Trauma-Informed College Teaching

Jocelyn KerrAbout the author: Jocelyn Kerr (she/they) provides advocacy support for OSU Ecampus students as the Ecampus SARC Advocate and Outreach Coordinator. After receiving a BA in Theatre Arts from the University of Oregon, Jocelyn worked in the wellness industry as a massage therapist, yoga and meditation teacher, and managed studios in New York City and Corvallis, Oregon. After nearly 20 years of academic absence, Jocelyn completed a Master of Arts in Applied Ethics degree at Oregon State University in the spring of 2021. In addition to their work with SARC, Jocelyn instructs yoga courses for PAC and Faculty Staff Fitness. Above all, Jocelyn remains committed to guiding through a trauma-informed lens that is anti-racist and promotes and supports equity and inclusion in every sense of those words.

As a new instructor, I’ve found being a part of the New2OSU program to be highly useful and supportive. Every week, we engage with speakers that provide thought-provoking and innovative approaches to teaching. For me, this is crucial as I come to understand my impact on students’ lives more fully. Our most recent speaker, Jeff Kenney, Ph.D., gave an informative and compassion-filled talk on Trauma-Informed College Teaching: Prepare, Respond, Restore. Jeff began the talk by centering us on what teaching through a Trauma-Informed (TI) approach means through the understanding the nature of trauma and how it can adversely affect a person throughout their lifespan, and how we can recognize and attend to expressions of trauma in our students while also negotiating our role as teacher in the classroom.

The TI approach can be applied to our courses in many ways, through instructional design and curriculum development, as well as advising and mentorship. Jeff provided a strong argument for TI teaching because as our student enrollment increases, so too does our student base who are managing and living with complex trauma histories. I greatly appreciated some reminders from this talk:

  • The TI approach is about broadening awareness, not about becoming an expert
  • This approach can serve us by increasing our understanding, patience, and generosity, while maximizing our effectiveness as teachers
  • Being TI informed doesn’t mean we diagnose or presume a student is working with trauma, because we are not mental health providers

During the talk, we had time for discussion in breakout rooms, during which we examined a case study, and talked together about how we could navigate the situation from a TI perspective. These discussions provided us with more insight into how we can better support our students in the classroom, as well as before and after.

Included within the TI framework that Jeff provided was a handout on Care Skills, that highlight how an instructor can be prepared, as well as respond to triggered behavior in class, and how to work towards restoring the classroom setting and our relationship to our students. I found this handout particularly helpful as it encourages instructors to engage with continuing education to prepare for teaching from a TI lens. The “Prepare” skill encourages teachers to build relationships with their students, and invite them to communicate their needs by creating a space for dialogue. With the “Respond” skill, we can assess and check-in with potentially impacted students. We can guide the class by interrupting microaggressions as well as marginalized language and behavior. This skill also asks the instructor to utilize empathy through non-judgmental listening and resisting giving advice that might diminish the truth of a student’s experience. Additionally, instructors are in the perfect position to provide information and resources that can support a student navigating trauma while in school. We might do this by placing this information, such as the knowledge that we are a mandatory reporter and sharing available resources and support groups on campus in our syllabus. Through the “Respond” skill, we can acknowledge when we’ve made a mistake or fell short of our values. We can provide space for our students to process the impact, and we can learn from these experiences by reflecting, building our knowledge base, and updating or changing our practices.

Jeff shared research from the ACEs study on childhood trauma done by Kaiser-Permanente and the CDC which highlighted how adverse childhood experiences can lead to instances of mental illness and household dysfunction later in life, and even lead to early death if not addressed (Petrucelli et al, 2019). Building upon this knowledge that our students, colleagues, and ourselves may be living with complex trauma histories, I sought out more research to support the TI teaching approach and frame it in ways that are applicable for instructors. In the short article, Childhood sexual assault in an institutional setting: Trauma-Informed Teaching and the Appropriate Use of “Self,” Peter Gogarty supports instructing from a “holistic self” that utilizes the TI approach. “Implicit in all courses is that teachers give enough of their life story to contextualize and “make real” the learning experience, and that they take account of the education, knowledge experience, and history of their students up until that point” (Gogarty, 2021). Humanizing ourselves and sharing some of our experience as related to the course can serve as a tool of validation and learning for our students.

As a way of staying trauma informed, I want to conclude this blog post with a brief list of resources here at OSU that some may not be familiar with. SARC, which can be found here, provides services to students, faculty, and staff, and is completely confidential. Additional resources include:

Gogarty, P. (2021). Childhood Sexual Assault in an Institutional Setting: Trauma-Informed Teaching and the Appropriate Use of “Self” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion37(1), 137–139.

Petruccelli, K., Davis, J., & Berman, T. (2019). Adverse childhood experiences and associated health outcomes: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Child Abuse & Neglect97, 104127–104127.

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