Many educator preparation programs are expected to instruct preservice educators in trauma-informed (TI) pedagogy, even though professors themselves may not have the background to help preservice educators become proficient in these approaches. Teaching Zoom classes during the pandemic created multiple opportunities to experience and analyze teaching from a TI framework. These unfamiliar instructional delivery modes were emotionally challenging, causing faculty to face their own difficulties while simultaneously holding space for student challenges.
In this co/autoethnographic self-study, we (two experienced teacher education professors) aimed to understand the ways faculty and students were triggered during Zoom teaching by unpacking classroom critical incidents and connecting them to the TI literature. We investigate the following questions through narrative critical incident analyses: 1) what did we learn, from a trauma-informed perspective, about our attempts to translate our authentic teaching identities to the online platform and the ensuing student responses, and 2) how did reflections on classroom critical incidents help us better understand trauma-informed practice?
The overarching finding is that we developed an “insider perspective” on trauma-informed pedagogy (TIP) and how to implement aspects of TIP, especially the cultivation of emotional safety and trustworthiness. By “insider perspective,” we mean that we developed an embodied, empirical, practical understanding of some key aspects of TIP “from the inside out” because we lived these concepts experientially while also studying about them through literature and classes. The findings from this study have implications for educators at all levels as they engage in various delivery modes with diverse student populations.
Many educator preparation programs are now expected to instruct prospective teachers in trauma-informed (TI) pedagogy (Patterson et al., 2020; Prewitt, 2016), and this call has been strengthened by the COVID-19 crisis (Center for Disease Control [CDC], 2019; Horesh & Brown, 2020). However, teacher educators themselves may not be familiar enough with TI approaches to help prospective teachers become proficient in them (Hobbs et al., 2019; Honsinger & Brown, 2019).
The current literature on TI practices for teacher candidates is scant (Brown et al., 2020), even though research indicates that up to 99% of undergraduate students have experienced traumatic events (Frazier et al., 2009). Additionally, despite calls to attend to the well-being and training of educators working with traumatized students (Brunzell et al., 2021; Carello & Butler, 2015), little research exists on what happens when the educators themselves get activated.
Pivoting suddenly to online classes during the pandemic created multiple opportunities to experience and analyze teaching from a TI framework. These unfamiliar instructional delivery modes were emotionally challenging, causing faculty to face their own difficulties while simultaneously holding space for student challenges. Furthermore, although scholarship is emerging on how faculty are adapting their practice to distance contexts (Abrams, 2021; Chapman, 2021; Well, 2021), studies are absent on how faculty respond to distance learning from a TI perspective. This research addresses this gap.
To make meaning of the ways faculty were triggered through Zoom teaching, we (two experienced teacher education professors) worked as critical friends to unpack classroom incidents and connect them to the TI literature. Responding to these teaching and learning challenges allowed us to reach new thresholds by stretching into reimagined pedagogical skills and ever-evolving identities. As McGonigal (2016) and others (Ballard, 2022; Holiday, 2014) argue, the difficulties and tensions in our Zoom classrooms provided opportunities for growth in both the professional and personal realms that continue to the present moment. This process better equipped us to understand and teach TI practice and thus contribute to closing the gap in the literature.
Trauma-informed practice (TIP) forms the conceptual framework for this self-study. Fallot and Harris (2009) named five core elements of trauma-informed practice (TIP): ensuring emotional and physical safety, establishing trustworthiness, maximizing choice, maximizing collaboration, and prioritizing empowerment. Carello and Butler (2015) argue that ensuring safety is the most basic, fundamental principle. We focus here on safety, along with trustworthiness, as they are essential to TIP for both professors and students.
The principles of safety and trustworthiness are well-aligned with Kitchen’s relational teacher education pedagogy and “reciprocal approach” in which professors acknowledge their own struggles, engage students with empathy and respect around their struggles, and are receptive to growing in the context of teacher-student relationships (2002, 2005a, 2005b). Brown (2015) and Markowitz and Bouffard (2020) refer to this as reciprocal vulnerability where students and faculty get comfortable revealing their struggles and humanness. Taking the risk to express vulnerability requires cultivating a classroom culture in which students and faculty alike feel respected, valued, and emotionally and physically safe. A sense of trust can be built and strengthened as faculty model expressions of vulnerability, and eventually, over time as trust builds, students reciprocate. This reciprocal vulnerability deepens the sense of connection that is so central in TIP.
