Jon M: [00:00:15] Hi. I’m Jon Moscow.
Amy H-L: [00:00:16] And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Our guest today is Misha Thomas of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research of the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University. Misha has been a trainer for Therapeutic Crisis Intervention for Schools since 1995. He holds a masters in divinity from New York Theological Seminary. Welcome, Misha.
Misha T: [00:00:39] Thank you.
Jon M: [00:00:41] You do professional development for Cornell’s Therapeutic Crisis Intervention for Schools or TCIS program. What is TCIS and what needs does it address?
Misha T: [00:00:52] The TCIS, it stands for Therapeutic Crisis Intervention for Schools. And it is a system-wide curriculum for crisis prevention and deescalation techniques. So the main objectives are all about crisis, you know, before, during, and after. So we teach schools essentially how to set up a system of crisis prevention before it actually happens, how to manage it safely and therapeutically when it is happening, and then how to look at crisis afterwards so that you can learn something from it.
Jon M: [00:01:29] So that’s a good summary of the objectives of the whole curriculum. You’ve talked about ethics as being central to your work as a consultant. Could you talk about that?
Misha T: [00:01:43] Ethics? Yes. Another word that comes to mind that I think of rather synonymously with ethics is justice. You know, I think that everything that we do in terms of consulting with schools is a matter of justice. You know, how do we get education right for young people? Which of course translates into getting it right for society. So, you know, I’m always in the back of my mind, you know, kind of on the lookout for how do we support the concerns of justice in society in terms of giving good support to schools. This is always sort of in the back of my mind.
Jon M: [00:02:23] You compared being a consultant to being an old time jester or a biblical prophet. What are the similarities?
Misha T: [00:02:31] Oh my goodness. You get to the deep questions right away. So this question really gets to my background, to my religious background. You know, I grew up, I’m a preacher’s kid, so my father’s a Black Baptist preacher. I grew up in the tradition. I too am technically an ordained minister. You know, I was, I was licensed as a young boy preacher. You know, 18 I received my license and I studied theology and philosophy in undergrad and I became ordained at 20 so there’s, you know, there’s a rich biblical religious tradition in my upbringing.
And so. The idea of the prophetic in my religious tradition was really about truth telling. You know, you have these biblical stories about the prophet having to speak difficult truths to to the people of God. And so, you know, this whole idea of the prophetic as truth telling, I suppose, it’s inescapable for me, it just is part of my upbringing, part of my thinking. And so even though I’m not working in a religious context, this idea of being of service by looking to tell the truth is part of what part of what I think about, when you talk about the prophetic. Now you were talking about like jester. Is that the word that you used? So connecting this idea of jester to truth teller. This is really, you know, when I, when I reflect on my background, I think about how my religious experiences integrated with my joys and my struggles as a Black American. So, you know, my struggles and experience with race makes me think a lot about the jester. Although the word that I think about is minstrel. You know, there’s this idea in the Black American tradition of the Black minstrel who’s, you know, entertaining white people, and there’s a real, there’s a real painful, you might even think degrading, aspect of this role, but I’m able to see that, whoa, there’s, there’s something resilient and beautiful about how the experience of being jester or minstral in my Black experience actually ends up being a kind of gift, a kind of survival resilient technique, if you will.
