This NYC counselor is helping students work through COVID-era trauma

School counselor Randy Bowen, below, who is certified in a trauma therapy known as EMDR, started a meditation workshop for students at Community Health Academy of the Heights. (SDI Productions / Getty Images)
How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

After Randy Bowen lost three family members to COVID-19, he knew he needed to prioritize the activities that center him, such as meditating and riding his bike, so that he could show up for his students at Community Health Academy of the Heights

Bowen, a school counselor of 14 years and a certified practitioner of a trauma therapy known as EMDR, started an evening meditation group to help his students deal with pandemic-era stresses ranging from social isolation to food insecurity. “I think the biggest hurdle to meditation for people is just taking 3-5 minutes out of the day to disconnect,” said Bowen, who began his career in finance before finding his professional calling as a school counselor. 

Randy Bowen (Courtesy photo)

Community Health Academy in Upper Manhattan provides wraparound social services for the whole family. “While we were able to leverage our relationships with families and conduct constant outreach, technological and mental health support [during the pandemic], I think that students are ready to get back to school.”

Bowen is ready for the new school year, too. He spoke recently to Chalkbeat.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What led you to become a school counselor?

I started out in finance and worked at a financial investment firm for about two years but became despondent with the lack of passion I had for my role as a licensing analyst. I visited St. Joseph’s College and met with an academic advisor in the school counseling program at Long Island University in Brooklyn. She told me to take two classes, and all I had to lose was money and time. It was the best decision I made. It was the first time in my academic career that what I was learning in school felt like an extension of my personality, strengths, interests, and who I was at my core. I share this story with my students to let them know that even counselors need to be counseled!

How did your students fare during the prolonged stretch of remote learning and social isolation?

Our school culture promotes getting to know students on a deep level as we are a 6-12 school, and the lack of physical interaction made this extremely difficult. Many of our students are first-generation Americans and come from low-income families in the Bronx and Washington Heights areas. Many of them also come from multigenerational households. As someone who lost three family members, including my grandmother, to COVID, I know first-hand the anxiety, depression, and isolation that comes with being away from a place of stability, care, and attention. 

I’m so sorry to hear about the losses you’ve endured. You have a job that centers on caring for others. How did you take care of yourself through it all?

I have always counseled from a place of do as I say and as I do. When the pandemic started, I reminded my students that although education is an important step toward financial freedom and generational wealth, mental stability comes first. I shared with my students the anxiety and uncertainty I felt as an adult about the pandemic and the things I did to make me feel stable: meditation, riding my bike, and communicating with family and friends. I even started an evening meditation workshop for students to wind down after a tough day. Initially, students believed that you had to spend an hour in the gym or dedicate the same time every day to meditate. Showing them that we all struggle and equipping them with techniques to alleviate stress will be extremely vital going forward. This also held me accountable for daily meditation. It was a win-win!

Tell me about your evening meditation group. How do you teach young people to meditate?

Prior to the pandemic, I became certified in EMDR, which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Processing, to support students who suffered through trauma that traditional talk therapy alone would not help mediate. One of the components of EMDR is grounding or mindfulness — ensuring that the client or student is aware of the present moment, as processing past trauma can be intense. During the session, we start by thanking ourselves for taking time out of our day to prioritize our bodies while finding a quiet space. I then walk students through deep breathing (in through the nose, out through the mouth) and talk through what they are aware of using the five senses, awareness of any pain or stress in the body while allowing distractions and thoughts to be a part of the session.

What student needs have you seen arise or grow during the COVID era?

COVID has exacerbated many of our students’ needs, including food insecurity, home displacements, inadequate living areas, technology and internet access, language barriers, and financial hardships. The lack of basic needs contributes to a rise in mental health crises felt by the entire family. 

That’s a lot to endure, especially as a young person. How can schools best support their students’ needs this coming school year?

I think that all schools should start with a general wellness assessment that inquires about a child’s food, technology, housing, mental health, and financial situation within the household. Our high school social worker created a Google Form that was sent out to all our students. This data was then used by the high school guidance/social work department to provide support, such as at-risk counseling, referrals to our school-based health clinic, outside mental health organizations, and affiliated programs of our school’s community-based organization, CLOTH, or the Community League of the Heights. Our school also has an advisory system where teachers are matched with a group of kids. Daily meetings in these groups can also provide us with anecdotal information that can bridge any gaps students may be challenged with. 

Last year, you wrote for Chalkbeat about how many of your students were traumatized by George Floyd’s murder. Since then, your school has created the Committee on Racial Equity. What are the committee’s goals, and how is it changing the culture and policies at Community Health Academy?

This year, the committee’s focus is on our instructional practices and how they align with Gholdy Muhammad’s five pursuits for teaching and learning. We believe that the student voice needs to be amplified in our community, but that can’t happen unless students are intrinsically motivated and invested in their education. The hope is that if students see themselves in the curriculum, it will spark their interest while connecting why they are in education to what they want out of education. 

Tell us how you collaborate with teachers, parents, and others to ensure students have what they need to thrive.

My role as the chair of the Committee on Racial Equity has required collaboration among all parties to ensure that our students are not only seeing themselves in our curriculum but that their voices are valued. Last school year, I was in charge of coordinating our various subcommittees — assessing our instruction to ensure that it was aligned with culturally responsive practices, training students on topics such as race, equity, and microaggressions, and conducting monthly group meetings with our staff. I meet with teachers weekly in our grade team meetings to discuss students who may be at risk or struggling with a death in the family, illness, financial issues, etc. As a community school, we pride ourselves on not only supporting students but also the community. Parents talk to me about their students' progress, but also about services like burial assistance, housing, employment referrals, and more. 

What was your own experience with school, and how does it affect your work today?

As a first-generation, low-income student from Guyanese descent, I was fortunate to attend a private school from K-6 and then New York City public schools after that. I benefited from small class sizes and a focus on mathematics in elementary school. In middle and high school, I was also enrolled in the Honors programs. I understand the generational trauma associated with those expectations of being successful for one’s culture. There were numerous people in my academic career, like my middle school dean, my AP U.S. History teacher, and my Spanish teacher, who helped me along the way. I hope that I am making the same impact on my students.

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