228. Trauma-Responsive Practice

Typically, faculty have little knowledge of students’ personal histories, including any trauma that they may have experienced. In this episode, Em Daniels joins us to discuss ways of constructing a trauma-responsive educational practice. Em is a researcher who focuses on education, corrections, criminal legal reform, and abolition. She is the author of Building a Trauma-Responsive Educational Practice: Lessons from a Corrections Classroom.



John: Typically, faculty have little knowledge of students’ personal history, including any trauma that they may have experienced. In this episode, we discuss ways of constructing a trauma-responsive educational practice.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


John: Our guest today is Em Daniels. Em is a researcher who focuses on education, corrections, criminal legal reform, and abolition. She is the author of Building a Trauma-Responsive Educational Practice: Lessons from a Corrections Classroom. Welcome, Em.

Em: Hi. Nice to be here, and thank you so much for inviting me.

Rebecca: We’re so happy that you’re joining us today. Our teas are… Em, are you drinking any tea?

Em: I am drinking tea today…

Rebecca: Woohoo!

Em: …and I’m drinking it in a mug. Should I tell you what I’m drinking?

Rebecca: Yeah.

Em: Okay, so I’ll actually hold it up. So this is a Steven Smith Teamaker, and it’s a Lord Bergamot.

Rebecca: Sounds good.

Em: And it’s a black tea. And I’m just going to tell you I like it very strong so it is very dark. And it’s in a mug that my mom gave me a number of years ago for my birthday.

Rebecca: Love it. How about you, John?

John: Mine is a bit more boring. I’m drinking a Twinings English breakfast tea in a little thermos that I picked up at the Twinings store at EPCOT a couple years back.

Rebecca: And I have some very strong Scottish breakfast tea, even though it’s afternoon, in my T-rex mug, [LAUGHTER] which is my favorite.

Em: That’s a great mug.

Rebecca: Thanks.

John: And it was a great image on the screen for those of you who are listening.

Em: Yeah, it’s a little green cartoon T-rex with very small arms, and… Are those sunglasses?

Rebecca: I think they’re just really big eyes.

Em: Just really large eyes, and I think that there is steam coming up from the teeth. I don’t know how he’s going to get the tea up to his mouth with those short little arms.

Rebecca: I think it’s going to fly maybe? [LAUGHTER]

Em: It might be like a flying mass of liquid towards the mouth.

Rebecca: Definitely.

John: Which may have been why they became extinct.

Em: Exactly. Or why they were angry, if they were angry. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: We’re just solving all the problems of the world right here right now.

Em: All the problems in the world, bring them here, we will solve them.

Rebecca: We invited you here today to discuss Building a Trauma-Responsive Educational Practice, but we know that you wanted to start our conversation today with a gathering practice. So will you lead us through that, Em?

Em: Yeah, so one of the things I feel it’s really important for all of us, when we’re talking about trauma responsiveness in the classroom or anywhere is for us to try to remember for ourselves what it felt like to learn. To have a moment where we felt completely immersed in learning and in joy and all of that connection. So what we’re going to do is we’re just going to remember that together, and know that our remembrance of that, whether we’re physically present or not, we get to share with each other. So if you want to close your eyes, you can close them, I’m going to close mine because it’s easier for me. But what we’re going to do is we’re going to sit, and we’re going to take a moment, and anybody who’s listening, remember a moment of learning that was incredibly meaningful for you, doesn’t matter when, doesn’t matter where. It doesn’t matter what you were learning, or who you were with, but a moment where you felt uplifted, an epiphany. Just that feeling of opening, and excitement, and joy, and fun. All of the things that we love about learning. Remember what that felt like in your body. What your face felt like, what your skin, your hand. Could you feel your heart pounding? Were you smiling so your teeth were drying out because you were smiling for such a long time? Just all of that warmth, and maybe there was a tingling sensation around your hands and your head. I want you to just remember what that felt like in your body, and I want us to remember that this is what we hope, and this is the feeling that we seek as teachers, and where we want to bring our students and where we want to be, and we want to bring our students there with us, and all the people that we’ve worked with. So let’s try to hold on to that as we move through this conversation, and hopefully, as you move throughout the rest of your day, like that feeling of a deep connection of joy, and fun from learning something that was meaningful to you, and now we’ll come back to the podcast. Thank you for letting me do that.

