I would change how educators are viewed and advise teachers to know their worth, know how much they matter, and know they can overcome the trauma they encounter trying to make a difference. Teachers often don’t understand that their mental wellbeing needs to be a priority. It is important in order for them to offer support to students.
As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Arlinda Davis.
First Grade Teacher, Arlinda Davis has been connecting with her students using a trauma-informed approach for more than two decades. Since receiving a WE Teachers Award made possible by Walgreens and diving into the WE Teachers resources — she discovered her intuition is backed up by leading experts and teams of research.
Davis has taught the same grade at Avondale Elementary School in Birmingham, Ala., for 25 years. In that time, she’s seen rising rates of trauma among her students as they experience violence and endemic poverty at home, or struggle with anxiety and depression. Many of her students have trouble forming relationships with their peers or trusting their teachers.
She knows that every student can thrive when physical, emotional and mental needs are met. That philosophy takes shape in her classroom with cozy pillows, stuffed animals and a fridge full of snacks. Her goal is to make her students feel safe, accepted and worthy. She has received many awards including NCNW National Teaching Award, Recognition on Capitol Hill, International Teacher award, NASA Lead Teacher, Life Changer of the Year Nominee, Sanford Harmony Teacher Award for SEL, WE Teacher Award and many more.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
Well, I was on my way to becoming the next Oprah (I’m completely kidding!). I was studying journalism in college at 17, having skipped several high school grades, and reading the news on the radio. I saw a career path opening before me, but then, a traumatic life event threw me off trajectory and I had to reevaluate my goals.
I am a survivor of sexual assault. Part of moving past the trauma was family support — and switching from journalism to teaching. Dealing with the trauma made it even more important that everything I went on to do would make a positive impact on people’s lives. I believe that life can and will knock you down, but the celebration is in being able to get back up and push towards your purpose.
What inspired me to become a teacher was the incredible compassion and empathy shown to me by my 5th grade teacher. He taught me to look for greatness in each child by finding it in me. He found my purpose because of the inability of my teachers in the 1970’s to see beyond my skin color. I wanted to continue his search for greatness in my own way.
My teaching journey was truly a calling. I have learned so many things about myself through teaching and from each student. I’ve learned how to love in so many ways. I’ve learned how to live and not take life for granted. I’ve seen children grow up and inherit society and contribute to its change. Now I teach their children, watching an amazing cycle. I love the uniqueness of each child. I absolutely love teaching, but most of all I love children.
I charged into teaching, ready to make a difference. From the moment I began my career, I used my trauma — and the self-awareness it led to — to help inform my actions in the classroom. Having that experience gives me perspective, allowing a window into the pain young people are experiencing and insight into how to help them through anger and trust issues. I turned my trauma into triumph.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I had a student who was the oldest of five kids who had been taken from her home due to neglect. Trauma so bad that for over a year the only voice she heard was that of the barking dog. She could not speak, only bark to communicate. I would set aside extra time to rock her in the rocking chair and read to her. I made a special stuffed animal for her to carry and I would sing to her and make special conversation to build trust and communication. I used her assessments to develop her own learning path (which I do with all my students) and celebrated her uniqueness. I paired her with peer friends and the librarian. One day the librarian came to me in tears because “V” came to her and spoke. Not just spoke but said, “My teacher needs more books. Books about plants.” I had been doing a unit on plants and read my last book. This sweet girl went on to not only thrive that year but in middle school was honored for her achievements.
In my 25 years, I have seen the rates of poverty and violence in Birmingham climb. Today, the poverty rate is 31 per cent, well above the national average, and the violent crime rate is double the state average.
I’ve seen the face of children change from being innocent and wanting to learn everything to now coming in with so much baggage. It’s across the city, it’s nationwide — children are dealing with adult things, contending with more abuse and negativity, they’re forced to be responsible and they’re not ready. Now children are dealing with self love issues because of biases. Some are dealing with mortality issues, wondering if they will die because of who they are.
Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’ve had a great life with wonderful parents, friends, and children. I’ve also suffered trauma that almost kept any of these things from manifesting. The lessons I’ve learned are to use your trauma to persevere. I’ve learned to cry, but to use those tears to wash away anything that stands in the way for embracing greatness.
Finally, I’ve learned that you have to take time to reflect, heal, and refill, in order to teach a child to do the same. Most importantly I’ve learned everyone is born with a unique talent and it’s our jobs to give them everything (including support both mentally and emotionally).
A former student nominated me for a WE Teachers award, and I discovered resources on the exact types of issues long dealt with in my classroom. I immediately shared WE Teachers with my former principal who is the Director of Social and Emotional Learning for the district. In October Birmingham City Schools hosted a seminar on a trauma informed approach for a professional development day, reaching 4500 teachers, staff, custodians, bus drivers, CNP and administrators.
