Calm classrooms and radical education activism: Meet Crystal Williams | The Light Series

Dedicated to a career in special needs education and student advocacy, special education teacher, Crystal Williams incorporated a technique of meditation in her class for students who suffered trauma. After immersing herself into more advocacy work, she discovered that her students might have been exposed to lead. Williams work forced Los Angeles Unified School District Charter School District to test their waters. The results showed, she was right.

Where are you located

Born and raised in Inglewood, CA and currently residing in Jurupa Valley, CA

What did you create? How do you do your work differently than others in your field?

I have created a calm classroom in an elementary, emotional disabilities program, which is no easy feat. As a teacher, I incorporate the knowledge and training I have obtained through other disciplines I have studied, i.e. forensic psychology, trauma psychology, mindfulness, yoga and mediation into the classroom.  

I learned years ago, the impact that trauma has on the developing brain and body. I decided to use that to drive my day-to-day classroom practices.  This is especially important because half of my students currently reside in a group home through the foster care system. 

Students in foster care often fall behind in school and have some of the worst education outcomes in the country. I know that the traumatized brain does not learn [in stressful environments] and before they will listen to me or respect me, they want to feel safe.  I had to prove to my students they could not get rid of me easily. Rather, I am here for them, and I care for them unconditionally. 

In my classroom, I help them process and analyze the behaviors they display. [These are behaviors] that most would suspend or remove a child from a classroom for.  However, I allow them a chance to separate themselves from the classroom, coach them through a 4-7-8 breathing technique, so their brain can calm and they will be open to feedback. When they return from recess and lunch, we meditate to calm down. We talk through why things need to be done, and not just how.  

A lot of people see children as objects to be controlled and who must manage emotions and behavior in a way [that] adults cannot. That never made sense to me. I know every behavior is a communication and if they could communicate their needs differently they would.

How do you define your work? What population does your work serve?

My job title is simple in theory, I am a special education teacher. However, that job also requires that I wear the hat of a counselor, surrogate parent, and advocate.  My dedication to fearlessly advocate for education rights is what separates me from most of my colleagues.  

In addition to teaching children, I also teach parents their rights as parents through the Learning Rights Law Center. I have taught grades 5-12 my entire career.  I also had the opportunity to serve as an adjunct professor teaching introduction to psychology. My primary responsibility now is as a teacher in fourth/fifth grade classroom for students with emotional disabilities.  

How did you come up with the idea?

Over time in the classroom, I just started naturally incorporating the things I was learning into my classroom routines.  If life events cause trauma, first, acknowledge that there is trauma there then look for research-based ways to reduce the negative impact.  

During this research, I found that meditation and yoga can repair the traumatized brain.  The more I learned about the body’s response to trauma the more I incorporated. Once I learned that when your breathing is regulated, your body cannot stay in crisis mode, I started incorporating 4-7-8 breathing patterns.  Now that I am studying mediation, I am incorporating mediation techniques with my students when they are in conflict with peers or staff. As I continue to learn, I will continue to add to my toolbox.

Who inspires you? How?

My students inspire me. I started teaching 12 years ago and just witnessed the college graduation of my first fifth grade class.  Having them reach out to me for graduate school recommendations and hearing them share their upcoming career opportunities, makes me happier than anything I have ever experienced outside of teaching.  Every success my former and current students share, reminds me of what my purpose is, helping people.

When did you recognize your talent?

I have always been a teacher at heart. I recognized my talent for connecting with at-risk youth when I began working at Locke High School in Watts, California.  So many people told me [that] I was crazy for going to work at such a “notoriously dangerous” high school, but I was excited about the opportunity.  

My first day at work, I gave a simple assignment: List three of your strengths. One student was done much more quickly than the others and I looked at his paper and he stopped at number two, drawing and getting money.  I encouraged him to think of another and after a 15-second silence, he responded, “oh, number three is going to be making you mad.” I laughed hysterically and told him, looks like you should actually put make me laugh because that was hilarious.