Rebecca: Thanks for having us start with something very positive. [LAUGHTER]

John: We need more of that today, or at any time.

Em: Yeah, that’s the reason to do it I think, is to remind us that learning itself, the moment when we have that, whatever that is, that is a moment of joy, that is the moment of connection with other people, with ourselves, with the world around us. And that gets really lost. It gets really lost in all of the other things that swamp us.

John: And that is something that comes out throughout your book. But first maybe we can go back and talk about how this book project came about?

Em: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this book for probably 17 years. I went to grad school at Portland State University and I thought I wanted a degree in Peace Education, but started out thinking I wanted a degree in Conflict Resolution. And I realized that I was more interested in the intersection of conflict and education. And I knew there was something we could be doing better, and I didn’t know what it was. I had no concept, no framework, nothing like that when I was in school. I just knew there was something. And so this idea has just been on my mind, like, ‘There’s something that we’re not doing or we could be doing better,’ and so this has just been sort of pursuing me throughout my career. And went to grad school, got done, taught in an alternative high school, moved into community education, worked with community college for a number of years. Part of that work was student services, part of it was teaching in a prison, I taught in the Oregon women’s prison for several years, and then left that job. I also worked in corporate training and doing just adult education in almost every single venue you could possibly think of, every different type of student. I moved to Spokane in 2017, to work as the re-entry education navigator so I worked with currently and formerly incarcerated people who wanted to come back to school. And in 2018, I met a man who’s now like a brother to me, his name’s Bill and we started doing presentations on… we called it at that point “the culture of incarceration.” He’s a formerly incarcerated person and the re-entry education navigator position was very new, and I wanted to try to help out people in the organization understand some of the barriers that people who are coming out of prison face. And Bill had been an educator for a very long time, so we have just incredibly complementary set of skills and knowledge. And as we continued to talk about incarceration and the incarceration of education, we started realizing… Well, we’re not really talking about prison culture, because that isn’t relevant to anybody outside of prison other than people who have survived prison, and that’s something that we wanted to talk about. It wasn’t like, “Oh, we’re going to take you on this tour of how terrible it is in a prison.” So we came across a TED Talk by Nadine Burke Harris, who wrote The Deepest Well. She was talking about the impacts of trauma across childhood development, I think is what her talk was about. But it got Bill and I both thinking about… Well, this is what we see in classrooms and adult classrooms. And so that sort of started the conversation, and we immediately started researching. And oddly enough, one of the only people that we found in western research who has done any sort of scientific study of the impact of trauma on learning is Dr. Bruce Perry who just wrote a book with Oprah called What Happened to You? Dr. Perry was a big influence on us because he wrote an article in 2006 called “Fear and Learning.” And we found a handful of other practitioners who were doing the work, but not really much in academia at that time, that was 2018. So we did a lot of presentations on this, quite a number, and did that through the rest of 2018 and part of 2019. Early in 2019, I met a friend at the National Conference for Higher Ed in Prison. And in early 2019, she asked me if I thought about writing a book, she wanted to introduce me to an editor. So I was not seeking a book contract or anything like that. And she said, “Well, let me introduce you,” sent her a couple sentences. The editor said, “Will you send me a proposal?” So did that in late 2019, and ended up with a book contract in late 2020, completely unexpected, and had given myself a deadline of Spring of 2021, had barely started writing when COVID hit. We went into lockdown, lost those three months. So I really wrote the book from June of 2020 to June of 2021. It released on December 17, 2021, and I really don’t remember very much of last year. [LAUGHTER]

John: That’s probably not a bad strategy in general.

Em: Yeah, I don’t remember very much of it at all. When I got the book, when I got my author’s copy in the mail, I read through it, I was like, “Did I write that? I can’t even remember writing that.” [LAUGHTER] So that’s the sort of long story and more immediate story about how this book got written.

