Decentering Teaching, Inclusive Teaching

Centering Trauma in Your Teaching Toolbox

by Eric Royer, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

Pandemic teaching has exposed many of us to the human and emotional dimensions of teaching. During the height of school closures and lockdowns, we witnessed, first-hand, the challenges our students’ faced when caring for sick loved ones or younger siblings, working multiple jobs to balance a job loss in the family, or grieving the loss of loved ones and friends. These challenges, in turn, had an adverse effect on student learning; slowly, more students became blank boxes on Zoom, incomplete entries in grade books, or unmotivated participants in online discussions.

A recent survey on student mental wellness conducted by the Hey, How Are You Project and the American Campus Communities yielded data showing some improvements in stress levels reported by students this semester, yet the indicators suggest that students continue to cope with heightened levels of anxiety, depression, and other forms of mental illness linked to pandemic-induced trauma. In an even more sobering survey of the mental health of PhD Political Science graduate students spread across seven top-10 programs in the field, 30 percent of respondents met the criteria for depression and anxiety and roughly 16 percent reported thoughts of suicide just two weeks prior to participating.

A return to campus has helped alleviate some feelings of isolation and loneliness, yet it’s created other pressures as well. Students are struggling with how to re-engage with the campus community. They’re trying to manage full course loads with lingering pandemic responsibilities. More importantly, they are re-learning how to be learners in an in-person format, spawning an identity crisis for many.

With no end to the Covid-19 pandemic in sight or the long list of other traumatic events and situations with which students have always grappled, how can you promote a learning environment that’s aware of these challenges and obstacles faced by students experiencing trauma? Consider this Trauma-Aware Teaching Checklist from Karen Costa as a tool to center, and not ignore, trauma in the learning spaces you build and facilitate for students moving forward.

While some of these principles are helpful for facilitating an inclusive and welcoming learning environment, many of these are items you can build into your course during the course design stage. Take being transparent on course assignments or connecting students to campus groups and resources outside of your class, for example, as small modifications you can build into your syllabus, your course site on Canvas, or in prompts for specific learning activities. Holistically, identity areas where you could provide options for students to complete assignments or pick topics, additional areas where you can provide targeted feedback, or aspects of your course you can co-construct with your students (e.g., course policies or rubrics for group projects).

As we look forward to the spring semester, consider sharing your thoughts, strategies, and ideas for addressing and centering trauma in your teaching toolbox in the comment section below. You can also schedule a consultation with Reinert Center staff to discuss specific strategies to create trauma-aware learning environments or address the pedagogical needs of your students.