We and our students are experiencing a time of powerful social transformation amidst a global health crisis. The physical, social, and emotional toll that we all may be experiencing brings into focus the need for an awareness of trauma’s impact on learning. The Center for the Advancement of Teaching recently sponsored a three-part workshop on trauma-informed teaching in which Temple faculty and representatives with expertise in this area from Temple’s Wellness Resource Center, Office of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Advocacy and Leadership (IDEAL), and Tuttleman Counseling Services helped us understand what trauma is, how it can impact student learning (and us), and the scope of our role to help students succeed. We have gathered key ideas and helpful information from these sessions in this blog post to guide you in creating spaces for learning that support student success.
The classic/traditional definition is “psychologically distressing event involving “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence…” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 261).
It involves a sense of fear, helplessness, and horror. Childhood trauma occurs whenever both internal and external resources are inadequate to cope with an external threat (van der Kolk, 1989). As instructors, it is always helpful to keep in mind that trauma can affect the students in our classroom and us, but in the time of a pandemic and an intense struggle for racial justice, this trauma can be exacerbated.
While most people understand the effects that trauma can have on a person, they may not realize that trauma can also affect cognitive, social, behavioral, and physical functioning. Students, and you, bring all of these effects into the classroom with you.
© Amy K. Lynch and Kelly Mahler
An awareness of the ways in which trauma can manifest for students can serve us as educators in class and during office hours. These include, but are not limited to:
It is important, too, to be aware of the ways in which forces of oppression, such as anti-Black racism, can impact students:
Faculty are not therapists or counselors, nor should they be. Within our scope of practice as faculty, however, here are several concrete strategies that you can employ:
If a student’s behavior is proving detrimental to themselves or to the effective functioning of your class, you can speak to that student privately to empathetically express concern about the behaviors and attempt to find workable strategies to address those behaviors so they do not impact the functioning of your class.
Faculty are often concerned about how to manage this type of conversation. Here is some helpful guidance to consider:
Validate student feelings
“That sounds like a lot to be experiencing.”
Start from a place of caring. Be compassionate as you frame the need for the discussion. Communicate that the intention of this discussion is to help rather than to punish.
Appreciate the courage it took to share
“Thank you for sharing this with me--I know it takes a lot of courage.”
“Thank you for trusting me enough to share this experience.”
If a student does share something as personal as past trauma with you, it’s likely because you have created an environment of trust and caring. So, kudos for that! You can first express appreciation that the student has shared this with you.
Refer to skills and supports
“What supports or resources have worked for you in the past?”
“There are folks available who can help. Could I share some information with you?”
If a student shares a traumatic experience specifically about sexual misconduct since they have been a student at Temple, let them know you must report that to the Title IX Coordinator, and that they can be a part of the reporting process. Learn more at sexualmisconduct.temple.edu. If a student shares a plan to harm themselves or others, please contact TUPD (215-204-1234) or 911. There are resources available for students in non-emergent crises, such as the Crisis Text Line, or hotlines for interpersonal violence and sexual violence.
Remember that the key to great teaching, no matter the challenge, is communication, empathy, flexibility, and the willingness to see our students as the complex, wonderful human beings they are.