Teaching and Learning About Trauma

Teaching and Learning About Trauma
Tom Armbrecht, PhD April 23, 2019

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Trauma is such a common experience in today’s world that almost all teachers encounter it, at least indirectly, in their classrooms. Even though I worked with academically successful young adults who, by and large, led stable lives, many had lived through traumatizing situations at home or in school. (According to the 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health, 46% of children 17 years old or younger have experienced one or more Adverse Childhood Experiences.) I did my best to cope with students’ problems as they manifested themselves through absences and unsubmitted assignments, but I did so without guidance, usually by imitating the behavior of the people who had taught me.

Whenever I was confronted with a student not doing well in class because of personal struggles, it always made me uncomfortable. I resented being put in the position of judging the veracity of their explanation. It doesn’t take very long to become a cynical teacher. There are only so many times you can hear “my grandmother died” before you start to doubt the excuse. Early on in my career, I became sufficiently skeptical of deceased relatives that I decided to ask students for proof. The first few times, my doubts proved well founded: students had not told the truth, never suspecting that I would ask them to substantiate it. Once a student even thanked me for not allowing him to get away with lying, remarking that his other professors granted extensions almost automatically, which encouraged him not to take deadlines seriously.

I rethought my strategy when one day a tearful student offered me a program from her grandmother’s memorial service. Not only did her grief make me feel indelicate, it also made me realize another challenge of dealing with trauma in the classroom: getting involved. After this uncomfortable experience, I decided to abandon my strict attendance and homework policy. Even if my rules were meant for students’ own good, was it my job as a teacher to hold them accountable? If they skipped class or didn’t do the work, it was they who missed out, not me. (See my colleague Zach Fruhling’s thoughts on personal responsibility for his take on this sort of motivation.) Teaching was emotionally draining enough on its own; being privy to students’ personal lives felt like an added burden.

I soon realized, though, that as a teacher, I could not help but be involved in students’ lives to some degree. Acknowledging their experiences even seemed appropriate, since I taught classes whose subject was humanity as represented through literature and philosophy. In this context, it felt hypocritical, if not wrong, to greet the experiences of the humans in my classroom with hard and fast rules or intentional disregard.

It took me a while to learn a lesson that might be evident for someone who teaches students with personal problems more grave than “dying grandmothers.” I had to accept that, no matter how rarefied the subject of the course I was teaching, my classroom was no ivory tower and certainly could not exclude the vicissitudes of life. Although I never really solved the problem of preventing students from being dishonest while still accommodating their sometimes unfair and disorderly lives, I did accept that I could not simply ignore their troubles because I did not want to deal with them.

My empathy increased when I realized that, regardless of the excuse students offered, poor performance in my class was almost always the result of personal problems—some big, some small, but all real—that affected students’ abilities to take responsibility for their education, at least when it came to the parameters I had set. Uniformly meting out punishment may have solved logistical and ethical headaches for me, but it didn’t accomplish the real objective of my class: to promote a more nuanced understanding of the ambiguities and contradictions that are human experience, with the ultimate goal of cultivating compassion both towards the self and for others.

Now that I am creating a course about how to deal with students’ trauma, I find myself wondering more how to teach benevolence than how to maintain order in an online classroom. Moreover, by a sad twist of fate, I am also currently dealing with illness-related trauma in my own life, which has made me acutely aware of the value of sympathy. The lessons I write often describe the very symptoms of stress I myself am experiencing. Although I have learned a lot creating interactive exercises and informational videos, my personal perspective makes me wonder if we can really prepare people for trauma, or can only help them understand more about what it is and how to recover from it.

The word “trauma” means “wound” in ancient Greek, which has made me think of dealing with trauma as licking a wound, and of building resilience as forming a scar—not as “solving a problem.” The time it takes for hurt to heal has also made me aware of the temporal aspect to trauma and resilience, which is also difficult to teach. Although I may be asking students taking the class to work through a sequence of pages within a specific period of time, any course I build cannot address the individuality of their grief and recovery. I know that shared experiences, like those in a class, are reassuring, but what I really know about trauma, I have learned on my own.

Although I am at the end of this blog entry, I cannot conclude with definitive pedagogical advice about how to cope with students’ or with your own trauma in the classroom, other than to recommend that you greet each occurrence with an open mind and heart. I have even less advice for students and teachers who are grieving together because of a communal tragedy, such as a school shooting, when the educators may be as traumatized as the students they are trying to help. I have, however, come to realize that to teach about trauma and resilience, you cannot depersonalize it. Keeping the classroom, whether physical or virtual, an emotionally antiseptic space devoid of all personal experience, is to ignore the humanity of your students. The real challenge facing teachers is, therefore, to make their presence felt and to treat students they may never see as individuals so as to better address the uniqueness of their traumas.

When our project moves into the testing phase, I will advocate for gathering feedback not only about its effectiveness, but also about it “affectiveness”—that is, the feelings it produces in people taking the course. I also want to know if our theories and plans of action ring personally true with educators. It is easy enough to tell someone that classroom misbehavior is caused by abuse and that awareness and mindfulness can solve the problem, but how will this play out in a real classroom?

My own experience has shown me that, although I recognize my emotions, understand what is causing them, and know what I’m supposed to do about my distress, I remain traumatized nonetheless. No amount of meditation or exercise or professional development will replace emotional support, grieving, and, quite simply, time. Writing a course about trauma has reminded me that the success of some courses cannot necessarily be gauged by objective assessment, especially if their subject is the human experience. I want to show through the class I am building that trauma in not just something to be identified and rectified (or even commodified!); it is to be lived. My own experience, both as an educator and as a person, has left me convinced that human experience, particularly when traumatic, is not so easily grasped, let alone resolved.

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