Sara, New York City Children’s Theater’s Education Director, highlights three pillars for supporting our teaching artists in the ARC classrooms.
The trauma-informed practice behind the scenes of the ARC program
In the fall of 2016, upon hiring a specialist to advise on our new ARC program, we quickly learned that our Education team needed to become trauma-informed, not just the teaching artists who were conducting the program in the shelters. Therefore, we have developed best practices for working through a trauma-informed lens here at the office in order to support our teaching artists who are leading the program out in the field.
Three pillars for functioning as a trauma-informed support staff:
1) Hiring specialists to lead professional development training for our teaching artists
Although most of our teaching artists have been teaching children in classrooms and community centers for more than 5-10 years, many of them had never taught at a homeless shelter prior to the ARC program. In order to prepare them for this experience, we have hired social workers, drama therapists, and trauma-informed practitioners to lead trauma-informed professional development training. At these training sessions, our teaching artists learn about the science behind complex trauma, examine their own unconscious and implicit biases that they bring into the classroom, and learn how to exercise self-care in order to combat compassion fatigue and avoid vicarious trauma while teaching the ARC program. This year, we led three specialized trainings throughout the year: one before the program started to prepare them for the year, one in the middle of the year to act as a check-in for the artists, and one at the end of the year to reflect on and celebrate their hard work.
2) Creating strong channels of communication
This year alone, we led 301 90-minute sessions at 18 homeless shelter sites over 28 weeks. In order for a program that large to run effectively, we need to work in constant collaboration with the Department of Education (DOE) administrative staff and teachers, shelter staff, and our NYCCT teaching artists. In order to prepare the staff at the sites to host our programs, we send them detailed information about the program prior to the first day of the program. By sending information in advance, our goal is to communicate the structure of the program and create buy-in from the teachers before we even entered the space. After the first visit, the teaching artists document basic information about the shelter with us so that we can all feel as confident as possible when visiting the sites in the future. Throughout the year, they continue to send us updated information about their programs that we passed along to the DOE administrative staff as needed, and vice versa. This open communication line has been critical every week that the program has been running so that we can tackle any issue that comes up very quickly together. It is also crucial that our communication is not only about problem-solving. In order to run an asset-based trauma-informed program, we also take the time to celebrate positive moments and victories, too! Through this practice, we are recognizing our students as individuals and not just products of trauma.
Due to our teaching artists’ passion and commitment to the ARC program, many of them have been teaching at the same shelter for 2 years now. Over these years, they have created strong bonds with the DOE teachers and the shelter staff, which has had a very positive effect on the program as a whole. If everyone involved in the program is in close communication, we increase our investment in its success, which an enormous impact on the students.
3) Reducing professional isolation
Since the NYCCT teaching artists lead this program individually and work on a freelance basis, they can go weeks or even months without seeing another NYCCT teaching artist. In order to reduce professional isolation, which can be a harmful side effect of working with students experiencing trauma, we created an online community through a Facebook group. In this Facebook group, our Education team posts weekly prompts for the teaching artists to respond to. Through this practice, the teaching artists have an opportunity to share their opinions and read each other’s responses about what is going on in their classrooms. This information-sharing proved to be invaluable in order for our teaching artists to stay connected to each other. One teacher artist noted: “It was really great to read everyone’s responses to the prompts and have the reminder each week that we were part of a community of artists doing this- not just solo actors at large. Psychologically that was huge.” We also reduced this isolation by providing the teaching artists with weekly feedback on their lesson plans, frequently conducting site visits at the shelters to see them lead the program, and holding phone calls to discuss the program with them.
As we continue to run the ARC program in future years, we look forward to seeking out more ways to reflect upon and improve our trauma-informed practices in order to better serve all New York City kids.
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