I stayed at the school for four years and watched him have little, to no success, year-after-year.  I never gave up on him and his potential. Seven years later, he is a successful tattoo artist and hasn’t managed to make me mad once.  There are a million little moments over time help me recognize what I the results I see out of my students is not due to luck, it is a result of my ability to help them see more in themselves.

How did you create an audience or community that appreciates your work? Give us a brief example.

In 2015, I attended the Watts Labor and Community Action Committee (WLCAC) town hall.  The focus was water and air quality in the community. I became interested in the event after hearing about a nearby middle school being found to have lead in their water.  

At the town hall, several panelists shared results of water testing and explained the impact of the chemicals found in the air and water on the developing brain. During this town hall, it was explained how these chemicals—lead, arsenic, and cadmium—to name a few, have lifelong implications after exposure.  The most alarming piece of information I received that day detailed that in the early 2000s, there was an explosion at a battery plant near the housing projects where many of the students at that school lived since they were born. Instantly, I made the connection that my children (by the way, all of my students are my children), could have been exposed to those chemicals.  

During the audience participation of the town hall, I shared the story of my high school, emotionally disturbed students who would have all been in that in that area during the explosion from the ages of infancy to 5-years old.  I shared how many of them continue to live in those same housing projects, which also have lead in their water and paint. They continue to live in polluted air due to the illegal dumping near the train tracks. I shared my concern for my children that the idea that my children could have even possibly come to my classroom with severe behavior due to exposure to chemical pollutants.

After the town hall, in my capacity as the Human Rights Chair on the teachers union, I sent an email to inform the staff and administration of the possibility of lead in our water and expressed the need for testing at not just my school site, but every school site run by that district.  The water testing was ultimately done. The results confirmed that there was lead in our water fountains. As a result, all school sites were tested and multiple schools tested positive for lead in their pipes since.  

The impacted fountains were shut off and the district paid for bottled water for the rest of the school year.  Fighting this fight, did not make me popular with administration on every level. Getting bottled water was not cheap, but it was necessary and I was not afraid to fight for the children’s right to clean water. This did not only impact the students, but it also impacted the adults on campus who drank the water.

The district did not have a long term plan to provide clean water to the students and after battling with the district the following year to figure it out, I left. Ultimately, the pipes were finally replaced at that site, two years after my departure.  This passion, fearlessness and authenticity has helped me create a community of teachers and students that appreciated my work advocating on their behalf.  

Which of your accomplishments give you joy?

My entire career has involved finding ways to connect personally with each student and use that initial connection to build rapport.  Sometimes that required me to show my students vulnerability, because most teachers try to act as if they never get sad, angry, or hurt.  So, I decided to be honest with them and I could not leave my personality out of the job.  

When things were sad, I cried. When things made me upset, I was upset. When they did things well, I was overjoyed with happiness.  

In my approach, I have to show them healthy ways to cope with their emotions. I thought, how could I do so if I never displayed any emotion. Since, I have brought my authentic emotions to many tables to discuss changes needed to make school a better place for kids.

In turn, I have spoken at many town halls and conducted many professional developments regarding trauma and its negative impact on students with special needs in particular.  The relationships I am able to build with the “most troubled students” and then using the strength of that relationship to continue to push them to be their best selves even on their worst days.

Moving into my ultimate goal.

Recently, I saw a quote that said the following: “Sometimes a dancer needs emotional and spiritual healing before they can progress in their dance training…You can’t fully reach the artist if you can’t reach the wounded human being first.”  

Instantly I thought, THAT’S IT, this is what I am trying to do with my students—acknowledge the human being; validate their feelings; give them the tools to work through difficult times; show them I believe in their ability to be the best them they can be; and ultimately, the curriculum will be mastered.  

My ultimate goal is to transition out of the classroom and into a full-time, mindful mediation practice, where I can use my skills to help children learn necessary peer mediation skills.

How to find Crystal?

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