to be an empathic listener. As an adult now, I’m able to look back at my childhood as a gift; to better understand abuse, trauma, and divorce in ways that I certainly wouldn’t wish on anyone.
Truthfully, there are students who experience far more horrific childhoods. But alas, it’s not a competition. As educators we have a moral imperative to create spaces for healing, growth, and safety. There are students in your offices, classrooms, and schools who are watching EVERYTHING you and their peers do. They want to see how you handle frustrations, disappointments, and challenges.
Some educators get stuck on a tunnel-like vision for their own content and forget that the REAL life lessons being taught may have much more to do with emotional regulation, relationships, and character. Imagine the grownup child of trauma who’s never given the tools to properly cope with the stress, pain, and loss from their upbringing. I shudder to think, who I might have become, if I hadn’t had Character Strong educators teaching me FAR MORE than math, science, and history. And isn’t preparing students for life the REAL WORK? Isn’t that the good stuff? The real reason that most of us actually went into education. Perhaps, content is just a vehicle to teach students what matters most...
Award Winning Culture provides a safe and healthy physical, emotional, and verbal space for all students to heal through learning.
**Do you RAISE your voice at school?
**Do you fail to follow through on your promises or words?
**What role does shame, fear, and compliancy have in your classroom, office, or school?
**How often do your own actions ALIGN with your words?
**Are students encouraged to take RISKS in your space?
**When you make mistakes do you APOLOGIZE and/or own up to your failure?
**How do you keep your own challenges in your personal life, from negatively seeping into your work space?
**What impact does HOMEWORK have on your ACE’s students?
**How are you intentionally building regular CHECK-INS with all your students?
**If you’re the ONLY positive adult in your students life today, how might you MAXIMIZE this opportunity?
**To what degree are you aware of your students' experience in your learning environment.
**Are you brave enough to seek out both formal and informal honest feedback from your students?
**How might feedback shape your planning, preparation, and practice?
As educators we have tremendous leverage with our own sphere of influence. Many of our students DESPERATELY need us to carefully craft Award Winning Cultures that insulate them from toxicity; thereby facilitating windows of time to discover their JOY through learning. As you enthusiastically enter your students' world this week and invariably open up doors to education, perhaps the biggest question remains…
Will you let the back door SLAM, as you walk in?
**Looking for resources on Fostering Resilient Learners? I HIGHLY recommend you check out the work, trainings, and teachings of Pete Hall and Kristin Souers. Their work is absolutely TOP NOTCH and widely considered the gold standard for creating award winning culture with students of trauma.
About the Author
Hans Appel has worked as a counselor in the Richland School District for the past 18 years and at Enterprise Middle School since it opened. He’s passionate about school culture, servant leadership, and kindness. In 2018, EMS was awarded the ASCD Whole Child Award for the State of Washington and the Global “Class Act Award” for creating a culture of excellence through kindness, service, and empathy. Recently, Hans launched his own blog about School Culture and this fall rolled out a student-led leadership podcast called Award Winning Culture: Hosted by Wildcat Nation, which can be subscribed, listened or reviewed on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, Spotify, and Libsyn. He can be contacted at email@example.com. Follow Hans on twitter @hansappel094. Follow AWC on twitter at @awculture or Instagram @awardwinningculture. Wildcat Nation at @emswildcats1 and Instagram @emscounseling #WildcatNation #AwardWinningCulture
Award Winning Culture was created by Hans and Jennifer Appel with the sole purpose of creating an educational mindset of Positive INTENTIONALITY and ACTION; with a daily mantra to make our sphere of influence stronger through Character, Excellence, and Community. Part of AWC's mission is to highlight outstanding educators, companies, and resources that support an Award Winning Culture. Both Jennifer and Hans work at Enterprise Middle School aka Wildcat Nation. Wildcat Nation received the 2018 ASCD Whole Child Award in Washington, for its award winning culture and the 2018 Global "Class Act Award" for Kindness.