Emotions play a starring role in relational, trauma-informed pedagogy. While the teacher is responsible for doing what is possible within the classroom to establish a culture of physical and emotional safety for the students, the collective fear sparked by the pandemic may have exceeded the capacities of some educators. During pandemic Zoom classes, faculty often felt and brought into the virtual classroom the heightened emotions and sense of fear that pervaded society. As faculty monitored students for signs of trauma, faculty also had to recognize when their own trauma was triggered. When faculty enter classes with dysregulated nervous systems, especially without being aware of it, students pick up on this, and it can fuel the fire of their own respective activation (Imad, 2022).
Higher education institutions notoriously privilege cognitive ways of knowing rather than using emotions and the body as a path to understanding (Grassi & Dorman, 2020). To help higher education faculty understand the ways that “historical, social, racial, and personal trauma are held in the nervous system as patterns,” Chari and Singh (2020) developed a course called “Embodying Your Curriculum” (EYC). Their trauma-informed approach “provides professors tools to work with the dysregulation that is already present for almost everyone, to acknowledge it, and to create resiliency and connection in the midst of it.” Concepts and embodied practices from their EYC course played a significant role in our meaning making of the emotional difficulties that arose during pandemic Zoom teaching.
The aim of this chapter is to reflect on and make meaning of our various challenges of pandemic Zoom teaching through a trauma-informed lens. This multifaceted learning experience was framed by these inquiry questions:
- What did we learn, from a trauma-informed perspective, about our attempts to translate our authentic teaching identities to the online platform and the ensuing student responses?
- How did reflections on classroom critical incidents help us better understand trauma-informed practice?
This self-study was initiated by two experienced teacher education professors who had never taught in an online platform until required by the pandemic. We sought a systematic method for making sense of how emotionally difficult and disorienting our pandemic Zoom teaching experiences were and to learn from them to improve our practice moving forward. We applied many of the principles from co/autoethnography, codified within the context of a longstanding collaborative critical friendship, demonstrating how self-study is both personal and interpersonal (Samaras, 2011).
Taylor and Coia (2019) acknowledge that co/autoethnography is often a non-linear, “complex, messy process” without predetermined, ordered steps (pp. 9-10). Our steps in this collaborative self-study followed this general flow. Throughout four terms of pandemic Zoom teaching, we both kept teaching journals. We talked and messaged weekly to tell each other our stories of various online teaching challenges. We converted selected stories into critical incident narratives that represented the most challenging situations we encountered. These written and oral data sources were central to our meaning making. We engaged in study of the TIP literature, participated in experiential learning (such as the EYC course noted above), and dialogued regularly, searching for insights and interpretations through the lens of TIP and our own personal histories.
Critical incidents were described in written and oral narratives and represent a major portion of our data set. Thus, narrative analysis (Fraser, 2004; Newby, 2014) was a logical analytic framework. Step 1 is interpretation: We searched for the most salient features of the various data sources through the lens of trauma-informed practice. Step 2 involved comparing key features of the narratives to our personal histories in a co/autoethnographic approach. For example, how did x critical incident bring us back to painful situations from our personal histories that caused us to get activated in the current moment? Step 3 involved searching for common themes and patterns across the narratives through the lens of TIP conceptual frameworks.
Through this collaborative analysis of the selected critical incidents (Williams & Berry, 2016), we attempted to bridge reflection and practice (Kitchen, 2005a) and make meaning of these difficult situations through the lens of TIP. Reflecting on, discussing, and analyzing the incidents, shaped by our conceptual and experiential learning about TIP, generated powerful insights. To enhance trustworthiness, we shared initial results of these analyses with other higher education colleagues and have incorporated their feedback into this chapter’s findings.