John: And we should probably note that there’s an awful lot in this book. We’ve decided to break this discussion up into two podcasts. This first one, where we’re going to be focusing on the trauma-responsive educational practice. And then a second one that’ll be released later, that will focus primarily on the issues of teaching in correctional facilities and the challenges associated with that. So what is trauma? And how do we define it?

Em: Well you started off with a very small question. So thank you for that. [LAUGHTER] Thanks for not throwing me a hard ball right out of the gate. And I think in the interest of time, what I’m going to say is I think we have to, especially when we’re talking about teaching, one of the things I did have to do when I was writing was I had to maintain a very narrow focus. Even though learning seems like a very broad focus, I had to maintain a very strict discipline and narrow focus. So I’m always going to talk about trauma through the lens of learning, and part of that is because I am not a mental health professional. I’m not a disaster management person, and I don’t want there to be any question of the perspective that I am talking about, and would not want people to think that I am talking about health care or mental health. Trauma, I think there are two things. One of them is: What happened? And the other is: How does that impact us physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually? So the “What happened?” and this is my opinion, is not as relevant for a broad range of things that we would consider trauma work. I think it’s relevant in terms of physical health, and therapeutic work, and the things that an individual person may need to do to help themselves. I think in terms of what I know about you, Rebecca, or John, and what happened in your past, in order for me to be able to be an effective teacher, I don’t feel like I need to know those things. There may be exceptions to that, other people certainly are going to have different opinions, I just don’t think that it’s relevant for me to know what happened. What is relevant is for me to have an understanding of how that impacts your ability to learn. Whatever happens, how it impacts people is different. So if the event was domestic violence in the family, if it was unrest and your family had to flee a war and come to the United States, if you were in a car accident, all the different things that could happen, it’s like an infinite number of things. Trauma is really how humans have evolved. We don’t even know what a not-traumatized brain would even be. We don’t even know. We’ve evolved, we all have historic and intergenerational trauma. So understanding the impact of that, and I should make a caveat here, is systemic trauma and oppression are in a little bit different category, because those are consistently ongoing. And we do need to understand what is currently happening, so that we can address those issues. I created a diagram called “multiple points of entry to trauma work” for this purpose, so we could see all these different ways that we could work with trauma. And all of those things are connected to acknowledging and having some understanding of systemic and historic trauma. When I’m thinking about the definition of trauma, I’m going to look at the book for a minute. Chapter 3 is really about what we talked about, trauma and how that connects into learning and education. And there’s two lists there on page 30 and page 31, that look at this sort of extensive categories of things that can happen to people. But trauma really, in a very brief thing, is something that happens that we’re not prepared for. We’re not able to cope with it emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually, we’re not able to cope with it. It can cause disruptions in the brain. Some people recover from that, and have very little long-term impact, and some people have a lot more long-term impact. So there’s so much we don’t know about the nature of trauma and how it works, and why some people are able to come back fairly quickly and some are not. Certainly personal resilience. Resilience is a very popular word, which is often about the strength of the individual and does not address the systemic issues that force people to be resilient. So even though internal resilience is absolutely necessary for us, and sort of recovery from trauma, whatever that means, is a function to some degree of our internal resilience, it is also a function of our external support. And I would say when you talk about people who are subject to ongoing systemic trauma, that certainly has to erode some of the internal resilience and even if they have strong external support, it’s more for them to have to work to accomplish to move forward. I know that that’s not a specifically sciency description of it. But I think that for teachers, if people want to do their own exploration, a deep dive into what is trauma in terms of science, and all of that, then I absolutely would encourage them to do that. And remember that when you’re in your classroom, that may not be the capacity that you are being called on to bring forward.

Rebecca: So you talked a little bit about the impacts of trauma in terms of what happens to your brain or body, mind. Can you just talk a little bit about what some of those things are that an educator might want to just be aware of?

Em: Yeah, so a lot of what we know about the impacts of trauma come out of, obviously, disaster management, but they come out of domestic violence, sexual violence, and harm mitigation. A lot of the language that we have to use is all grounded in that. So when we look at the impacts of trauma, just sort of the way we think is framed through this mental health and harm mitigation perspective. So I’m just letting teachers know that’s something I’m attempting to do is open that conversation as we are moving forward and getting people to think outside of that, and sort of broaden the way that we approach that. So what trauma does is the body goes into an instinctive response: flight, freeze, fawn, fight, all of those things, we have all these different responses. But for people who have longer term trauma, or something that’s very, very deep and is maybe triggered, or whatever, what happens is it tosses the body back into the fear response state, and that either low-level or high-level of arousal, Dr. Bruce Perry puts it on a continuum from sort of calm to fear, and you can be along that spectrum. But we’ll say people who have long-term trauma, they’re just constantly in a low-level threat response. The body is always aroused looking for threats everywhere. And people may not even be conscious of this, it may just be the way that they’re used to living, it’s familiar. They’re used to having sort of very quick responses to things, always being alert, looking around. I don’t even want to say you can tell physically, because you don’t know people could have gotten very good at controlling their physical responses to that. But inside of them, there’s always this tension of… Where’s the next threat coming from? So the chemical response is that the body and the brain are flooded with cortisol and adrenaline and all of these stress-related chemicals. And those chemicals in the brain make it very difficult for the amygdala to communicate with the prefrontal cortex, which is where our center of higher learning or higher function is. And the hippocampus, which is supposed to regulate that communication, gets hijacked with all these chemicals. I know that’s not a very sciency explanation. But that’s the best the lay person can do, is to say that the communication is very interrupted. So your centers of higher reasoning should be able to communicate with your fear center pretty quickly. So it can assess, “Oh, is that a threat? Is that a threat? Oh, it’s not a threat, you’re fine, move on.” But it’s not able to do that. The communication can be really weak, it can not be happening, all of the things that can go on. This is very important, whether it is actually a threat or not, your body is acting as if it is a threat. So that means that if someone is sitting in the classroom, and their body is constantly perceiving a threat, their ability to access their centers of higher reasoning is compromised. And it doesn’t mean people can’t do it, it doesn’t mean that everybody has the same reaction. But it’s just a lot harder. So that’s one of the impacts, is the ability to sort of assess whether something is a threat or not, so that you can let your body settle and calm itself. And also, even being able to access your standards of higher reasoning is a lot harder. One of the results of having long-term trauma impact is that people’s relationship to time can get a little skewed. Their ability to assess and say, “Oh, this is going to take me this long, this is going to take me this long, let me sort of figure that out.” That can get a little bit, I don’t know, wonky, a little bit. Not even messed up, it’s just different, people perceive time differently. I mean, think about what people say when something really terrible is happening to them, their sense of time. Either, it’s low to the point that it feels like everything has stopped, or it’s just, blink, and the thing is over. So the perception is really huge. And that may or may not come back in the classroom in the way that it needs to, for people to, like, turn in assignments on time. Those are a couple of examples. Clearly, when people are on a sort of low-level threat response, their ability to connect with other people and make meaning of information can also be very compromised. And they can really have a hard time with it. Certainly they can learn or they can uncover that ability in themselves. But it takes a lot more work and time, and I know teachers are often short on time to do that.

John: So when we’re dealing with students who are experiencing trauma, we know that they’re not going to be able to acquire information or make connections as easily or form relationships as easily. What can we do to be responsive to that? How can we address the challenges that that presents?

Em: There are three things I think that any teacher can do at any point. One is prioritize relationships. The second is preserve dignity, treat students with respect. And the third is to try to strengthen connection. And I realize, as I say this, the pressures that teachers are under to deliver content to students are enormous. And that in and of itself, is a significant part of the system that we’ve created for ourselves that appears to be failing. And I don’t mean failing as in individual teachers are failing, but the system is failing students. When we look at the school to prison pipeline, and we look at the education rate of people who are incarcerated, and we cross-section that demographically, we see black and brown people, we see disabled people, we see poor people. And they are, I don’t want to say they’re being ejected, I don’t know what other words to use. But these students are not succeeding, and they’re ending up incarcerated. So the system that we have created is failing large, large swathes of people. And I would say that it’s only really working for a small section of students. And that piece of it, where we’re so focused on delivering content, and requiring students to learn in a very specific way, and not only learn in that way, but be able to act in a very specific way, be able to repeat and regurgitate in a very specific way, if they don’t do it in this very narrow way, they are punished. And that way is not focused on relationships, it does not prioritize human dignity. It does not look at connections between students, between students and teachers, between teachers and other teachers. Those are not the priorities. And I feel like if a teacher wants to try to work with students who are suffering trauma, and that is showing up in the classroom, then you can’t just change the content, you can’t just change the method of delivery. You have to change the whole way you think about your purpose in being there. And I’m acknowledging how difficult that is to do in the system that we have right now. Even if you can only do it with one or two students, and try to really strengthen your relationship and connection with them, and treat them with dignity and accord them the respect that they deserve as fully functioning and capable human beings, that does go a long way. It may not resolve all of the problems, but it does go a long way towards helping those students have a better experience.

