As we return to campus, in what will be varied ways, we need to keep in mind that we all have been experiencing sustained events that are having and have had physical and/or emotional harm. Dealing with health and economic concerns around COVID-19 and the fight for justice that is taking place (i.e., police brutality against people of color, systemic racism, white privilege) are ongoing traumas that we have to face. All are going to take up space in your course, and it is important to have the background and tools you need to best support your students.
Keep in mind, not all students (or faculty and staff) experienced these events in the same way. Some of us had support networks; some of us did not. Some of us had direct experiences with the issues; some of us had tangential experiences. Some of us had compounding situations (e.g., returning to unsafe or uncertain situations). The reality is our learning environments have changed and will continue to change.
What does this mean for my teaching?
The truth is that our students have had their lives uprooted, and this can lead to hopelessness, loneliness, fear, overwhelming emotions, depression, anxiety… see where this is going? These emotions will take up space in our learning environments. We need to think about how we approach our students and each other as we move forward.
While we do not know specifically how COVID-19 or current events will impact the learning experience, there is plenty of research on how trauma can inform teaching. The area of Trauma Informed Teaching and Learning has a wealth of resources available. Here are the basics:
What should you prepare for?
- There will be unexpected responses (Minahan, 2019). Trauma manifests in a number of ways – but specifically, this can mean that students do not respond to your teaching, prompts, or even their peers in ways we have come to expect. Take a breath and do not take any of it personally.
- Students will have a different understanding of relationship-building and closeness (Carello, nd; Imad, 2020; Minahan, 2019). The physical environment has changed and our students’ relationship to how we interact in physical spaces has had to evolve. So, whether you teach online or face-to-face, keep in mind that you may have to set clear guidelines for how students engage with you and others. You may need to purposefully build in team- or relationship-building activities early in the course, and you will want to define what appropriate communication looks like. Here is a resource with a few ways to start.
- Students have grown to expect the unexpected (Imad, 2020; Minahan, 2019). Therefore, consistency and predictability will be paramount for students to feel comfortable and supported. You must be clear with students about decisions you make (upfront) to help them prepare for major changes to the course and the learning experience. Explaining why you are making a change can help a student process and respond in a calm manner.
- Students may need you to provide hope (Imad, 2020; Minahan, 2019). This is essential – hope has an important and valuable role to play in learning. Feeling hopeless in out-of-class situations can lead to feeling hopeless or unsure in the learning space. It is important that you reinforce the potential you see in each student, providing them with aspirational wealth (Yosso, 2005). Remind students that learning is lifelong and that they are building skills for living in an evolving world.
- Remember that we are part of a global community. Keeping in mind that everyone is experiencing trauma in different ways, we also must remember that we are part of a global campus. We have students (and faculty/staff) who are closely connected to and affected by what is occurring across the US and the world. Do not assume that every student has experienced/been experiencing these events in the same way. Also, do not assume that every student has the same context regarding these events.
What you should NOT do:
- Do NOT force a response: Sometimes in our attempts to help students heal, we create assignments and activities that require students to reflect on what has happened. This also makes students relive the trauma. Eventually, we may get to a place where having students address these reflections head on is okay – but right now, and for the immediate future, do not put students in the position of reliving trauma even for learning’s sake. Students will need time to unpack and heal from what is happening – so be very careful and intentional about how you address these issues in class.
- But, do NOT ignore these traumas: This is a fine line – we also cannot ignore what is happening. We live in a society with unjust systems and systemic biases that shape our lives. It is important that we equip our students with the skills and knowledge to address these issues head on.
What you should do:
- Examine your own place in this: No matter your identity or background, these events have affected you. You need to take stock of that. Regarding the events surrounding the murder of George Floyd specifically, you need to understand your own positionality in regards to systems of oppression. If you are in a majority dominant position (white, cisgendered, heterosexual, etc.), consider taking an implicit bias evaluator (there are a number of them) – it really does help to understand your own blindspots in this work. Here is one from Project Implicit or one from Tolerance.org.
- Be aware that higher education is a major reproducer of White Supremacy/Power-over Culture (Okun): This can be hard to hear, but it is a fact. The Colonial Matrix of Power (Mignolo & Walsh, 2018) reminds us that a colonizer’s aim is to undermine and invalidate diverse ways of knowing – by establishing a specific way for information to be considered valid or scholarly. This process then leads to the current practice of reproducing White Supremacy/Power-over Culture (e.g., worship of the written word, belief in objectivity, right to comfort, etc.). Visit Whitesupremacyculture.info or DismantlingRacism.org or ShowingUpForRacialJustice.org to see a fuller list.
- Diversify your sources: Many of us use “traditional” texts from our disciplines. Now is the time to make a conscious and concerted effort to change it up and bring in diverse voices. If your discipline is heavily dominated with white, male voices in the foundations, think about how you help students see other scholars in the field at every stage. The power of students seeing themselves or others like them as experts is significant always – but essential right now.
- Explore (or re-explore) work on Inclusive and Culturally-Responsive pedagogies: UNCG offers an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Institute regularly, but there are a number of ways to expand your understanding of inclusive teaching. Visit the Teaching Innovations Office to look at our onDemand resources, join a literary circle around these topics, or seek out your School or College’s EDI Committee or Council. If you need help finding a colleague to talk to around these issues, contact Laura Pipe in the TIO (firstname.lastname@example.org). We can connect you to a full network of colleagues doing this work – and doing it in meaningful ways.
Links to articles for reference: