Podcast S2. Ep 6: The Importance of Trauma-Informed Practices w/ Allyson Apsey

Character Strong · September 18, 2019

Allyson Apsey has been an educator for over twenty years; a school leader for fifteen of those years. She is so proud of her school district and the Zeeland, MI community, and she loves being the principal of Quincy Elementary. She is the author of a blog called Serendipity in Education, and of the book The Path to Serendipity and the picture book The Princes of Serendip. her third book was released in May of 2019 and is called Through the Lens of Serendipity: Helping Others Discover the Best in Themselves. She also loves speaking to passionate groups of educators as everyone works to be happy and effective people for the benefit of everyone. She is married to Jim and has two amazing sons with him, Laine and Tyson.

We talk to Allyson about how she defines serendipity, the importance of trama informed practices & the skillsets connected to that work, and she gives some pratical tips that we can put into action.


“I think that one of the basic premises to understand about even just a human behavior is that behavior is purposeful. It's not personal. So often, we see students acting out, or acting in ways that we don't understand, and we want to personalize the other people's behavior. But 99% of the time, other people's behavior has everything to do with what's going on with them, and very little to do with us.”

— Allyson Apsey

Episode Transcript:

  • John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong podcast, where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today, we're talking with Allyson Apsey. Allyson has been an educator for over 20 years. She is proud of her school district in the Zeeland, Michigan community, and she loves being the principal of Quincy Elementary. She is the author of a blog called Serendipity in Education, and the book, The Path to Serendipity, as well as the picture book, The Princes of Serendip. Her third book was released in May of 2019 and is called Through the Lens of Serendipity: Helping Others Discover the Best in Themselves. She is married to Jim, and has two amazing sons with him, Lane and Tyson.
  • John: Are you ready? Let's get CharacterStrong with Allyson Apsey.
  • John: All right. It is so exciting to have Allyson Apsey with us today on the CharacterStrong podcast. Finally, I was able to get you on our show. Grateful for you. Thank you for taking the time.
  • Allyson: I am so excited to be here. I am passionate about character education, and I think that CharacterStrong does such an amazing job bringing character education into, now, all levels.
  • John: We're very excited about that. Yeah, we're so pumped that you are going to be using that to get feedback from you, and what parts have been successful, what things would you suggest, that having been a leader in this work, we're just grateful for you, and with that passion, to be able to continue to guide that work as well.
  • John: Thank you for mentioning that. Here you are, you're in Michigan. Is that where you are right now?
  • Allyson: I am at Quincy Elementary in Zeeland, Michigan. As we speak.
  • John: Of course you are in. Have you started school yet, or when does it start for you?
  • Allyson: Yeah, we've got a couple weeks, but man, things are happening around here.
  • John: That's exciting. I know how that two weeks leading up is, having been at the classroom level, and then at the district level. The fact that you're taking time is wonderful, and appreciate that.
  • John: You, principal, author, national speaker, you are busy, which really just exudes that passion that you have, and no wonder you're wearing all those different hats. But you're the author of the book, The Path to Serendipity: Discover the Gifts Along Life's Journey, and Through the Lens of Serendipity: Helping Others Discover the Best in Themselves, Even if Life Has Shown Them its Worst, as well as a children's book. What's the name of the children's book that you've written?
  • Allyson: It's called The Princes of Serendip, and it's a retelling of the 16th century Persian tale that is the origin of the word serendipity.
  • John: So cool. You've had great response to The Path to Serendipity. Tell me a little bit. If someone hasn't picked that book up yet, or read it, what would be some reason ... in your book, what are the different things that you address? What are things that would help an educator and/or anybody that would be reading that book?
  • Allyson: Can you tell that I have an obsession with the word serendipity?
  • John: Yeah, and I love it.
  • Allyson: Is that coming through at all?
  • John: Yes.
  • Allyson: Are you taking that up?