I can say a lot about that, but I don’t know how much you want me to go into that. ..Okay. So what it really makes me think about, you know, this whole way that we’re talking about my background, it makes me think about credentials. You know, credentials is such an important thing. I mean, in the consulting world, it’s all about you being able to prove that you’re qualified to say anything in this context of consulting. And so, you know, we look at things like, what are your degrees, what are your qualifications? And so for me, my, my formal credentials are, you know, I have undergraduate degrees in theology and philosophy, and I suppose that should qualify me to be able to think relatively coherently. And then I could say, well, I have a master’s of divinity degree, which should somehow make you believe that I can interpret and analyze, you know, pretty well. And then of course, I’m a part time instructor at Cornell University. Whoa. That’s the big one. You know, anytime I get in trouble at customs, all I have to say is, Oh, I’m an instructor with Cornell University. I’m good. I’m qualfied and I go through. And so you know, these are important things. I’m not, I’m not pooh poohing them. They’re important credentials, but which ironically about this whole sort of obsession with credentials with those things, in my opinion, that’s not what really qualifies me. But what really qualifies me tends to be the thing that we hide or are ashamed of in society. And that is my suffering. So it’s my suffering, it’s my pain, it’s my struggle. Those are the things I think at the heart of it, that’s what really gives me the credentials. But you know, we never really talk about it. So I find it a little, I find it refreshing right now to be talking about sort of the heart of it, but also, you know, it’s a little vulnerable as well.
Jon M: [00:07:01] So, when you are working with schools around TCIS, you mentioned that it’s a system-wide way of thinking. It’s a way of thinking actually about relationships, the relationships in the school. And you also talk about truth-telling in a prophetic kind of tradition. So system-wide change or institutional change for any institution is very difficult. How does being a consultant play into that? In other words, what can you do, what do you do as a consultant that impacts on the way that the school looks? And maybe you could talk a bit about some of the principles of TCIS so people sort of have a sense of what’s going on when you’re talking to schools.
Misha T: [00:07:56] Yeah, that’s a good idea. And that that will help me describe what I’m doing as a consultant. So first. Let me talk about my role as a TCIS instructor for Cornell. So for Cornell, I’m a part time instructor and I’m part of training the train the trainer model. So we’ll train professionals in schools in the curriculum so that they can teach it to teachers within their schools.
My role as a consultant, that’s separate from my role at Cornell. That’s me as an independent consultant. And so really as a consultant, I’m really in a sense imitating and trying to apply the basic principles for the teacher in the classrooms. Let me talk about that first. So what we’re trying to teach in TCIS for schools, as you said, we’re trying to teach that the way you teach students to better regulate their emotions is through relationships and through modeling. So we want to teach teachers to see themselves as, first and foremost, being able to regulate their emotions as well. And so they’re really creating a culture in the classroom where young people can experience a wide range of their feelings and they can learn to deescalate it by more or less watching the teacher co-regulate with them.
So co-regulation is a core word that runs throughout the curriculum. So the idea is when young people are having behavioral difficulties because they’re having emotional stress, the idea is how can the teacher experience that struggle in a sense as their own, so that they’re in the struggle with the young person and they’re regulating with them. So this idea of co-regulation runs throughout everything in the curriculum. And so as a consultant, I’m basically looking for how that same relationship between teacher and student exists for the teacher and administration or the teacher and the whole system of the school, including principals, superintendent, parents, and the community.
So it’s really, you know, how do I, how do I think about relationship-building and my role as a consultant to role model and also co-regulate with them. So there are stressors that everyone in the school is experiencing, from superintendent to principal, to teachers, to the whole system. And so the trick for me is to say, hmm, how do I sort of mirror that stress to them. Meaning I get it, I see it, I understand it. And how do I, you know, play it cool enough to get them to sort of work through their own problem-solving.
Jon M: [00:10:37] So if, for example, let’s say there’s an incident in a classroom or in a hallway or on the playground, something like that, and a student loses it either with another student or with the teacher, what do you want to see happening then and what do you model for people?
Misha T: [00:10:56] There’s a lot of complexity to this, but just, you know, to try to make it simple, the core thing is to change how we as adults are basically interpreting the misbehaviors. Instead of thinking of the behaviors as good and bad, you’re thinking of them as an expression of some type of stress. And so the idea is how can we respond with enough calm so that will help the young person to just experience whatever stress they’re having so that they can calm down as well. So it’s, in a sense, we’re putting a delay on problem-solving. You know, problem-solving is the automatic immediate inclination that we have when we see a young person struggling, you know, we want to tell them it’s okay or get over it, or that’s not such a big deal.