Teaching on Zoom during the pandemic presented myriad challenges to our practice as teacher educators. The distance learning environment constrained our abilities to enact a relational, embodied pedagogy, which is at the core of trauma-informed education and our own teaching identities. In addition to the societal stress and dysregulation of pandemic life, the challenges were exacerbated by limited in-person contact, the frequency of teaching to a sea of black boxes on Zoom (because so many students kept their video cameras off), inconsistent access to Internet connectivity and a suitable environment in which to participate in Zoom classes, and widespread videoconferencing fatigue (Ramachandran, 2021). Analyzing and reflecting on critical incidents related to these types of difficulties generated important insights towards the inquiry questions.
The overarching finding is that we developed an “insider perspective” on TIP, especially the cultivation of emotional safety and trustworthiness. By “insider perspective,” we mean that we developed an embodied, empirical, practical understanding of some key aspects of TIP “from the inside out” because we lived these concepts experientially while also studying about them through literature and classes.
Critical incident analysis led to three main themes within this “insider perspective” which helped us better understand the impact of trauma in the classroom on faculty and students alike: intersecting dysregulation, double binds, and rupture as generative. Below we exemplify the themes through critical incident analysis.
Theme 1: Intersecting Dysregulation
Critical incident 1: I had another really hard Zoom class the other day where only one student had their camera on. At one point, I called on Sam’s black box and asked to hear his responses to an issue we were discussing. “Sam? (pause) Sam, are you there? (pause) Sam, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Can you please unmute and share your ideas?” Radio silence as I sat there awkwardly and then said, after another anxiety-ridden pause, “Okay, well, who else has some input on this prompt?” That evening, I received an email from Sam. “Hey Professor! I heard you were calling on me in class today. I’m so sorry! I was in the laundromat moving my clothes into the dryer. That’s the only place I can get Internet and be away from my loud roommate.” This is just one example of how students appear to be attending Zoom class, but they are not truly present.
My usual strategies of leveraging my relational skills just do not work as well as they work face-to-face. In person, there are so many informal opportunities to interact and build connections with students: walking to or from class across campus, spontaneous office drop ins, being able to see and hear the interaction and track comprehension both during whole class instruction and small group activities. I realize I am mourning that loss of effectiveness and connection.
I had a huge aha today about why it is so hard for me to teach to a sea of black boxes. Normally in my teaching, I am frequently scanning the room for signs of the students attuning to me. I need to know that I and my teaching are being received by the students. If there is a disconnect, I have multiple strategies to apply from my decades of experience of relational pedagogy. However, I am really struggling with how to address this disconnect when their cameras are off (which is most of the time). My own anxiety and distress increases as I do not receive the acknowledgement I seek that students are following me. In these moments of not getting that attunement, that very young part of me that sought attunement but often did not receive it gets triggered. At first, I resort to an old strategy from childhood of trying really hard to fix the problem so that I would not be rejected. My unconscious then spirals into fear of being abandoned and the overwhelm of having to take care of myself as an infant.
Because my own trauma and attachment history are getting activated when I have to teach to a group of students I literally cannot see, it is so much harder for me to remain balanced and embodied. I am taking personally these “failures to connect” and am blaming myself. And then that pulls me into a shame spiral of not being good enough and feeling like there is something wrong with me. This reminds me of Venet’s (2021) caution that we need to have unconditional positive regard towards ourselves as well as towards our students. If I believe that “my value is in how much my students respond to me” (p. 99), I am vulnerable to getting my own trauma activated, taking interactions with students far too personally, and reacting in a less grounded way.
Critical incident 1 illustrates what we mean by “intersecting dysregulation.” Since our own personal trauma and attachment histories got repeatedly triggered due to various difficulties of pandemic Zoom teaching, we had to respond to that both within and outside the classroom environment. Simultaneously, students, too, were getting activated in various ways based on their own trauma histories. Thus, these dual and simultaneous challenges created a perfect storm of what Chari and Singh (2020) call “tension in the field.” Experiencing our own dysregulation due to lack of attunement and connection, but also witnessing the students’ experience, created an insider perspective of what happens in this “intersecting dysregulation.” We learned first-hand what lack of co-regulation feels like in the classroom and how extremely challenging that was, given how central relationships are in our authentic teaching identities.
