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Teaching Through Trauma

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The great poet T.S. Eliot once wrote, “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

Twenty-four years ago I used those words in my high school commencement address. It was the culmination of a trying four years filled with lots of angst, uncertainty and self-doubt. The time I spent as a student at E.C. Glass High School was, to quote another prolific wordsmith, the best of times and the worst of times. I was a high school student in the nineties when the crack epidemic seized hold of urban communities across the nation leaving a trail of profound grief and lost innocence in its wake. My friends and I remember participating in the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance and Education) program that relied on police officers armed with simplistic phrases like “Just Say No!” to remind us that our brains on drugs would look like an egg frying in an overly hot skillet. Few people were deterred by seeing First Lady Nancy Reagan and Mr. T appear in anti-drug PSA’s, but the fatal overdose of University of Maryland basketball phenom Len Bias evoked a collective sense of shock. Bias was like many of the young men in my neighborhood who saw sports as their way out and toward something greater. “Don’t get Bias-ed” became the crude catch phrase adults used to scare kids straight.

Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean

The public response during that time was far different from the kinder, gentler approach to the contemporary opioid epidemic. Back then drug abuse was seen as a moral failing of people who were too weak to resist the lure of numbing undiagnosed and unspeakable pain. It was a time when classmates who lived in public housing communities lamented the vulnerability they felt walking home from bus stops that straddled rival territory. For three years I co-hosted a morning news show for our school’s TV channel. I will never forget the morning I was reading through the standard announcements and hearing a loud shriek emanate from the library. As the show concluded, I rushed down the steps to see crowds of people sobbing as news spread of two former students who had been gunned down in a neighboring town over the weekend. It was surreal to learn that a talented friend whose skill on the football field was matched by his passion for art would no longer be there to offer a wisecrack or a word of encouragement. Students were visibly shaken by the news. Realizing that even in our small town, none of us were immune to tragedy. Yet there were no counseling services offered. No opportunities to talk through our collective grief or figure out how to channel our pain. So we did what thousands of kids who experience loss everyday are told to do, we just kept going. We kept going the following year when a classmate was killed in a botched robbery. We kept going senior year when another classmate died in a car accident returning from prom. We kept going as we ended our tenure as high school students to begin our lives in college and career. We lacked the language at the time but we now know those collective experiences were a form of trauma.

James Baldwin once said nothing can be changed until it is faced. For many students, the inability to face the complexities of past trauma prevents them from changing the barriers to their success. The experiences, not baggage, our students bring with them have an impact on various indicators of college readiness, academic preparation, persistence, retention and graduation. In a rapidly changing political space where conflicts often result in violence, the legacies of trauma don’t stop outside the university’s gate. As school districts across the country implement new measures to promote social and emotional learning, colleges and universities must deepen their commitment to helping students, faculty, and staff work through these challenges. Addressing these issues isn’t about “coddling snowflakes” or protecting students from “the real world.” Rather, it’s about empowering them to better understand how trauma shapes every aspect of our lives.

Trauma nestles in the crevices of our memories. It burrows in our shoulders, lies dormant in our muscles, and creeps in via a smell, a word, or even an unrecognizable reminder of the pain of the past. For our students, those triggers can be class discussions on controversial topics like the Department of Education’s retreat from addressing sexual assault or debates about sexual misconduct during judicial confirmation hearings. Often what may present as a sense of apathy is really a coping mechanism to just keep going.  The experiences we carry can manifest as stress, anxiety, and self-doubt. They shape how we interact with others and how we see ourselves. Just as we acknowledge the post traumatic stress experienced by our brave military service members, we must also commit to addressing the perpetual stress so many of our students have been exposed to.

The academy doesn’t provide space for vulnerability. It actively shuns emotion and by extension, sanctions those who react as well, human. And yet, as educators, we have an obligation to recognize that we are the sum total of every experience we have had in our lives. Not just the polished, edited, well-crafted veneer that we want the world to see. But also those parts of our lives that have weighed us down under the burden of hurt, shame, guilt, fear and disappointment. Just as we owe our students decency, respect and consideration, we owe it to ourselves as we teach through trauma.

Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean is an associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University where she writes about American politics, political psychology and public policy. You can follow her on Twitter @KBDPHD.

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