Whereas in this approach, we’re taking a pause and you know, we teach a lot about active listening and reflective responses. So you may say to a young person, whoa, I can see how you’re really angry right now. And that may be it. And the idea of this reflective response and active listening pause, it gives the young person a chance to experience their feeling as the means for calming down.
But why do you want to teach regulation and calming down first? Because then we’ll have better access to the thinking part of our brains where you can maybe a little bit after start going through some problem-solving. So you know, all of the techniques are really slowing things down for adult responses, having us think more about interpretation and meaning of behavior and co-regulation and role modeling being calm. So in a sense, we’re teaching young people, your feelings are okay, but you can’t really recognize that they’re okay unless someone’s pausing enough to first acknowledge it and then later show you more or less how to get through it.
Amy H-L: [00:12:52] You mentioned that your own suffering helps you to be effective in the program, so is part of what you’re doing teaching resilience over time?
Misha T: [00:13:06] Yes. I think it really is. You know, some of the, some of the different aspects of the suffering in my, in my history, for example, like if we go back to the idea of the minstrel or the jester. So in a way, you know, I’ve become this minstrel, you know, I’m this entertaining consultant, you know in my sessions as a trainer and as a consultant, there’s something very sort of fun and playful and entertaining. Now I’m not saying that all of that comes from a painful root, but the painful traumatic roots of that have very much to do with race.
There’s a sense in which the little Black boy growing up in Western Pennsylvania, he was secretly overwhelmed by whiteness. You know, we were one of just a few Black families in this very small town, and I had learned to survive that by being the entertainer. You know, there’s a sense of which part of my Black experience yielded this expertise in which I am somehow an expert at making white people feel comfortable, you know?
But the, the surviving roots of this is about, you know, fear, struggle, trauma. But hey, it’s a pretty good gift. You know, in the end it’s a pretty good gift that I find I’m not using it out of resentment and rage as could have been the case, but I’m using it from a place of great resilience where I think, my goodness, for all the fear that humans experience in general, for whatever reason, there’s a way in which we can find resilience and gifts on the other side of that.
And so how that relates to consulting is I think that the idea of putting people at ease is a skill. It is a noble gift that we should use in complex, you know, systems, like a school. There’s a lot of fear in the school districts. You know, principals are fearing the politics that are coming down from superintendents who are in turn afraid of what parents and the political trends are saying. There are demands on teachers for academic performance and fears that teachers have of students and students of teachers. And so this idea that I can relate to all of that with a kind of compassion and a confidence to make people feel okay enough to then go on to the struggle, I think, is part of what I mean when I say, oh, there’s a secret little crudential here that doesn’t really have to do with my formal study per se, but it has to do with my struggle surviving.
Jon M: [00:15:42] So you, you were talking before about justice. What does that mean? What do you, what are you talking about?
Misha T: [00:15:50] So teachers love their kids, you know, they want to do the right thing. And very often teachers will just feel overwhelmed by the sense of injustice in their endeavor to teach kids academics. In other words, kids will be so far behind, but yet they have to play a certain curriculum game because that’s the way it’s set up. There’s a felt injustice to that. But on my level as a consultant, I’m thinking, ah, the injustice isn’t just between the teacher and the student. The injustice is the fact that there’s a whole system that doesn’t let itself be aware of that fact. We’re not naming that the emperor has no new clothes, has no clothes on. And so that’s the justice issue.
Am I, as a consultant, going to pretend like that’s not the problem? You just need to know TCI a little better and to think, “no.” You see what I mean, that’s where it becomes a justice issue, where I could pretend that you just need better deescalation techniques. Whereas no, the truth teller has to be able to say there are some flaws in the system that start administratively. Do we have the courage to ask ourselves how to take it on? So that’s what I mean by truth teller in that context.
