First let’s lay the groundwork for an understanding of traumatic stress and its potential effects:

  • The effects of traumatic events on children is more widely recognized today than ever before. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has previously stated that approximately 1 in 7 students have experienced at least one ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) in the last year alone. And, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than half of all children in America had experienced some type of trauma. Now it can be honestly stated that virtually every child in America — and across the world — will, at some level, experience the traumatic effects associated with this virus.
  • It has been recently realized that trauma can significantly affect adults as well. The CDC has reported that about 61% of adults surveyed across 25 states reported that they had experienced at least one type of ACE. Nearly 1 in 6 reported they had experienced four or more types of ACEs. Again, with the introduction of the pandemic, nearly all adults in the U.S., and many around the world, count the events surrounding this virus as traumatic.
  • As for teachers in America’s K-12 classrooms, reports of Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) are more and more common. For teachers, STS occurs when the traumatic stress their school children are experiencing then produces a negative effect on them. Consequently, it is evident that K-12 teachers are experiencing high levels of stress due to this pandemic. Case in point: A March 2020 national survey of over 5,000 U.S. teachers, conducted to measure the emotions of teachers during the COVID-19 crisis, found that the most recurring emotion given was anxiety. Anxious, fearful, worried, overwhelmed, sad were the five most frequently mentioned. Compare those findings to a similar study completed by the same Yale Center in 2017 in which over 5,000 educator responders reported the top five emotions as frustrated, overwhelmed, stressed, tired, happy.

Hidden trauma in higher ed

There is little doubt that K-12 teachers are experiencing traumatic stress directly as a result of schools closing and the move to remote teaching and learning. In response, useful resources to support remote instruction for teachers — parents and caregivers — arrive almost daily.

But what about those teachers in higher education who, overnight, had to move their face-to-face instruction to distance learning? How are they doing? Are they experiencing stress from this traumatic event as well? From my 1:1 conversations with online faculty and administrators in the past few days, the obvious answer is a resounding “yes!” Many college students forced into online learning are unhappy and are vocal in expressing their frustrations to their instructors and to lawyers. In fact, one recent poll reported that 90% of students surveyed viewed online classes negatively. And “distance learning” was viewed as “worse or much worse” than traditional campus classes by more than three out of four.

Moreover, the common assessment across higher education is that we will not be going back to normal and that it is likely that, in the future, many college courses will remain as either remote or hybrid (remote + F2F). Now is the time to move from remote instruction to viable, online courses. But this will take time. And this effort requires that an infrastructure is in place to support rigorous, consistent instruction for which both administrators and faculty are accountable.

How you can start preparing

In the meantime, following are strategies that higher education faculty can implement immediately to ensure that the courses they are teaching now are high-quality online courses, not just courses taught remotely due to an emergency — some will require a mind shift from traditional classroom teaching practices to effective online practices:

  • Create your online course from the traditional course, but do not replicate the traditional course. For example, if your on-campus course met twice a week for 2 hours, provide the structure in your online course that supports the same learning outcomes but meets for one hour each week. During these 60 minutes, give an overview of the week’s learning outcomes, and provide the materials that support the learning, activities that students will be involved in such as discussion boards, any assessment for the week and, especially, where in the LMS all of these can be found.
  • Be realistic about the future while avoiding telescoping what might lie ahead. Participating in speculation will inevitably lead to disappointment and further frustration.
  • It’s easier to spot students who are struggling in an online class than in a traditional class — they miss discussion boards, assignments are late or not turned in at all, written responses are minimal or inadequate. Reach out personally to ask, “How can I help?” You may be the only person offering to help that day!
  • Be encouraging and positive but guard against Compassion Fatigue, which can cause feelings of detachment and isolation.
  • For those faculty now supervising clinical practice remotely, ensure that the roles of the student and the clinicians or master teachers are clearly outlined and coordinated.
  • Especially focus on developing and maintaining resilience for yourself.

And, finally, it’s a growing process for faculty to become effective online instructors — the process takes time and infrastructure. Mentoring and support of faculty should be ongoing and continuous, more than an initial orientation and just-in-time assistance. That growth requires that higher education move from operating on the basis of a crisis to operating within established processes such as online mentoring and coaching for the faculty.

Dr. Mary Jane Pearson is the Chief Academic Advisor for HotChalk. One of her notable accomplishments is the design of the highly successful model of support and mentoring for online higher education faculty, which has resulted in over 90% retention rate for online faculty, and an overall average of 4.5/5 faculty rating from student end-of-course evaluations. Dr. Pearson’s unique credentials as a teacher educator include chairing the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CCTC), the largest educator licensing agency in the U.S., during which she co-authored the research on California’s beginning teacher support that has become the worldwide standard for the induction, mentoring and support of new teachers. In addition, Dr. Pearson was appointed by the U.S. President to serve as the Regional Representative for the U.S. Department of Education. In recognition of her service to education, Dr. Pearson was named California Teacher Educator of the Year. Dr. Pearson earned her PhD from the University of Kansas.

Dr. Gail Kirby is the Online Instructional Mentor for HotChalk and is a published subject matter expert in online higher education faculty support & mentoring. In addition, she is an Associate Professor of Special Education at Western Kentucky University. Dr. Kirby has 33 years of experience teaching P-12; over 25 years in higher education, including community college, and both private and public college and university settings. She earned her EdD from the University of San Francisco.