On a spring morning in 2023, Albert Johnson-Mussad welcomes educators to his classroom in his usual way, with a joyful “Welcome, good people!” Johnson-Mussad begins each training, and each day, by checking in to make sure that each of the participants has what they may individually need to be fully present. This sets the stage for what can be deep learning and shifts in understanding and perspective that come from the experience; and models an important point of the training – that learners bring into the classroom their own unique set of experiences, skills, and often trauma.
The Trauma-Engaged Schools course took place over three morning sessions, and led leaders and educators through material that included assessing and planning for the diversity of experiences they would encounter in their students, and how to teach and lead in a way that is trauma-sensitive. Discussions of unconscious bias brought tools to help understand the disadvantages many of our students face and the power differentials that are unavoidably faced by their families. Educators also learned about strategies to help them get to know their students and better meet them where they are. Perspectives on brain-compatible learning and multiple intelligences opened opportunities to learn to assess and approach each student as a unique individual, with hidden competencies and learning styles waiting to be unearthed. Frameworks for building a trauma-informed culture from a leadership perspective were also a key part of the experience. At the end of the course, participants departed with practical tools and strategies as well as new ideas and perspectives.
One participant, Peter Lopenzina, a middle school adjustment counselor, reflected on the learning: “I wish to thank you for your thorough and sensitive presentation of this subject matter. I enjoyed your passion, commitment and wit during the sessions. I have presented at various national conferences, including the Child Welfare League’s annual meeting in Washington, DC, and I am pleased to say that you were able to expand my knowledge and present me with new tools to help share it.”
Helping schools, districts, and educators to create changed environments that better respond to students’ multiple identities is at the heart of Albert’s work. Over time, he has expanded his understanding of how to educate traditionally underserved populations, like students with disabilities, students in poverty, students living with trauma and diverse social-emotional needs, and culturally and linguistically diverse students. Albert has extensive experience in districts working toward fresh visions and strategies for educating traditionally underserved populations. He works with schools on protocols of teaching that promote inclusive practice, and for this work to be sustainable, Albert works not only with teachers on their practice, but also with school and/or district leaders.
“People are not just one thing, and our practices and protocols in education often address them that way. We do certain things for students with disabilities, and other things for ELLs, but what of the student who is both, and black or brown also? There are ways for districts and schools to work on expanding our perspectives and practices in order to fully see – and serve – the whole student.” Dr. Johnson-Mussad
Early on in Albert’s career, he was called upon to help teachers modify assignments, with instructional strategies, in a consultative role. He had moments when he could not only help with a shift in instructional strategies, but also a shift in perspective to an asset-based view of what the striving student was able to do and could become able to do with the right support. It was then that he gained an appetite for working with teachers across grades and content areas to strengthen practice for optimal student outcomes.
At times the work calls us to respond to students who for diverse and unique reasons are not used to success, and don’t see themselves as successful learners. They are striving learners. Dr. Johnson-Mussad observes, “We compel kids to show up at school, and often they are not provided the specific experiences and tools that can help them to identify what they are good at, and love to do. But the experience of competence and success is an essential human need, and we can support educators to identify tools and strategies to effectively respond to and uplift students with really different paths to success.”
Dr. Johnson-Mussad notes that the pandemic, remote schooling, and our experience in schools since the return to in-person learning has shined a light on our most vulnerable learners. Students who struggle because they are living in poverty, living with trauma or its ongoing consequences, learning English as a new language, and/or learning with a disability need our help to strive toward grade-level expectations and their full potential. These learners need all of us to strive toward research- and evidence-based practice to optimize student outcomes. And, says Dr. Johnson-Mussad, “We need to support one another in this work with grace and a spirit of accommodation.”
Learn more about Dr. Johnson-Mussad and his work on our website.