Jon M: [00:17:10] So as you’re working with teachers and principals, you know, who are under this kind of stress, and you’re kind of modeling for them how they can take a pause and how they can take a situation where a child may be totally out of control and try to respond by pausing and trying to help, as you say, co-regulate, to try to have the child sort of get back in control. What happens if a teacher loses it themselves? You know, that a kid gets in their face and starts cursing them and instead of taking a breath and you know, being the adult, they sort of revert to their, you know, 12 year old self. How is TCIS, how is your role to help them deal with that? And then how do you help the system deal with it beyond the specific incident that just happened in that classroom?
Misha T: [00:18:21] Yeah. It’s a very important question because very often this is exactly what happens. I mean, it’s actually more normal. It’s more natural for anyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re a teacher or a parent or an adult. It just makes sense that if someone’s threatening you in any kind of way, you’re going to more or less respond in kind. You know, you think it’s fair. You think it makes sense and all of this.
But the problem, there, there are several problems with that. One problem is just basic trust. You know, if relationship really is the core of education, which indeed it is, I mean social learning theory, you have to be in relationship to a healthy degree to even learn from a teacher. The degree to which it’s based on relationship, there has to be trust. So if the adult is responding in kind with their own sort of counter aggression, that’s going to impede the trust that is needed for good education and a good therapeutic relationship. Um, but not only that, it runs the risk, especially to the degree to which the child’s behavior is, let’s say, exhibiting or demonstrating their past trauma. The problem with responding like that is it seems to confirm the trauma bias of the young person. In other words, there’s a way in which, you know, all of our behavioral patterns are reenactments. You know, we reenact what we experienced regularly in childhood, whatever the patterns are, and we tend to reenact in a way that elicits a predictable response in someone else. So with my acting out leads to an adult who counter aggresses, notice how that tends to confirm my trauma bias, that, aha, I’m bad, or I’m in trouble, or I’m a loser, or I’m always going to be out of the good graces of adults. So the problem with that is that the teachers and the systems might be recapitulating the negative internalized trauma view of hurt young people. And of course, that’s not what we want to do. But so, in my work, the degree to which we can teach what is essentially trauma theory, the degree to which we can teach that to teachers in schools, that gives us a way to say, whoa, wait a minute. We have to really check and see whether or not we’re getting pulled into this response. That’s actually reaffirming a negative view of the young person, and so things like being calm, not counter aggressing, pausing and giving space to examine rather than to react.
All of those things can be chalked up as a kind of rescripting. You know, we’re rescripting experiences for a young person and then, this is where I get excited about, sort of, the ethics of education as an academic pursuit. All of the academic subjects. In a sense, it’s a delightful introduction to learning rescripting in every subject. You know, teaching young people poetry and literature or mathematics or how to calculate, you know, all of these thinking skills. It helps young people to access and develop different models, different models from their otherwise, you know, reductionist trauma biases about life. And that’s, you know, that’s when, you know, we hope to get teachers excited about their academic work and see that academic work is not separate from the social emotional education that we’re trying to give them through curriculum like TCIS. It really should be integrated.
Amy H-L: [00:21:56] How do you get the teachers and the principals to trust you?
Misha T: [00:22:01] This is, I mean, to get to the real fun answer, it goes back to the minstrel in a way. Like I’m coming from a place where my biggest first task is to connect with them. I’m there to serve them. And in a way, the minstrel is serving the audience. The minstrel is connecting with the audience, making them safe, making them laugh. So that in a sense, they’re giving the audience back to themselves. So in a way, whatever it is that I’m doing that’s creating the magic and the love and the connection and the fun in the room. The purpose of that trust is not meant to be self serving. No, I mean, of course it feels good when I get feedback, but that’s not the purpose. The purpose is to create enough safety for the real work and the real work is conflict. The real work is me being able to give them a hard time. The same way that a top rated athletic coach gives the athlete a hard time, if I’m going to push them past their limits, if I’m going to be a truth teller. All of these things are painful. The only way I’m going to get them to be able to listen to it and to really want to take it on and push themselves is that we’ve created enough trust and safety for them to really trust me and believe in that process. And that’s exactly what I’m up to and trying to do.
