Trauma informed teaching: An introspective look at returning to the classroom
Teachers have an innate desire to help and support. We are specifically trained to give ourselves to others, to consider how others learn best, to be mindful of how others might be experiencing things, and to figure out what others need to move forward. We guide others to cultivate knowledge; we bolster others as they find their best selves; we offer stability and healthy relationships. Rarely, do we to take time to reflect, or to pause and consider ourselves. As a trained, but no longer practicing teacher myself, I remember clearly, the intense expectation to reflect, but all of this reflection was directed outward. We do not receive any formal training at looking inward unless we’ve intentionally sought it out. So, right now, I am inviting you to pause and focus on yourself for the duration of this article.
You’ve all jumped unbelievable hurdles over the last several months. You’ve entirely redefined your jobs and how you do them. You’ve been society’s safety net to ensure our basic needs are being met. Now, you are being mandated back to work where you will need to, again, redefine your job. You have very little control in your professional world. You are understandably required to maintain distance from those around you, but this prevents you from receiving a warm embrace from a colleague or necessitates your intimate conversation about the impact of it all to be at a six foot distance. There may be parts of your job that brought you meaning which have been stripped away as a very necessary form of protection from Covid. This all constitutes grounds for a traumatic response. “Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection and meaning.” (Herman, 1992, p.33). In order to keep yourself safe in the midst of all of this, you disconnect to prevent yourself from taking in the entirety of it all. You disconnect your head and heart from one another; you disconnect your left and right brain; you disconnect from yourself and those around you. This is a trauma response.
Take a moment to notice the entirety of all of that. Just pause, and be present to it all.
This disconnection can begin with hyper-arousal. Hyper-arousal can be easily confused with thriving because ‘doing’ is highly valued in our society. To distinguish them, hyper-arousal looks like being on high alert, making sure all of the boxes are checked, feeling rigid with your expectations of yourself and those around you. You might have a need to have your home more clean than it’s ever been, your lesson plans meticulous and perfect, or higher than normal expectations of others. You might feel anxious. You might experience chaotic outbursts or anger. You might find yourself restricting your eating or overeating. You might feel surprisingly impulsive. These are all responses consistent with hyper-arousal. Now let’s be clear, having extra time and balancing that with something pleasurable and cleaning a closet or two each day is not what I am referring to. Hyper-arousal is being in the eye of the storm and feeling compelled to do something completely unnecessary. Living in this state of constant doing, without any settling, is unsustainable for people’s systems. It can only be done for so long before you drop down into hypo-arousal.
Hypo-arousal looks like numbing out and being disconnected from yourself or those around you. You might feel unavailable or not present. You might struggle with memory loss, walking into the back hall and then forgetting entirely what you are there for. You might feel like you are on autopilot. You’re going through the motions and checking the boxes, but your life lacks vibrancy and inspiration. You might feel like you have no access to your emotions or that you are totally numb and flat. You might even feel as if you are moving though a dream, separate from yourself or the world around you.
So, in order to counter the impact of the potentially traumatizing effects of going back to work, start by re-attuning to yourself. Start by re-engaging and reconnecting your body’s systems. Start by dropping down into your body and noticing any sensations that arise. Just notice them. Maybe it is tightness in your chest or throat, or a heaviness on your shoulders. You might find it difficult to notice any sensations at all. That’s ok. It takes practice. Disconnection from our bodies is a common response to trauma and “nearly all of us have experienced traumas that can lead us to disconnect from our bodies” (Montgomery, 2012).
Next, give yourself permission to feel your emotions. Can you put a word to what you notice? Exhausted. Anxious. Confused. Scared. Numb. Angry. Overwhelmed. They’re all valid. Your emotions might not feel pleasant and you may be tempted to push them away or label them in binary ways like helpful or unhelpful, good or bad, or even right and wrong, rejecting the ones that are “negative”. However, I encourage you to welcome them all and to consider all emotions as information that gives you insight into your wants and needs.
Now, notice your thoughts. Maybe you’re thinking, how am I supposed to keep my students safe? Myself safe? My own family safe? Or, you’re thinking about the injustice of being mandated back to work. Maybe you’re concerned about balancing at-home learning alongside students in the classroom. Notice your thoughts. You don’t have to counter them or try to change them. Accept them, just as they are, just noticing any desire to judge them or stop them, and then letting them have their place. These thoughts are true for you, right now. If there are a lot of them, you can write them down. It will help.
Next, notice your relationships, both to yourself and to those around you. Are you feeling present to yourself and connected to your loved ones? Are you able to be truly intentional with your loved ones? Are you slowing down enough to make eye contact? To feel and experience your love for those you care about?
You might even notice yourself pushing your own awareness away. It might be difficult to take it all in. The grief of it all might be overwhelming. Sometimes, taking the entirety of the situation in is uncomfortable and you might even worry, how will I go back to the classroom if I am sitting with the entirety of my fear, anger, or other reactions? This is a good question. If it feels overwhelming, seek professional support because not being present to the entirety of your self leaves you vulnerable to the effects of trauma. The more present you can be to your reactions, and share them in safe relationships where you’re understood, the more you provide a barrier for yourself from being traumatized. Remaining connected with others who care and can help you to feel seen, heard and understood allows you to feel calm, and collected; it’s a space where you can mindfully navigate your world.
So as you go back into the classroom tomorrow, take the time to recognize your whole self. Pause to make eye contact with the kids. Pause to listen to the birds. Pause to feel the breeze on your skin. Pause to feel the warm sun on your face. Pause to see the smiles on students’ faces. Pause to let yourself feel and be.