Teaching While Traumatized
First of all, I want to apologize to my friends and family and coworkers and colleagues near and far; some (most) of the content of this post may have been (definitely was) borrowed (stolen) from our conversations.
Has it really only been a week since we've been asked to practice social distancing? It feels like it's been a year, doesn't it? Americans are the actual worst at being told not to do something, aren't we? We basically invented First World Problems and the first time we're told not to go out to eat or not to hang out on the beach or to avoid groups of more than ten people, we literally can't. And just one week of this has already affected me so much. If I watch anything on TV that was recorded before March 2020, I get so nervous for the characters - Why are they sitting so close to each other? Why are there so many people in that bar? Does she even know him? Why is he touching that doorknob with his bare hands? Why didn't they wash their hands first? STOP TOUCHING YOUR FACE! - and that's just from this afternoon.
Much of what I've talked about with the folks in my life - via email, text message, social media posts, or even actual verbal conversations - have been about the same topic that many of you have probably been thinking about and discussing... COVID-19, Social Avoidance, and how will our lives change because of this "new normal"?
If you are a teacher or a teacher educator (like me), then you have probably had many of the thoughts and worries and anxieties that I am about to discuss here...
1. Am I part of an institution/system that is causing trauma?
On Thursday my university announced that anyone living on campus must "fully exit" and that "classes will be delivered through electronic and virtual mechanisms." Over the last week my students were forced out of their on-campus residences and mandated to return home. To me, this seemed like an unsafe, near-impossible, and traumatizing task. At the time, there were zero cases of Corona Virus in our state, let alone our city or our campus; what if sending students home was putting them in more risk? Wouldn't it be safer to have everyone stay put? What if their meal plan was the only way these individuals would have access to food (at least) three times a day? What if they didn't have access to the internet or technology or a safe place to study? What if - god-forbid - they didn't have anywhere to go?
Prior to the announcement, feeling that this type of decision might be made, I sent out an impromptu survey to my students. Here are the results:
I posed the second question because when a colleague asked at a faculty meeting what our students should do if they did not have access to the internet, we were told that "honestly, we haven't thought that far ahead... but they can just use their phones!"
(Since moving to the electronic and virtual mechanisms, my students have revised their definitions of "reliable high-speed internet." Many tell me they need to share data plans, technology, and internet access with the rest of their family and those who live in rural communities cannot stay connected for very long - a few minutes at a time at best.)
I have so many feelings about all of this (anger, frustration, sadness, anxiety... the list goes on and on and changes from minute to minute), but I can imagine that these are nothing compared to what my students are feeling. And I don't blame them. I just hope they can eventually forgive us (although I'm not sure if I ever will).
2. What if this really is the new normal?
Many people I speak to worry about the effects of a stay-at-home, isolating, separate, and completely individualized learning setting. This is a serious and very real problem to consider. I am worried about this too. How are we supposed to teach like this? Better yet, how are students supposed to learn?
For anyone who has attempted - as administrators all over the country have requested - to "put their class online" knows, learning is not about the delivery of content (e.g., read a textbook / put on a TED talk); it is about sparking thought, setting challenges, supporting thinking, building community, and developing social skills. (Maybe some parents out there are discovering this as well?)
Of course society as a whole may no longer be tenable after all this is over... will folks stop eating out? Will we go back to meeting in large (10 or more) groups? Are handshakes and hugs a thing of the past? Will we avoid social interactions from this time forward? David Brooks has written and spoken about the Valley of Isolation. If social distancing and being alone and alienated is the new normal, then according to Brooks, the way to get out of this isolation valley is to find a better way to live... and I'm not exactly sure what that means. Maybe it means focusing on random acts of kindness or giving a little bit extra or finding it in our hearts to just be nice.
Will technology need to evolve with this new normal and allow teachers and students a better way to connect than video conferencing and email? The hope is that we will be able to go back to meeting in person in the very near future, but what if people are too nervous and anxious and worried to follow through? Does that mean the end of schooling as we know it?
Or is this just the result of spending a lifetime reading dystopian literature and my go-to reaction is the worst-case-scenario? Don't worry, Doc - things will go back to normal in no time! You'll be back to annoying your students and chasing them down for midterms before you know it!
3. How do I (continue) to show my students I love them? I have tried to stay in contact with my students as best I can, but I can only do so much. And I know they're busy and and focused on other things and I don't assume that checking and responding to emails from their professor is high on their to-do list.
There is a body of educational research about Social-Emotional Learning and the Trauma-Informed Care framework that all provide us with proven strategies to help our students cope with their worlds being completely thrown out of wack... but no matter how many verified methods we implement, our students may still feel alone. It's completely irrational and unreasonable, but also a very real and valid emotion to have.
(For example, tell someone who is stressing out and freaking out and unable to settle down that they should just relax. See how long it takes them to literally throw you out the door.)
And while logically the teaching methods linked above will - in theory - work to help our students start to deal with what they are feeling and begin to cope with the trauma that has been inflicted upon them, that doesn't answer my question. I guess maybe because the question is about me. And maybe it's selfish to focus on myself in a time when my students are the ones who need help, but my teaching stance has always been built on relationship-building and connective instruction (Cooper, 2014; Martin & Dowson, 2009; Vermette, 2009). Maintaining these relationships can be difficult, strenuous, and inconvenient, but essential to my well-being. So I guess I am being selfish - selfish that I need my students to be safe and whole and loved and know it.
And I continue to write to my students everyday because as Paul Tough says, my students - our children - matter and the relationships I've built with each and every one of them were not accidents and on top of that, if I can show them love, then maybe someday (soon) they will be able to love their future students... and the cycle of love will continue.
4. How do I continue to care for myself through all of this?
This is not a fire drill or a snow day or even an active shooter simulation. This is a real honest-to-goodness pandemic and it's scary as hell. The trauma that has been perpetrated against all of us has probably disrupted our executive functions and our ability to process information properly. Fear and panic cause us to do things we wouldn't typically do - we get angry at our loved ones, we make rash decisions, we force ourselves to stay busy and keep working - things that might usually be out of character. But we need - I need - to practice some self-care.
I was told once that an empty vessel cannot fill others and it has stuck with me ever since. So I ask my students to take care of themselves and to take breaks and that they should only agree to things that they can say hell yes! to and to be mindful of what their bodies are telling them and that saying no is self-care and despite all of that, I still don't take good enough care of myself.
You already know I'm selfish (see above), but rather than focusing on myself, I focus on my students and I support them through all the great things they're doing and I allow them to teach me and I sit in awe of them. But I know I need to do better because I want to continue to be inspired by them and to become empowered by them and to feel honored being a part of their lives.
So to all of my students out there and to the teachers and to my colleagues and to the teacher-educators: YOU HAVE ME. Social distancing doesn't mean we don't still have community. We have each other and together we can make it through this. If you need anything, let me know.
Stay safe, keep in touch, and wash your hands.