And you can see that’s the parallel for trying to create cultures in schools, in a way. If I can point, you know, I have some success with schools where the principals and superintendents and teachers that have been in my training, when they see me trying to implement this on the system level, they’ve already bought in. They’re like, oh yes, we now see what you’re doing. We have to have the trust and the belief in our communal endeavor here in order to do the real hard work.
There’s a version of this in the classroom as well. So, you know, one of the frustrating things that I experience sometimes as a TCIS instructor, you know, in the context of that curriculum, is we’re not teaching teachers really how to be teachers. We’re not teaching you how to be effective and set up classroom culture. You know, we refer to that. That’s an important foundation. But the context of TCIS is specifically how do you keep things well regulated emotionally, you know? How do you prevent the emotional stress and be aware of the triggers? How do you support very quickly to deescalate when you see it? And how do you reflect on an incident afterwards?
So you know, it’s really about how do we more or less create a culture where we’re functioning with good baseline emotions and behavior. But the real question, outside of that, is what are you doing when the class is more or less at a baseline? And that’s where I would argue, I would argue, in fact, that culturally, as a trend we’ve lost a knack for the rigor. And so when things are more or less calm, I think classrooms should be more rigorous than they’ve become over the past 20 years. I think we need good old fashioned, you know, tough teachers who are pushing kids beyond their limits that are making them, you know, in a sense, fall in love with the rigor and the rough challenges of education so that they can fall in love with growing the same way an athlete does when they’re pushed.
But here’s the problem. If we don’t secure enough of the safety, the trust, the fun, the love and nurturance, then it’s going to be very, very hard to push kids and bring back this kind of rigor. So in a way, it’s a really interesting balancing act as a consultant. Yes, I’m preaching social emotional, trauma informed teaching just as much as the trends have introduced it, but I fear that maybe we’ve gone so far in pursuing that that we don’t integrate enough rigor as part of the purpose of all of that love, safety, and trust, if that makes sense.
Jon M: [00:26:09] So you’re talking about integrating the understanding of trauma and the understanding of where kids are coming from and why a kid might blow up into an environment where you can be pushing that child academically and pushing him or her to their limit they can move forward they can grow. And we’ve talked before, and I know you’ve talked about some very specific techniques and strategies, things like Life Space Interviews or, you know, review response kind of sessions. Um, could you describe this a little bit so that the people who are listening can have a very, very concrete, in other words, if a teacher or principal’s listening to you and saying, this sounds very, very exciting, but what do I actually do?
Misha T: [00:27:01] I’ll tell you a little bit about the Life Space Interview, which is just absolutely fabulous. But I’ll say one of the foundational skills of the Life Space Interview is active listening, you know, and active listening, really, it’s more than just the verbal strategies that you’re following in the outline, but it’s actually about your nonverbal skills. You know, it’s drawing upon a skill that is really mastered by actors. You know, what are you doing with your face, your eyes, your body language, your tone, and how are you using these non-verbals to conduct this interview that actually reverses the old fashioned, you know., going to see the principal. So, you know, back in the old days, you know, for me, I grew up in the seventies and eighties back in those days, if someone had to go to the principal for behavioral trouble, you knew what that conversation was going to be like. You know, “what’s wrong with you?” You’re reviewing what you did as prelude to getting in trouble. Whereas the Life Space Interview flips this around. The Life Space Interview is the adult coming back to the young person who had some type of behavioral problem. You’re following up as soon as possible after the event, but not right away.
So let’s say a kid, you know, flips tables in a classroom and curses people out. After they’ve calmed down, more or less back to their baseline behavior, it could be later that day. It could be the first thing the next morning, the teacher or someone comes up to the young person who was part of the incident and they’ll say, “Hey, listen,” um, and you ask them, you don’t demand that. You say, “Hey, I’m wondering if we could just go have a chat about, um, the incident yesterday when you trashed the room” and you might even add, “Listen, this is not about you being in trouble. This is because I really want to know what that was like for you.” Boom.
