© 2021 Will Bledsoe, Ph.D.
I couldn’t wait to teach my first college class. I knew in the depth of my being that I was born to teach. My brother was a teacher. My sister was a teacher. My sister-in-law was a teacher. Both my grandparents were teachers. My uncle and aunt were teachers and so were my cousins. Everyone in my family was a teacher. Deciding to become a teacher in my late 30’s was like coming home.
I was so smug. I was sure my students would be enthralled with the intricacies of ancient cultural traditions and ritual ceremonies of healing. Who wouldn’t be? Even if they weren’t at first, they soon would be because I was going to make the material relevant. I was absolutely certain that the course content was going to change their life like it had mine. I mean, learning about the performativity of mnemonic linguistic devices is just mind-blowing stuff, right?
I was prepared. I knew my material inside and out. I had a full semester of highly organized lesson plans. I had readings I had carefully selected. I had engaging lectures and discussion questions. I had media. I had stories. I had essay assignments, quizzes and exams that weren’t too hard but hard enough. On top of that, after 13 years as an actor, I knew how to perform. Completely self-absorbed, I thought that even if a student wasn’t as fascinated by the material as I was, they would love coming to class anyway because, ‘hey, I’m an entertaining guy!’ Talk about feeling entitled.
What could go wrong?
On the first day of class, I implored students to take advantage of my office hours. “Use me as your resource” I said. “If you have questions or need support with the material, come see me.” I was going to create a micro community of scholars.
After about three weeks, I knew who was struggling. The first round of essays, quizzes and first exam gave me a clear statistical picture of student performance. The grade distribution fit perfectly along the bell curve. Like any seasoned actor I could also sense who wasn’t impressed; not fully present; who wasn’t engaging; not paying attention.
I was struggling too. I laid awake at night. Like any insecure actor or teacher, I thought ‘is it me?’ Why can’t I reach these five particular students? What am I doing wrong? Then I thought ‘what’s wrong with them? Why can’t they just do the work? It’s not that hard and I’m giving them every opportunity to succeed.’
Why don’t they care?
And so, I asked each of my five students to come see me during office hours. I was sure I could help them with the material, motivate them, help them with time management if needed. They just needed the right encouragement. Self-righteously, I thought, ‘I’ll get these students back on track!’
It never crossed my mind that the particular student might be suffering. It never occurred to me that it wasn’t about my teaching, their ability, or their motivation. Unconsciously, I just assumed that whatever personal issues a student might be grappling with outside of my classroom would be dropped outside the door while they were in class. Resolving those issues wasn’t my job. I was partly right but mostly wrong.
Teacher or Counselor?
I was trained as a teacher, not a counselor. But as a teacher, what do you do when a student confides in you that they are struggling with something painful, distressing and traumatic? Protocol dictates referring the student to a professional school counselor. Of course, that’s the right thing to do. We give students resources, phone numbers, email addresses and brochures for school counseling. We give them extra time on turning in assignments etc. This is the formula I was given during my teacher orientation.
But how do you respond ‘in-the-moment’ with that student when they vulnerably open up about something painful that they’re experiencing. What do you do when they become emotional? How do you respond to a student who might be depressed or talks about suicide?
What do you say in-that-moment when they’re sitting across from you in your office in tears, highly agitated, or completely withdrawn?
What if what they’re saying and what they’re feeling triggers you? Where do you go inside yourself? How do you show up for them? How do you show up for yourself?
Teacher as Listener
One student was in an abusive relationship with a boyfriend. Another student was struggling with gender transition. A third student was struggling with substance abuse. A fourth student was struggling with depression and grief from his parent’s divorce. The fifth student simply didn’t want to be in school and was resentful that his parents were “forcing him.” Like I said above, my teacher training directed me to direct them to student mental health professionals, and of course I did. And of course, I would do as much as I could to ensure they didn’t fall behind and fail the course.
But in that moment, each of these students – my students – needed something more from me. Most of all, they needed me to really listen. They needed me to be fully present. They needed my empathy. They needed me to see them, seek to understand them, and hold them – not physically, but compassionately. They needed me to notice what they were experiencing and hold a space of emotional safety for them. They needed to feel like they matter.
What they didn’t need was for me to evaluate them, classify them, judge them, deflect responsibility, or “pass their pain on” to another department. They needed me to be fully human, fully present in that moment. As a teacher, I thought I needed them to pay attention to me. What was really needed was for me to pay attention to them.
Teacher as Advocate
Over the course of the last 21 years as an educator, I’ve come to the conclusion that the boundary between teacher and healer starts to collapse when a student is in distress, experiencing trauma of some sort, and reaching out to us. In that moment, I was being called to be a non-professional facilitator of healing. Whether I accepted it or not, whatever a student was struggling with outside of class (family issues, peer issues, etc.), they carried with them into my classroom. To be more effective as a teacher, I had to understand what they were experiencing, and not just in the classroom.
When I began my career as a teacher, I knew nothing about trauma (at least academically). But every semester, every class, there were students who needed me to be more than just a teacher of subject matter. They needed my engagement with them on an interpersonal level. They needed me to care and be their advocate. In fact, I learned that when I connected with a student on that level, their participation in class markedly improved. My class became an emotionally safe space for them. All it took was a knowing smile from me to them during class to communicate “I’m with you.”
Trauma Responsive Communication & Interaction that Heals
I started teaching in 1998. Unless you were a psychologist, therapist, or school counselor, trauma awareness wasn’t a component of teacher certification or teacher education. This is changing. We can no longer avoid understanding how unresolved trauma impacts learning. Awareness of childhood trauma, adverse childhood experiences (‘ACE’s’) transgenerational and family-based trauma and PTSD is now regularly included as part of teacher professional development. Schools have sought to become “trauma-informed.”
But as I’ve learned over the last two decades, it’s not enough to just “know about trauma.” We have to know how to communicate, how to communicate with a student (or colleague) who is caught in the grips of a traumatic experience, whether that is a recent trauma, unresolved historical trauma, or chronic or complex trauma. While we don’t have to be experts in trauma, we do have to have a method of “in-the-moment” engagement, and a way to work with that student over time.
We need one-on-one trauma-responsive communication and interaction skills; and school-wide discipline practices that are fully trauma-responsive. When trauma plays a role in misconduct, our response as educators should be to point the way toward recovery and healing – not drive them further away from us.
In my own journey through trauma, both personal and professional, I’ve learned that there are specific ways of communicating, both verbally and nonverbally, that are effective in interacting with someone who is suffering from trauma induced stress and anxiety. As educators, we need these skills and techniques. Why? Because not only do they help us help students progress academically, not only do they equip us with tools to intervene and prevent further harm to the student and others, but they also quite possibly could save a student’s life. That one interaction could make all the difference in the world. That student will remember us for the rest of their life.
That student will remember how we made them feel long after they’ve forgotten the course.
Those five students who came to my office that day 22 years ago were needing more than just my support of them academically. It wasn’t because they wanted ‘extra time’ or to do ‘make-up work.’ In fact, their struggle with the course material never came up in our initial discussion. What they needed was someone to understand that it wasn’t them; it was what was happening to them. They needed to tell someone what they were going through. They needed to speak their truth and they needed someone to listen with empathy.
They needed me to meet them where they were at, not where I thought they should be