Rebecca: To me, it sounds like a focus or a shift from dumping content into brains, to focusing on trying to foster that love for learning that you had to think about at the beginning of this conversation, and become lifelong learners and help develop those skills to help learn on their own rather than depending on a classroom situation to learn something.

Em: I mean, I think that human beings are learning creatures. That’s part of the reason we’re on this planet. We can’t not learn, it’s foundational to our nature. As we age physically, as we develop physically, we learn. We’re constantly soaking in information, trying to make meaning of it. What does that mean? What does that mean? What does that mean? How does that relate to my experience? And when people are traumatized, especially as children, and I should also say that most of the research we have around trauma is on children. And I think that that’s absolutely necessary. But those children are being raised by adults. And they’re being raised by adults who have not been in any way expected to, or talked to, or taught to address their own unresolved harm, the things that happen to them. And when we have things that are unresolved, even if we’re able to just pick up and go on with our lives, those things don’t go away. They live in our bodies, they live in our minds, and they come out. I think I can recommend Dr. Lee-Anne Gray’s book. It came out in the fall of 2019, it’s titled Educational Trauma. I was very grateful that it came out because I was like, “Oh, I don’t have to define that, Dr. Gray has done that.” So Dr. Gray talks about the harm that happens in classrooms to children. This theme that we talked about like the banking method of education, which Freire and hooks talked about extensively. And we’re not even talking about at this point, the racial aspect of our current system and sort of how that has been set up to really prioritize one way of understanding and interacting with the world. And not only prioritize that way, but punish anybody who can’t fit into that way. So Freire and hooks both talk about banking method education, which is what you reference, Rebecca, the decontextualizing and silo-ing content as if you could take it… It’s like, Can you take a B vitamin out of the thing that actually creates the B vitamin? Maybe you can? Is it going to be as good? Is it going to be as good for your body? I’m not sure about that. Maybe eating the food with B vitamins in it is better for you. Perhaps not the best metaphor for learning, but I was thinking about B vitamins. Out of context, the fact that we can take a B vitamin and not have to eat a meal rich in B vitamins, says that we can take a B vitamin. So having content compartmentalized is not necessarily a wrong thing, because it is helpful to be able to study things sometimes, sort of in their purest form. But it’s just completely out of balance that we wouldn’t think about all these other different ways of knowing the world. We think about cognition, that is our holy grail of teaching. What about other centers of learning? What about nature-based learning? What about movement-based learning? Why is cognition the only thing that we focus on? And if we do anything else, it’s like a side note, and it’s not considered as important. So I think that those things when we’re talking about that, and you’re talking about students who are historically disadvantaged and punished in education, they are students who don’t necessarily interact with the world in the same way as our frameworks would demand that they do. So when teachers are looking at… What am I going to do? How am I going to work with these students? That’s why it requires that type of shift away from content delivery, content, and the teacher centered as the sole expert, to this more open and level field, which is: I value your lived experience, you’re a human being who is fully worthy, who has dignity, who is worthy of my respect, as a full and functioning human being. And let’s think about… How do we increase our connection with each other?

Rebecca: So you started hinting at some pedagogical practices we could consider in terms of relationship building, and you’ve mentioned dignity. Can you offer some specific examples of practices we can adopt, emphasize, or build on maybe things that we already do that we could just start moving in that direction, without it feeling like it’s such a impossible heavy lift?