Now, nine times out of 10 they’re going to say yes, because if you can, because the skill is you’ve got to pull it off as if you genuinely are interested in the young person’s experience, not right and wrong per se. So the young person, they will try you out. And they’ll say yes. And then you go through this series of what you might equate with motivational interviewing, where you’re asking for the kid’s perspective, you know, like a good journalist would do. You want them to give their narrative so that you can reflect basically one point, which is you connect their feelings to the behavior. You have this “aha” moment where you say, “Whoa, I think I now understand. You flipped those desks because you were offended with what I said to you in that moment.” Now this is validating the young person’s feeling, and then from there, you work on them coming up with a better coping mechanism than flipping tables. You know, you affirm, of course it is not appropriate. You want them to learn appropriate behavior. But it’s somehow easier to get a young person to take on the practice if you first validate them.
So that’s the core of the Life Space Interview. It’s not meant to be some magic bullet that if you do it once, kids will change. It’s meant to really be a regular practice that eventually becomes the predictable norm of the school and of the culture. And that’s the idea of it being a longterm systems approach.
Jon M: [00:30:26] And then you’ve also talked about, you know, review and response or response review process. What’s that?
Misha T: [00:30:35] Yeah, the post-crisis response and review. It’s another part of the system that a school has to implement, to be quite honest. In other words, you want the principal and, you know, if you have a clinical team in the school, basically the whole system of the school has to develop a kind of running schedule of incidents for which they’ll do, more or less, a TCIS review. So what that means is, you know, let’s say, you know, each day, I would say each day in the school, someone has to identify, which, say, four or five incidents of the day before you’re actually going to have this formal review. And I say, you know, you invite as many people as are relevant and as are available to come to this meeting. And in the meeting, there’s a group review of what we’ve learned from the Life Space Interview with the young person, the teacher’s reflection on their own emotional and behavioral response. And you’re using what we’ve taught in TCIS so that what’s happening is you’re actually embedding the principles in the practice because you’re having a regular review system.
So I’ll give you, I’ll give you one example that I’m excited to recall from this past year. So one of the schools that I’ve been working with for three years now, both teaching the TCIS but also consulting to help them implement. There was a very serious incident where a teenage girl had returned back to the school after three days of suspension because she had pulled out a knife in the classroom and there was an incident with the teacher and this young person. This particular school was connected to a residential program. And so the girl was returning for her re-entry meeting with one of the residential staff members whom I was just meeting for the first time that day. So I was there as a consultant. Who was there? The social worker was there. The teacher was there. There was a big gathering. And the young person came in and the principal began the meeting by saying, “So, you know, tell us from your perspective what it’s like for you to return. You know, how can we be safe that you’re going to be okay coming back to the school.” Now, at this point, the teenager was very resistant. Her head was down. She didn’t want to talk. And I noticed that the childcare worker was rubbing her head and saying, “No, no, no, it’s okay. You can speak, you know, speak the way that you were telling me earlier.”
So at this point, I had never met that staff, you know, and I thought, okay, I knew what I was about to do was going to be taking a risk. But I believed it was the right thing to model in terms of this whole balance of discipline and trust. I said, “Excuse me, please” to the worker. I said, “With all due respect, could you please stop petting her head? She’s not a little baby. This is a teenager who can think and speak for herself, so please stop petting.” I said, “I think that we all, I think we baby the kids too much and they don’t like this.” Now while I was saying this, I could see that the teenager was kind of like, “Yeah, that’s a good point.” I said, “I don’t think we should baby them. I think we should respect them and let her speak so we can understand. Please tell us what happened.” Now at this point, the teenager sat up. I mean, physically, you could see the change from regression to, she sat up and she explained her story with her strong voice and she said, “I did not bring that knife in to cause trouble. I carry that knife because my commute to school is dangerous and people pick on me.” Wow. So this here was my moment to now role model the act of listening that we’re always teaching in TCIS. I said, “My goodness, I never thought of this. Let me get this right. You brought this not to cause any trouble in school. Because you don’t feel safe during your commute.” And she said, “Yes.” And we just sat there in silence. Now we had a lot more to talk about after that, but we won that teenager over at that point. And by the time we got round to talking about how dangerous it is, I mean more than dangerous, it is foolish to carry a knife like this. By the time we got round to talking about that, she was willing to hear it. And you know, I mean, I can’t tell the whole story, but in the end, the teacher was able to even admit some of the mistakes and problems that she had made.