I’ve taught with the philosophy for years, now it’s becoming the norm. You have to develop a relationship with your students, not just in the classroom, but as an individual based on what they’re going through. Only then can [teachers] find something great.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, I am on a mission to help teachers across the globe understand the “why” behind children who are carrying emotional, physical, and mental backpacks. This year has presented new types of trauma that will impact student’s ability to learn, prosper and thrive. Being chosen by WE Teachers has been the springboard I needed to jump into this portion of our educational pool. I am determined to train people and inform people using the WE modules. I have so many ideas and I am ready to help each child find out how to inherit society and transform it.
I am also continuing a special PBIS project that I started last year that helps empower students to take control of their behavior and allows students receive things they need without feeling it’s a hand-out. They earn “bucks” to spend in the store I created. The store has toys and gifts, but it also has essentials wrapped in gift bags (deodorant, toothpaste, or toothbrushes). It has clothing, shoes and even a food section. The students don’t know it, but if teacher sees a child in need they reward them with bucks for being an awesome student. They shop with the bucks. A student came in to shop and bought cans of food and some shoes. He felt so empowered that he could contribute to his family. At the end of the day I saw him hugging his purchase, smiling with pride. That was a game changer.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?
Having taught the same grade for 25 years at the same Elementary School in Birmingham, Alabama for 25 years has provided me incredible insight into how children learn. I have earned many awards for my continued work surrounding children success stories after dealing with trauma. I am a single mother of 5 who has become the caregiver to children dealing with baggage. Lastly, my own trauma which I’ve triumphed gives me authority.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
According to the National Survey of Children’s Health, nearly half of all children in the United States have experienced at least one type of serious trauma. Violence, abuse and neglect can all affect how students learn, behave and relate to others. Experts point to a trauma-informed approach as a solution for teachers trying to reach students in pain, something that I stand behind. For me I would rate us failing and needing intervention with a personal plan.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
- The teachers in the US are my heroes. The are stellar and the glue in America’s fabric.
- The persistence of students to want to succeed and learn. They give teachers a purpose.
- The strong push to now recognize social and emotional learning (SEL) and racial inadequacy in our schools with our children.
- Recognition of the need for mental wellbeing and self care for educators.
- Advocacy and initiatives for students with mental health issues.
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
The 5 issues above still need prioritizing. With COVID and racial tensions going on, we need to prioritize life for our children, our teachers, and staff:
- We have to prioritize how children can be equipped to handle so many morbid situations on top of their own trauma while striving to inherit society.
- We must improve equity and equality in what and how we educate our children.
- We must invest in our future while investing in our future makers (teachers).
- We have to collaborate and establish trust with both teachers and students based on their needs in order to succeed.
- We must prioritize education.
As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?
I’ve been concerned for many years whether my students feel safe and supported rather than how they’re performing on reading and math tests. If you don’t meet the needs of a child physically, mentally, emotionally, you can’t reach that child academically. I am truly on the side of both. I worked as the lead teacher in a program called SEEK that is provided by NSBE (National Society of Black Engineers) and the state lead teacher for NASA teaching STEM. I believe in also including the arts because children need different outlets for their creativity. I studied aesthetic education at Lincoln Center in NY for three years and saw first-hand how important the arts are. The arts are a wonderful avenue to help children express themselves and in turn helps with educating the whole child.
If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- I would change how educators are viewed and advise teachers to know their worth, know how much they matter, and know they can overcome the trauma they encounter trying to make a difference. Teachers often don’t understand that their mental wellbeing needs to be a priority. It is important in order for them to offer support to students.
- The second thing would be training teachers on how to take a second, third, or fourth look at a student and their situation. I would work with teachers in both affluent and title schools to expose them to the lens I found for teaching children. A large percentage don’t know how to look for the “why or what” behind student behaviors. I would advise to look and ask students important questions when you see troubling behaviors.
- Social-emotional learning should embrace a student’s ancestry and recognize it while addressing their trauma. When using SEL tools, we acknowledge their voice, embrace their purpose, and inspire them to know, “Their trauma doesn’t define them!”
- I would put emphasis on building relationships with students and their families, providing them a sense of belonging by celebrating their resilience, creativity, and curiosity.
- I would give educators a voice and a pen to change things. The people making decisions about the future have no clue how education really works. I would give teachers who have walked the walk the power to change things.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite thing to say addresses trauma. “Trauma has no zip code, no socioeconomic face and no ancestral annexation.”
“Get excited about learning, without fear of failure of ridicule because you are in control of your journey!”
I grew up in a two parent home. My mom and dad were both educated professionals but I still experienced trauma. Racial trauma at the hands of my teachers. I’ve seen rich children, children from different ethnic cultures, and affluent children still deal with trauma.
Most of all I’ve seen victory, success. And come because of outstanding support.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
She is the epitome of what a motivated, caring, hardworking, intelligent, woman and mother I can strive to be. I believe we both have a drive that doesn’t allow fear in the car of life. We get in, strap our seatbelts tight, map out our journey but understand life’s GPS can kick in but won’t allow it to change our course and drive. I admire her realness, her relatability, and her voice for others.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Facebook: Arlinda Davis
LinkedIn: Arlinda Davis
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!