Opinion
Student Well-Being Opinion

How Trauma-Informed Practice Made Me a Better Teacher

Students aren’t the only ones who need help managing their emotional responses
By Melody Hawkins — August 10, 2022 4 min read
Conceptual illustration of learning through trauma
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All young people have experienced loss over the past two years—loss of physical access to school, to teachers and friends, to school activities and playtime. And many have lost loved ones to COVID-19 or endured financial hardships. Even before recent high-profile school shootings, the nation had seen a rise in gun violence during the past few years that had injured or killed many students. I have seen the evidence of this close to home where I live in Knoxville, Tenn.

Last February, a star science student I mentored every day was killed because she was in a location when gun violence erupted. Her death has left an indelible scar on her friends and me. She was just one of five students at my school who were killed by gun violence that semester. Seeing the word “killed” written here stings, but it is necessary as I highlight the impact of trauma in our schools.

What do teachers do when so many students have trauma—and when we feel it ourselves?

Teachers need to learn who their students are, what they are going through, how they cope, and how to tap into their perseverance to address any deficit to achieve the outcome they want.
Through trauma-informed teaching, teachers consider how trauma can affect learning and introduce approaches to better manage our own responses. Trauma-informed instruction asks teachers to be mindful of our emotions so that we do not trigger student anxiety; to encourage students to express themselves and work through their emotions; and to model social and emotional skills such as empathy, cultural awareness, and patience. It helps me establish and maintain a stable, nurturing environment that reflects what I want to accomplish in the classroom.

Through this lens, I am less likely to get upset or take things personally. I can be aware of my feelings and bias. I can be the adult in the room and determine how best to respond and foster relationships with my students.

I remember a time when a student, who I suspected had struggles at home, walked in to my honors class late. Violating the school dress code, she was wearing a hoodie that covered her head. Understanding that behavior is communication, I took that to heart when I saw her enter class. So rather than be punitive, I just told her, “Glad you got to class today. Here’s what we’re talking about.”

While other students were working independently, she didn’t touch her paper. I walked over and asked a question that required more than yes or no: “I notice you haven’t started your work. How are you feeling today?” She said she was feeling bad, and I asked if something happened. We stepped into the hallway for privacy, and she told me she just had an argument with her mom.

I told her that learning science is a good way to take her mind off other things. After our talk, the student completed her work. The experience reinforced my reasons for teaching—to help students do well no matter the challenges they face outside of school.

When I see students struggle, I remember teachers who had strong social and emotional skills that made me feel most welcome. They wanted to know: “Who are you? How are you?” They had high emotional intelligence. They were passionate, empathetic, and welcoming. They modeled responsible decisions that helped me manage my emotions.

I also recognize that there are times when students need professional help. We have many students for whom mental health support is neither easily accessible nor openly discussed—this is particularly true for many Black and brown students and immigrants. It’s critical that we support healing and growth in our communities and in our schools. We must work closely with our counselors and mental health experts to lessen stigma and make help more accessible.

Educators also need support systems. We need to teach ourselves the same SEL lessons that we teach our students. Providing support and care for others affects us, too, and we need to allow ourselves to seek help without apology or judgment.

There is no one strategy for helping our students heal from traumatic events.

One of our biggest challenges is that teacher-preparation programs and in-service learning have not always focused on trauma-informed approaches to learning. Fortunately some colleges of education are beginning to infuse this into their preparation programs and there are a wealth of online resources, many of which are available for free, to learn additional strategies to best support our students’ success in and out of the classroom. Among them are modules that explore the impact of trauma on students and help teach students empathy and other social and emotional skills.

It is also important to remember there is no one strategy for helping our students heal from traumatic events. Our students are still children, even though they might sometimes act older than their years. We have a responsibility to let them know that they are loved, to provide structure in a predictable environment, and to nurture their strengths. That requires us to keep our tone steady, not single out students, and ask reflective questions that can help steer the conversation to safe ground.

Today, even as I grieve the student we lost to gun violence and the pain her death has caused our community, I am uplifted by the students who are here. When I see her friends, we hug, talk, and laugh. Sometimes we share our love for her by wearing a shirt with her face on it. Sometimes we feel a silent connection with each other. At these times, I know that supporting our community’s mental health isn’t just something we should do. It’s something we must do.

Resources on trauma-informed practices and SEL for educators that helped me:

  • CASEL’s strong background tools and research on SEL for classrooms and schools.
  • Learning for Justice’s website, which provides useful lessons and educational resources to support conversations about equity and empathy through a cultural lens and apply it to trauma.
  • ACEs Aware toolkit, which provides screening information and trainings.
  • Harmony SEL and Inspire at National University (where I am currently enrolled in a doctoral program), which offers no-cost SEL resources and professional learning opportunities, including online modules that explore the impact of trauma on students and teach students empathy.

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