  • Allyson: If you looked serendipity up in the dictionary, it is defined as happy accidents. Because I'm a writer, I get to make up my own definitions. My definition of serendipity is more like a way of life, a mindset, where we look for the happy accidents in everything we experience. Because everything we go through, from joys that are beyond our imagination, things that we experienced that we're not really sure we even deserve, to our deepest sorrows. And then all the everyday stuff in between.
  • Allyson: Every single one of those experiences offers us something, and we can choose to look for the gift it offers us, the lessons we can learn, that will help us lead a richer, more fulfilled and happier life, or not. It's completely up to us. The idea of embracing a serendipity mindset is to move through our lives looking for those happy accidents and beautiful lessons.
  • John: So good. And the mindset approach that goes ... I had that quote right in front of me, and I'm so glad that you addressed it. I love the idea of hunting down happy accidents. So good.
  • John: In the work that you are doing, where you are presenting on topics, everything from the whole teacher, leading from the inside out, creating need-satisfying environments, leading through learning, all those things.
  • John: One of the things that you and I connected on before this podcast was talking about the importance of trauma-informed practices. I loved your view on that, talking specifically about how the skillsets connected to that are really for all of us. Even if we haven't necessarily, because we all have stuff that we've dealt with at different levels.
  • John: Maybe talk to me a little bit about the work that you've done, my guess is with your staff, personally ... but the importance of trauma-informed practices, and anything practical for people listening, that they can consider when it comes to that work.
  • Allyson: Sure. I think that one of the basic premises to understand about even just a human behavior is that behavior is purposeful. It's not personal. So often, we see students acting out, or acting in ways that we don't understand, and we want to personalize the other people's behavior. But 99% of the time, other people's behavior has everything to do with what's going on with them, and very little to do with us.
  • Allyson: First of all, depersonalizing behavior is hugely beneficial for our students who have experienced trauma, who might react in situations in ways that we don't understand. They might say things that are in total conflict with actually how they're feeling. They might want to get close to us, yet it seems like they're pushing us away.
  • Allyson: It's not about us. It's about what they're going through. Understanding that behavior is purposeful but it's not personal, I think, is a key in trauma-informed practices. That's beneficial across the board.
  • John: Yeah.
  • Allyson: An example, if I have a teacher who's walking down the hall, and walks by me, and doesn't look at me, immediately our self-centered focus would be like, "Oh my gosh, she's mad at me. What did I do now?"
  • Allyson: But, really, it probably has nothing to do with me. That teacher is probably looking down at their phone, or just looking off into space, thinking about something that has nothing to do with me. Depersonalizing others' behavior is, I think, step number one in trauma-informed practices-
  • John: Absolutely.
  • Allyson: And, really, in interpersonal skills.
  • John: That is so good. We need, many times, those key reminders. Sure, they might, at times, sound like these one-liners, but they're so key to what is one of my favorite quotes of all time, which is, "We need to be reminded more than we need to be taught."
  • Allyson: Right.
  • John: What an important reminder that behavior is purposeful, not personal. One that I have really held on to, hearing from Dr. Clayton Cook, who's out of the University of Minnesota, is like, "There's always a reason for every behavior."
  • John: That different mindset around how we view it, and so true, at a building block of trauma-informed practices is understanding that. That people's behavior has everything to do with what's going on, and not necessarily about you. In that teacher example, it's such a great one, because we've all been there. Whether it's a student, or a staff member, and it's like, "They didn't even say hi."
  • John: You personalize it so quickly, when in reality, with the way that you just described it, that teacher might be deeply thinking about how to best serve a student, who they're about to walk into a class that's been on their mind and heart for the last week. It has nothing to do with you, and maybe everything to do with what's going to happen in the next five minutes. It could be one of many scenarios, but that is incredibly important.