Although critical incident 1 does not show resolution of this tension, reflection and analysis on this incident through the lens of the TI literature led us to understandings that we can apply moving forward. For example, we now know that a crucial first step towards healing includes faculty self-awareness and recognition of their own triggers, especially awareness of taking things personally. An important second step is to acknowledge and orally name faculty and student dysregulation without judgment. This naming process requires faculty to embrace reciprocal vulnerability, no matter how difficult that feels. This reciprocal vulnerability between faculty and students helps to build a sense of trust in the learning community so that relationships can be restored and strengthened. While learning about these concepts through the literature was important, experiencing them simultaneously helped us to develop an embodied understanding from the inside out.
Theme 2: Double Binds
Critical incident 2: The whole issue of whether or not to require students to have Zoom video cameras on during class certainly feels like a double bind. Providing choice and empowerment are key tenets of trauma-informed practice. So from that perspective, students should not be required to use their video—right? And I can’t stop thinking about Venet’s (2021) comment that “controlling the bodies of our students is trauma-inducing, not trauma-informed” (p. 69). I keep asking myself, “Is requiring Zoom videos to be on a form of controlling students’ bodies?” I fear that it is. And yet at the same time, other sources say that asking students to keep their cameras on IS trauma-informed, because of the central role of connection and relationships in cultivating a safe, trusting learning environment. I am confused and absolutely feel that sense of being stuck between a rock and a hard place.
In a recent anonymous survey, a number of students commented on the whole cameras on vs. off issue. One said that I should be “written up” for pressuring them to have their video cameras on. Another said, “I don’t want you inspecting my face to try to see if I understand or am engaged.” Whoa. These comments made me realize that even though I was saying it was not technically required to have cameras on, my energy around the issue came across as a strong demand. In my own desperation to get the connection and acknowledgement through social nervous system tools such as eye contact, attuned energetic contact, and verbal contact (Chari & Singh, 2020), I overdid it on pressuring them. Definitely a double bind.
After getting that feedback, I reflected back to them some of the themes from the survey responses. I named the strong emotions that came through in some of their comments about the pressure they felt from me. I told them how grateful I was that they were able to tell me how they felt, and I shared very honestly how hard it was for me to feel connected to them or to be able to track their understanding when I could not see them. I have to say—it was quite ironic to be sharing in such a vulnerable way to, once again, the sea of black boxes.
I then invited a broader discussion on why it might be a good idea to elicit anonymous formative feedback from one’s students in the way I had done. I raised the question of how a teacher might respond when feedback across the class contained conflicting views, including opinions that essentially suggested that the teacher change their identity and authentic teaching style to match student preferences. For example, in that survey, I heard both: “Please lecture for the full 90-minute class period” alongside “Please put us in breakout rooms more often for group work.” Right in the middle of this discussion point, one of the black boxes unmuted itself, interrupted me, and said in a loud voice, “THIS IS A WASTE OF TIME.”
As noted in critical incident 2, we gained an experiential understanding and insider perspective of double binds (Chari & Singh, 2020; Gist, 2016). A double bind is described as “being stuck between a rock and a hard place” resulting in “no good choices…that feel spacious or empowering.” As learned in the EYC course, double bind classroom situations can be influenced by personal and intergenerational trauma histories of faculty and students and the intersections among them. Double binds usually cause a level of activation for facilitators as well as for students and often cause reactivity “through strong emotions of anger or fear.” In critical incident 2, the discussion about camera presence created a double bind for both the professor and student, terminating in frustration and anger from the student.
During pandemic Zoom teaching, we needed and wanted to enact appropriate TI practice, yet we discovered that being ourselves and teaching in a way that aligned with our authenticity was sometimes resisted by students. We experienced teaching as “a daily exercise in vulnerability” (Palmer, 2007, p. 17), as both students and faculty had to learn and teach in unfamiliar ways, and often in uncomfortable environments. We often felt unsteady when our “normal” ways of enacting our core beliefs did not work.
Experiencing double binds required us to be willing to turn towards discomfort, and model reciprocal vulnerability, while doing our best to stay as balanced and embodied as possible. This required attuning to our own nervous systems first, before engaging with the social nervous system of the class. As we deepen our ability to sit with challenging conversations and situations, we “can gain insight, learn, grow, and develop our resiliency as individuals and as a community” (Chari & Singh, 2020). During Zoom teaching we gained practice in using these skills to respond when faced with double binds.
