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Trauma-sensitive teaching: in it for the long haul

Recently, we spoke with Sherry MacKay, educator and founder of Glocally Connected and ESL with TLC to try to wrap our minds around the many intricacies and considerations for engaging with learners who have experienced trauma. Our conversation culminated in Episode 34 “Trauma-sensitive teaching” in which Sherry masterfully guides us through an exploration of what trauma is, how it might manifest in our classrooms and ways that we, as teachers, can support our students in the wake of traumatic experiences.


The conversation left both of us reeling, and inspired us to reflect more intentionally on our time working with trauma-afflicted individuals. We shared a few critical takeaways, which we hope might inspire other educators to go inward, too.


Trauma is harder to define than we thought.


When we think of trauma, many of us think of the more “obvious” contexts for experiencing trauma, like living in a conflict zone or being a part of an abusive relationship. Sherry encourages us to broaden our definition of the word: “...just by living we've all experienced some form of trauma.” In other words, some of the events that make up the human experience—losing loved ones, being involved in a car accident, weathering a pandemic… all of these phenomena qualify as trauma.


In an attempt to redefine trauma, Sherry reminds us that trauma is not an event in isolation, but the event and the aftermath. She references Dr. Gabor Maté, a Hungarian-Canadian physician and renowned trauma expert: “Trauma is not what happens to you. It's what happens inside you.” Ultimately, trauma is experienced not only in the mind but in the body.


Becoming a trauma-sensitive educator doesn’t happen overnight.


Just like any other skill that we develop in our practice, being trauma-informed is a result of continued commitment and curiosity. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t gather nuggets of wisdom bit by bit. We can (and should!) start small. We invite you to take a look at some of the resources Sherry has been gracious enough to recommend.


We’re excited to learn about The Polyvagal Theory, which reminds us of how our brains and our bodies are inextricably linked. Trauma response resides within the body; it’s something that can remain dormant for years and rush to the surface with a trigger as minute as a word, an image. As teachers, we can guide students through exercises that help to regulate the autonomic nervous system. Something as simple as self-hugs or shape-tracing can soothe the nervous system, easing an individual’s trauma response.


We’ve always said that “preparation is key” and that old adage rings especially true here. We do our best to learn about our students in any context, but when working with individuals experiencing trauma we find it useful to gather additional background information that might provide more meaningful insight. For starters, we research students’ countries/ regions of origin and attempt to get a “big picture” understanding of cultural norms. We then shift to researching current and/or past conflicts in the area that have implications for the individual in our class. The goal here is to get an idea of what challenges our students may be confronted with, not to become subject matter experts.


While gathering a “bird’s eye view” of cultural and geographic origins is useful for creating context for ourselves, a starting place, the work can’t stop there. Remembering that trauma is highly personal, and unique to every individual it touches, so too is how trauma presents itself in the learning context. Students experiencing trauma might disengage, and appear withdrawn or uninterested in the task at hand. Conversely, students might compete for your attention, or even mistreat their peers or teachers to make their presence known. It’s important to take the time to examine student behavior, which is, in many cases, a manifestation of trauma. How does trauma response show up differently in different individuals?


Research and analysis only get you so far. In our experience, trial and error is an integral part of the journey to becoming more trauma-sensitive educators. Individuals will be triggered, and often in ways that couldn’t be anticipated from our vantage points. We like to think of how classroom experiences might be reminiscent of traumatic experiences. Perhaps a vocabulary review game where one student is featured front and center might dredge up the memory of an intimidating exchange or high-stakes interview. A game of charades might ask a student to pretend they’re hungry and inadvertently remind them of food shortages back in their home country. Asking students to share their favorite songs from their countries might expose systems of oppression targeting particular groups. It’s impossible to know how students are going to react to anything we bring to the classroom, but we can’t know unless we try.


Together we can be more empathetic.


In our conversation with Sherry, we must have said the word “empathy” (or some derivation of it) fifty times. But the truth is, it’s just that important.


In her book, Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Connection and the Language of Human Experience, Brené Brown defines empathy as “a tool of compassion,” “an emotional skill set that allows us to understand what someone is experiencing and to reflect back that understanding” (p. 120). Even if we don’t understand the pain someone is experiencing, we have to remind ourselves that the goal is not for us, as listeners, to prove our understanding, but rather for the person sharing to feel heard, supported and safe in their sharing.

Creating a safe space for sharing means reserving judgment. Sherry reminds us that “we don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are,” driving home the point that perception is everything, and just because we can’t understand an event as earth-shattering doesn’t mean that that description isn’t valid.


And this is something that we can teach to our students, too. It’s not uncommon for students to share their experiences and try to determine who “had it worse”. It doesn’t always carry a competitive air, and while it’s natural for students to share their stories as a reaction to another’s sharing, doing so can potentially create friction in the classroom. Instead of allowing our immediate reaction to take hold in an exchange—whether that reaction is to share in an attempt to connect, or fly into problem-solving mode—it serves everyone to pause and simply try to listen, actively and patiently, releasing our need to control the dialog or share something of our own. Individuals willing to be vulnerable deserve to be met with genuine listening, so do just that. And in doing so, you’ll not only convey the message that individuals’ stories hold value, but also model this behavior for your students and encourage them to use patient listening as a tool to connect with others.


Opening our ears, our minds, and our hearts, and giving our students the space to hone their own emotional skill set makes us all more compassionate individuals who can support each other beyond the confines of our classroom.


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