By Mays Imad, Ph.D.
Many of us, along with our students, are experiencing stress, anxiety, and even trauma. How can we not? Our brains do an amazing job to keep us alive—constantly scanning the environment looking for and responding to threats and dangers. Right now, in these times of uncertainty, our brains are grappling with at least two overarching issues. First, because we are social beings, our brains view social isolation as a threat—in fact, prolonged social isolation negatively impacts our physical and mental health. Second, because we are not quite equipped to handle ambiguity, our brains are interpreting unanswered questions as a source of danger. Put simply, we are scared—of the loneliness, of the pain of loss we see around us and may feel, and of the future. Our brains are not quite equipped to process such existential threats brought by a pandemic. As I write this article, we are confronted with a bleak reality of thousands of deaths, millions of job losses, and feelings of social and physical vulnerability. Importantly, work by Joy DeGruy, Allen Lipscomb, and others suggest that racialized communities may experience trauma differently due to ongoing oppression as well as intergenerational traumas.
When I say trauma I am using the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) definition of trauma: “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” It’s important to keep in mind that the origin of trauma does not have to be violent or abusive because trauma is centered in an individual experience and can have conscious or unconscious manifestations. Two students may be exposed to the same events but experience these events in vastly different ways where one student’s reality becomes traumatic while the other doesn’t.
It’s important to remember that this pandemic is exacerbating longstanding inequities, which may compound the trauma and even retrigger past emotions experienced by students who have been and continue to be marginalized in and by the higher education systems. Jasmin Lee Cori writes in her book Healing from Trauma: “When the brain is ‘under the influence’ of an emotion, it habitually makes connections to past events that triggered the same emotion.”
What does this pandemic reality mean for learning? Simply put, when the brain is under chronic and traumatic stress, it goes into survival mode by prioritizing what matters—conserving energy to stay alive. The work of Bessel van der Kolk and Antonio Damasio helps us understand that when the brain interprets an experience as traumatic, we disengage and our learning, including the contents of our courses, be it linear regression or philosophical axioms, may seem less pressing.
And while trauma is an individual experience, an ongoing global pandemic is traumatic for most, if not most of us.
It is imperative, I argue, that as educators, we must have at least some rudimentary understanding of how to recognize and mitigate stress, anxiety, and trauma. More specifically, moving forward, educators must have a trauma-informed approach to teaching and students’ learning.
Trauma-informed pedagogy encompasses all the teaching practices we engage in with a keen awareness of our students’ traumatic experiences and their effects on students’ well-being. We need to be intentional to promote environments of healing, self-empowerment, resilience, and recovery rather than practices that may hinder and re-traumatize. (for more information about Trauma-Informed Care see, The Institute on Trauma and Trauma Informed Care). I am not calling for educators to become mental health experts or therapists. Instead, if we want our students to learn, it is crucial to be able to recognize trauma in ourselves and our students and, at the very least, ensure that we help our students feel safe, empowered, and connected so they can learn.
This means that we recognize that amid a pandemic our students may have a hard time: Keeping track of the slightest changes in our classes; making decisions about their learning; being motivated to study or to show up; prioritizing assignments; engaging with classmates or subject; managing their time, or simply not quitting.
To intentionally address the ways the pandemic impacts our students’ learning, I offer practical suggestions to help guide our trauma-informed teaching and learning practices. These suggestions are based, in part, on SAMHSA’s key principles of a Trauma-Informed Practices. Each of the following can help guide our work moving forward as we navigate through pain and uncertainty:
- Work to ensure your students’ emotional, cognitive, physical, and interpersonal safety
Safety is the state of being protected from harm or danger. Begin by asking yourself what makes you feel safe. What makes you feel safe when you are most vulnerable when you’ve lost agency, and when you’re facing uncertainty? Don’t stop there. Invite conversation and guidance from students. Ask your students what safety means to them and how you can make them feel safe in your course.
- Foster trustworthiness and transparency through connection and communication between and among students in your class
Say what you mean and mean what you say. Trust is foundational in every meaningful relationship. Focusing on creating and maintaining trust can mitigate the adverse effects of uncertainty and can help students find meaning and connections in your class. For students in our classes, this often means we provide thoughtful reasoning for decisions, as well as stability and predictability.
- Intentionally facilitate peer support and mutual self-help
Facilitate relationship building among your students by encouraging them to check up on each other if they are comfortable doing so. Model storytelling by sharing how you are handling the current situation. Invite your students to offer testimonials to help each other progress socially and academically. In our virtual classrooms, and amidst ongoing trauma caused by the pandemic, focusing on peer support is an integral way also to foster community.
- Promote collaboration and mutuality by sharing power and decision-making
In Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, bell hooks argues for us to “make the classroom a place that is life-sustaining and mind- expanding, a place of liberating mutuality where teacher and student together work in partnership.” Ask your students what matters to them now, what they want to learn, and what interests them. Take notes and incorporate their ideas into your communications and instructions. Create a setting conducive to collaboration and sharing of power between students and instructors by, for example, asking them for their opinions or inviting them to co-create assignments.
- Empower voice and choice by identifying and helping build on student strengths.
Like us, our students’ lives have suddenly been turned upside-down, and many of them lost a sense of control or agency. Validate and normalize student’s concerns by talking with your students about fear, stress, anxiety, and trauma. Offer them tools to work through their feelings. Empower students who have lost a sense of control or agency to have a voice and to advocate for themselves. For example, create a short survey and ask your students: “How can I help you feel empowered during these difficult times?”
- Pay attention to cultural, historical, and gender issues
Living through a pandemic can and is traumatic to many of us and our students, as does experiencing microaggressions. In his book, Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation Work, Derald Wing Sue reminds us: “It is clear that racial, gender, and sexual-orientation microaggressions, far from being benign forms of small, trivial, and innocent slights and insults, represent major stressors for marginalized groups … Microaggressions have been found to affect the biological, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral well-being of marginalized groups.” It is critical that educators learn about and respond to racial bias and microaggressions in online environments. Moreover, we must also understand and use an intersectional lens when considering the challenges your students are facing. Work towards understanding your own default framework and biases related to teaching and learning. Learn about information and practices that have been disregarded or excluded historically in your discipline. Commit to learn about and implement accessible and equitable teaching & learning strategies. For example, consider an assessment framework that is less focused on grading and more on learning.
In these times of uncertainty, our roles as teachers and leaders matter more than ever— to impart hope. “We teach because we believe it matters,” writes Kevin Gannon in his book Radical Hope. Gannon reminds us that “Teaching is a radical act of hope. It is an assertion of faith in a better future in an increasingly uncertain and fraught present. It is a commitment to that future even if we can’t clearly discern its shape.”
This is not an exhaustive list, and for each of these principles, I welcome you to share suggestions and practices that enact these principles.