And at the end of the meeting, of course, I ran to the residential worker and I said, “Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry I snapped at you like that.” She said, “No, it was fabulous. I saw what you were doing.” Okay. So part of my point was the risk taking that I was modeling. My consulting message to the school was basically, you’ve got to do this. You’ve got to somehow create the kind of relationships amongst yourselves where you could do some of the things you just watched me do. So this is, you know, so I guess in a sense, I prefer the experiential part of my role as a consultant. In many ways, what I was doing was a kind of psychodrama, if you will. It was almost like I was doing some theatrical role play. Only it wasn’t a role play. It was a real life reentry meeting.
Amy H-L: [00:35:48] I suspect there are some teachers that are going to say, “Wait a minute, that’s not my job. Schools are places of learning, not therapeutic institutions.” How do you deal with that?
Misha T: [00:36:01] Yeah, I mean, again, the first thing I have to do, even if I am rolling my eyes inside of my head, you know, the first thing I have to do is I have to practice what I’ve been preaching. I have to really give them the validation. I have to really understand where they’re coming from and understand their frustration, but then after that, my task is to get them to see if you will, the real flaw of that assumption. Once I successfully show them there is, or there should be, no distinction between the aims of the therapeutic and the aims of formal academic education. Then they get excited because we say, look, teachers, in a sense, are the experts of the therapeutic approach because you believe that all learning is part of developing the young person. And this is where I think it’s a matter of ethics, and I think it’s a matter of justice. Um, we can’t properly say that we’re educating a young person if we divide their social emotional development from their academic. There should be no division. And integrating the two, then it’s challenging, but I think teachers get very excited. They get very excited to see that they’re really in the business of developing the whole person and not just some separate academic [inaudible].
Jon M: [00:37:21] So picking up on this idea of validation and co-regulation, if you’re in a post-crisis response meeting, the principal’s there, the teacher’s there, the student’s there. Perhaps the parents, they’re on the phone or in person, whatever, and you’re validating the student, or the principal would be validating the students.
And also challenging, like you were just giving the example of, yes, you know, I understand you’re, you’re scared coming to school and you need to defend yourself, but on the other hand, this isn’t a productive way of doing it. But is there also both a validation and a challenging going on of the teacher?
And how does the teacher, I mean, if teachers are used to being the authority figure and if they’re going to have a conversation where perhaps the principal is criticizing them or something like that, it’s usually done in private. How does that play out?
Misha T: [00:38:18] Yeah, it’s such a good question. It’s such a good question. What I love about the question is, once again, there’s a theoretical aspect of this. And you know, I don’t mind, and I love making the argument of the theoretical answer to that question. But, and this is where the real fun comes in, there is an experiential way to demonstrate the theory. So what I’m talking about is, you know, the theoretical answer is that it’s a suggestion, you know. The suggestion is young people and adults, they’re looking for leadership. In a way, that is far beyond what we’re assuming. Like if we think that teenagers and young people don’t want us to be adults, which means setting limits, making demands. Pushing them and showing them the way and we don’t think they want that. Then like we have just thrown out the entire, like sort of imprimatur of our whole species. It’s like young people are looking for adults to be leaders and same thing for professionals. Professionals want their leaders to do the same for them. Now we may not be asking for it outright and yes, we may sort of resent it at first, but teachers will respect leaders more when you’re not afraid to actually really lead and set limits, provided that you’re able to back down, you’re able to apologize, you’re able to respect the conflict, they’re going to have more respect for you. So that’s, that’s the theoretical challenge to teachers and leaders to say, listen, don’t be afraid to have healthy conflict.