“There's going to be some days where you're look at your plans for the day, and you're like, "Oh my gosh, this is going to be dreadful to get through. There's no fun at all." Well, slide some fun into the day.”

— Allyson Apsey


  • John: One of the things that, at CharacterStrong, we know, we know that the highest impact size, based on John Hattie's research, is what's happening from a teacher to student level, relationally.
  • John: We also know that, right behind that, is what a principal's doing on a day-to-day basis to impact all those things. Because that trickles down to everything that is happening for students.
  • John: Maybe on this shorter podcast, because I know you're such a leader in this space, is what are two or three things, if a principal was listening to the podcast, things that you, as you're getting ready ... you said, in the next two or three weeks, for school. Things that are on your mind right now, things that are on your to do list as key, critical things to start the year. That would be maybe, practically, things that I could consider or put into action, if I was a building leader, whether I'm a principal or someone else, but really speaking to the heart of a principal.
  • Allyson: Yeah. I think that one of the key things about being a strong leader in a school is that I am always in the right place at the right time when I'm not in my office. Having a desk on wheels, or having a backpack, and carrying our work around the school, being in the center of the school, greeting as many staff members and then as many students as possible, each morning, I'm always in the right place at the right time when I'm not in my office.
  • John: Yeah. What an important reminder.
  • John: Do you ... I know a lot of people who make that as a goal, and they'll start off at the beginning of the year, really great. Is there key accountability pieces that you put in place to make sure that that happens? What do you do, to really go ... okay, the first month, great, but let's talk about January, let's talk about March, when it's really getting hard to continue that.
  • John: What are some things that you do, to really help hold you accountable to staying consistent in that?
  • Allyson: Right. I think high-leverage times, like arrival, lunchtime, and dismissal, having those as, I don't schedule things at arrival time, at dismissal time, or at lunchtime, because I need to be out and about, is key. Keeping that consistent as possible throughout the year.
  • Allyson: The other thing that I have a goal of is every classroom, every day. Do I hit that goal, every classroom, every day? Absolutely not. I do not. But my goal is every classroom, every day, and I do things like I'll carry around a little laminated checklist on my lanyard, and then I'll check off when I've been in a classroom that day.
  • John: So good. Yep.
  • Allyson: And then, if I don't hit them all in one day, I won't wipe it off, I'll just take it the next day, and make sure I hit those other classrooms the next day.
  • Allyson: I am never going to be perfect. I'm never going to be everywhere every minute. But setting that goal, that high goal for myself, of every classroom, every day, makes sure that I'm out and about as much as possible.
  • John: Absolutely. I love you ... things that could easily get missed in hearing that idea, like, "Oh, I've heard that before." It's like, no, there's more going on there. It's the intentionality of having that laminated list that you're checking off. The intentionally leaving the ones that you didn't get to until you get to them the next day. The mindset of, there is no way that I'm going to always be perfect. And the reality is, nobody expects us to be.
  • John: I think the challenge is the striving. Am I striving, am I continuing to strive, to continue to work to be in every classroom, every day, and then giving myself permission on days that I'm not. But at least I'm striving to make that a reality, each and every day. I think people respect that. People appreciate that more than anything else. Even the authenticity of being able to share, at times, like, "I didn't get to that today."
  • John: How many teachers, students, and humans in general can connect with that?
  • Allyson: Right.
  • John: It's like, "Yeah, I didn't reach all my goals today, either."
  • John: So good. How about this? I feel like I want to come back and have some continued, intentional conversations here, and I want to be mindful of the time that we want to stay within. For now, to close down today, one, what would you say to a teacher going back to school?
  • John: Here we are, at the beginning of the year. What one piece of advice, or a key reminder, "We need to be reminded more than we need to be taught," would you give them?
  • John: Two, how can people connect with you, coming out of this podcast, and the great work that you're doing?
  • Allyson: One thing I would recommend to a teacher, whether they're in their first year or in their 30th year, every day, when you set your plans for the ... whether it's the night before, the day of, as you're looking over them, find the spots that feel really fun to you, throughout the day.
  • Allyson: There's going to be some days where you're look at your plans for the day, and you're like, "Oh my gosh, this is going to be dreadful to get through. There's no fun at all." Well, slide some fun into the day.
  • John: Yep.
  • Allyson: Making sure that there are key parts of the day that feel fun and enjoyable to you, every single day. That's way more important in January than it is in September. But if you are having fun, and enjoying your days, your students are going to have fun and enjoy their days. That's huge.
  • John: So good. How can people connect with you?
  • Allyson: You can find me. My name is Allyson Apsey, and you can find me at Allyson Apsey everywhere. That's on Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram, allysonapsey.com, or you can email me at [email protected]
  • John: So good. I know you're very active on that. I appreciate how active you are, with everything else that you've got going on, seeing you on Twitter.
  • John: Thank you for the work you're doing. Thank you for stepping in, in that space, because it's not easy to do that, where you are really leading the charge in many areas.
  • John: As we close down today, I just want to thank you for that beautiful reminder, of all of us, as we head out into the day, as we serve students, our community, our families, don't forget to hunt down those happy accidents.
  • Allyson: Aw.
  • John: Appreciate you, Allyson. I look forward to connecting with you again soon.
  • Allyson: Thank you. What an honor to join you on the podcast today. Thank you so much.
  • John: You bet. Take care.
  • John: Thank you for listening to the CharacterStrong podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review, and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play. To learn more about CharacterStrong, and how we are supporting schools, visit characterstrong.com. Thanks for listening. Make it a great day.

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The CharacterStrong Team is a partnership of educators, speakers, and students who believe in creating sustainable change in schools and helping young people develop the skills of service, kindness, and empathy.