Em: I was thinking about this, I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about this, because talk about pedagogy is always very challenging. Because the approaches that are needed when you talk about once people get out of K-12, so that’s any sort of approach to adult learning once people are out, the range of practice and approach that’s needed to serve adults on that is extraordinary. It is extraordinary. And I have taught students who left school in fifth or sixth grade and their last experience was they got their GED 30 years ago in school, and they’re coming back and they’re wanting to learn about computers, or they’re wanting to learn about something else. And then students who are getting ready to go on to Master’s degrees or who are working on Master’s degrees. So the range of pedagogical approach is really broad. So I try to, when I’m talking about pedagogy, do two things. One is talk about large best practices. So using UDL, Universal Design and Learning, using TILT, Transparency in Learning and Teaching. Really looking to the disability community to have them help us figure out what do we do around accessibility, not only accessibility and content, but also looking at issues of disability justice, like when we are talking about education. And looking to leaders, black and brown and indigenous leaders in education, and other people of color to look at… How do we decolonize? How do we bring some kind of balance into not only curriculum and content, but in the way that we actually engage in education? I think that those are very broad best practices for people. And I know that what people often want is the details. And that is the part that I can be a little bit reluctant to get into. Because it really depends when you are working with somebody who has not been in school since they were in fourth grade, and they’re trying to get a GED and they’re in their 40s, you have a very different approach than if you’re working with a PhD student, or if you’re working with somebody who wants a degree in welding, or somebody who’s just like a freshman, English 101. So those are all really different. What I can do is I can look at the framework that Bill and I developed. So we put together a trauma responsive educational framework. And I think that it has some helpful ways to approach this. And it also reinforces that teachers already do a lot of these things instinctively. Because learning is, to me, the low-hanging fruit around trauma-responsive approaches. Because in order for people to be able to learn, they have to have this state of sort of internal calm. We talked about earlier and all of the symptoms and things that can happen in the body. Bessel Vander Kolk and Resmaa Menakem—Resmaa in My Grandmother’s Hands and Bessel Vander Kolk in The Body Keeps The Score—they really brought forth this idea of being able to settle the body and expand the nervous system. So when you settle the body, and you bring it back in, you’re calming the vagus nerve, that helps it settle and the chemicals to recede. And it may not be a lot for some people, it may be a lot for other people. But I think, and again, don’t know that we have a lot of research on this, but that settling at the body I think is the pathway towards this state of internal calm that we know that students need to have whatever learning center they’re trying to access. They need to have that sense of calmness in their body. So in order to do that in the framework that Bill and I put together there’s a large outer circle and a smaller inner circle. And the inner circle is the internal container, and the outer circle is the external container. So the internal container is the teacher. And in this framework we’re talking about the teacher is the person who sets the emotional tone, not necessarily the content expert, but the person who holds the emotional tone of the room. And then the external container is all the stuff that you put together—your classroom agreement, your expectations of students, their expectations of each other—it’s all in the container that you build together. But without a teacher who is settled in their own body who has done some of their own work, it can be very difficult to get the tone of the room to the place where the students can calm themselves. And to work in that regard, teachers do a lot of things. Bill and I talked about high-impact experiences, these are experiences that can help people settle their body. And it’s things like, safety is a bit of a problematic word, but I don’t have a better word so I’m going to use it. So I’m going to say physical and emotional safety, with an emphasis on physical safety, because there are people who have never known emotional safety. So we don’t really have accurate language around that yet. I would say that we’re talking about being settled, instead of helping people feel safe, we could talk about them being settled. And that way, you don’t have to worry about how they’re labeling their emotions. It’s not my business how you label your emotion. But what I can help you do is settle your body, and then my expectation can be, “If you’re going to be in the room, then you’re going to be able to settle yourself. And here’s what we’re going to do to help with that. And if you feel like you can’t do that, okay, then here are some strategies. And here are the options.” We can talk about settling and safety, consistency, instability, dignity, and respect, giving people the full respect that we all owe each other that we owe ourselves for just being humans on the planet. Personal autonomy and a rigor in learning. You want to maintain a rigorous learning environment that is not a punitive learning environment. So those are high-impact experiences. And a lot of teachers do those things already. So now it’s just like. “Oh, okay. So this is one of the ends, I’m trying to get to using these means,” not the only end, but one of them. And then high-impact skill areas are things that I think helps students learn how to expand their nervous system. So as the body unclenches and relaxes, the nervous system can expand. And I think that those moments, we talked about those meaningful learning moments, those lightbulb moments, I think that’s when we have a moment of expansion. And we can connect this a little bit metaphysical as well as maybe physical, maybe a little tiny part of our brain likes that we created a new connection in our brain. And maybe that connection connected us to somebody else in some way. These skill areas are making meaning and creating connection, helping people with time awareness, not forcing them into anything, but helping them to become more aware of, like, “Oh, this is where I’m situated in time. This is how I can sort of think about time.” Decision making. I had students who I would ask them, “Why did you make that decision? What was your process?” And they’re like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” never even realized that they could actually take a moment and walk through making a decision. They have been so reactive their whole lives, that they didn’t even know there was a process happening. So critical thinking and integrating experience. I think that a lot of times we want students to think critically, and I don’t know that we make specific connections to the reason it’s important to think critically is so you can integrate this experience into your own lived knowledge. You want to be able to assess things, but assessing them outside of some kind of context… Like, why? That’s why people hate statistics. Because the specific connection to their own lived experience doesn’t always get made. And so you’re just being asked to look at a bunch of numbers that from everything that we know, is just a bunch of lies. You’re like, “Oh, you can just manipulate that. And you can just lie like crazy.” And I’m like… Well, statistics are useful. But you have to help people understand that in their own lived experience this is how this piece of information is useful and not just go memorize a bunch of random numbers. That doesn’t work if people don’t retain it, and they don’t understand how it can be useful. And then the last piece there is creative expression. So anytime you can bring creative expression into the classroom in any kind of way, it’s just generally an expansive practice, I think. Those are my pedagogical recommendations, even though they’re not specific.