Theme 3: Ruptures can be generative
Critical incident 3: I was late to Zoom class one day last week because I received a text right before class time saying that I was eligible to receive the COVID vaccine and needed to sign up immediately or risk having to wait. I felt a huge sense of urgency due to living in fear for a year that I would get COVID and infect a high-risk family member. So, I took the time to register but then was a few minutes late getting the Zoom class up and running. As I frantically logged on, I could feel adrenaline coursing through my veins. My body and emotions were overflowing with relief and excitement. I apologized for being late and then impulsively gushed my news and excitement of the vaccine registration to the students, followed by an overly enthusiastic “Who else has gotten their vaccine or is signed up to get it soon?” I looked around at the Zoom boxes (about half had videos on at that point) and watched for responses. A few students raised their hands or gave a thumbs up. Others looked at me with blank stares or averted their eyes. Others turned their videos off.
A few days later, I got the first shot and was at the grocery store afterwards. The cashier asked me in a very friendly tone how my day was going. “Oh, it’s fantastic! I just got my COVID vaccine, and I feel SO relieved! Have you gotten yours yet?!” Suddenly, his tone changed, he looked away with a furrowed brow and said sternly, “That’s a personal question that you shouldn’t ask people.” Immediately I realized he was totally right. I deeply apologized with shame in my heart. I thanked him for telling me that it felt so inappropriate to him.
In our next Zoom class, as embarrassed as I felt, I came right out and said to the students, “I made a mistake in class the other day when I gushed about getting the vaccine and asked who among you had gotten it, too. That is a personal choice that we all make, and I was wrong to act as I did, especially as a professor in a position of authority with you. I am truly sorry for the impact my actions may have had on you and your feelings about being in this class and working with me.” No students said anything to me then or afterwards about this incident, so I only have speculations about how it was received. However, I knew that attempting to repair with them was the ethical move, no matter how humiliated I felt.
As noted in critical incident 3, we gained an embodied, experiential, insider perspective on the generative role of ruptures within the context of relational pedagogy. Applying what we learned from the TI literature to what we actually experienced helped us change our views on “ruptures.” We learned that they are actually a sign of generative learning community health, not something to be feared (Chari & Singh, 2020). In the context of pandemic Zoom teaching when we constantly felt like novice teachers again, we naturally made some mistakes, both in our Zoom pedagogy and in our interactions with students. Feeling so vulnerable due to our mistakes being on full display was often extremely uncomfortable, especially when our fumbles caused harm or difficulty in some way. However, through study and reflection, we developed broader perspectives on the valuable role of ruptures. Chari and Singh (2020) teach that:
ruptures and breaches actually strengthen the container of the classroom when they are met with attuned contact and witnessing... Just the intention and conversation around repair can itself be a powerful corrective experience for those who’ve experienced trauma at various levels, and who may have never had the experience of someone making repair with them with integrity.
It was a relief to learn that our mistakes, followed by attempts to make repair with humility and vulnerability, could actually promote resiliency and enhance the feeling of emotional safety and trust.
We originally conducted this study to reflect on and make meaning of our various challenges of pandemic Zoom teaching through a trauma-informed lens. This self-study resulted in valuable insights on implementing trauma-informed practices that are relevant for educators in any discipline, context, or delivery model. Through a cycle of reflection presented in critical incidents, informed by literature and professional development, we developed an insider’s perspective of TI practice and how to engage it in our classrooms.
Trauma-informed practice centers relationships. The distance learning environment constrained our abilities to enact a relational, embodied pedagogy, as described in the critical incidents. As we tried to maintain integrity with our authenticity, we had to get comfortable with reciprocal vulnerability as part of building safe, trusting relationships with students. Our willingness to turn towards the pain of intersecting dysregulation, be aware of and sit with the paradox of double binds, and accept the generative nature of ruptures and repair led to a more powerful understanding of the inner workings of trauma-informed practice that has deeply shaped our relational teacher education pedagogy. Learning from these difficulties has strengthened our skills and resilience and allowed us to reimagine our developing practice as trauma-informed educators.
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