With the student, it’s through that healthy conflict that we all learn and grow. If everything’s just about lovey dovey, you know, walking on eggshells, in a way, that’s more infantilizing or insulting to the dignity of the young person. Whereas if you can have a noble fight respectfully with a young person, in a way they get it. You respect me. You know, when I’ve interviewed some of the most difficult kids in programs, they say that they resent schools or teachers that treat them like they’re stupid. They actually say they prefer teachers in schools that are more strict. Now they never asked for that. But that’s what they say in these interviews, and I believe it.
So that’s the theoretical thing. Here’s, here’s what I mean by saying experiential. In my sessions, I am always looking to provoke. I am always looking to raise conflict in people and really stir up lots of trouble so that I can model. Being able to let the person push me to stop or get me to apologize or get me to role model that I can simultaneously push you, but also read your energy and your responses and respect you as well. So in a sense, creating the experience of seeing, feeling and demonstrating healthy conflict. That’s a lot of the work that I think is the specialty of my consulting approach. And I think that’s the way I should hope that schools and teachers will start to play around with it in their own classrooms and in their own systems.
Jon M: [00:41:39] So clearly what you’re doing as a consultant and as a consultant with TCIS is you’re trying to shake things up, as you were saying, which comes back to this thing you were talking about before, you know, jester or minstrel or biblical prophet. What is there about your role as a consultant and your relationship to being able to speak truth to power that might be different from if you were within the system itself, if you were an employee of the school system?
Misha T: [00:42:20] Hey, that’s it. I think you just defined, at least my definition of, you know, part of what a prophet is. A prophet is someone from outside, you know, just like a consultant or someone who’s from outside. I think there’s a place of privilege, you know. I have a privileged position as the outside consultant. An outside consultant gets to be a truth teller in a way that I could never be if I were a full time employee within the system. It’s just there’s a greater risk.
You know, if I’m a full time employee within the system, I now have to, you know, navigate my own lifestyle. You know, the mortgage I have to pay and I have bills to pay and it’s like, know how far am I going to go. challenging the people who are literally responsible for my job, my paycheck, and all the politics within the system.
That’s just the reality of it. And most of the resistance that I get as a trainer has to do with basic safety, fear, and politics. So the outside consultant gets to get away with speaking this truth in a way that is just, I just think it’s a, you know, it’s almost by privileged design, that a consultant gets to do that. And by the way, I don’t know. I mean, I think it could be easy for consultants to not do that. You know, this is where I think the ethics comes in. Like very often, I’m invited into schools to just teach the curriculum and I know this is just going to like,”Teach the training. Let’s get our people certified, and that’s your job. That’s your role.” And then it’s my job. I could just stick to that and leave it at that. And in my own conscience, I think it’s unethical for me to just play the game as if what I hear teachers struggling with in these trainings, as if it’s just a staff development issue. It’s not just the staff development issue. It’s a reflection of the ongoing complex problems within the system and the only way to really access what that is is to listen, to facilitate the kinds of experiences where those sessions can become feedback loops for me, that I could in turn, communicate with the leadership and try to provide some supports.
Jon M: [00:44:51] Well, on that note, thank you, Misha Thomas of Cornell University. Thank you.
Misha T: [00:44:56] It was a pleasure.
Jon M: [00:44:57] And thank you, listeners. Check out our website, ethicalschools.org, for more episodes and articles. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easier to use in workshops or classes. We offer professional development on social emotional learning with a focus on ethics in the New York City area. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. .Amanda Denti is our editor and social media manager. Till next week.