Rebecca: I think that they’re helpful as I was thinking about the experiences we’ve been having during COVID-19 in the classroom, and some of the observations we’re making of students, like, time was a thing that… as you’re talking, I’m thinking, ‘Yes, mm-hmm,’ time seems completely elusive during the pandemic. [LAUGHTER] I’m making connections about specific things that we’ve talked on the podcast about during the pandemic and observed of students. And that bringing an awareness to some of these things is really helpful, actually.

Em: And for ourselves too. I see the conversation happening, where educators are over here in this one bucket, and they’re like, “We are about to die, we’re so burned out, we’re so overwhelmed.” And I’m not even talking about K through 12, I’m just talking about higher ed. Those poor K through 12 teachers, I don’t know how we’re going to come back from this for them, with children with the adults, I don’t know, especially in education and health care, those two areas. And then we have students over here. And the one thing that teachers don’t necessarily do is have this very deep understanding that if they’re able to tend to their own pain and suffering, they do an enormous service for their students. So if you’re going into the classroom, I mean, I’ve heard stories here and there about teachers who have just really lost it. And the level of abusiveness is egregious. When students come into a classroom, and they come in expecting to learn, especially in college when they’re paying to be there, or their parents are paying for them to be there, there’s a certain amount of vulnerability that comes in, even if it’s very small. You come in, and you’re hoping to learn and when the person that you’re supposed to be learning from in that particular position that you’re looking to as a teacher is cruel or abusive. I’ve heard about teachers who will refuse to meet with students, all of the communication is asynchronous, they will not schedule a Zoom, you have to email them, all of that. And I can kind of get why teachers would not want to do that. I’m like, that’s just negligent. And it’s abuse. You’re being abusive to your students. And if you’re in that bad of shape, then you need to go talk with your department chair, and you need to help yourself. That’s really critical that you help yourself because nobody goes into teaching, wanting to be like that in the classroom. So when people get there, I ask myself, like, What happens to them? I don’t really need an answer. But what happened. Because they certainly did not go to all the work to come in and be a teacher to act like this. And to treat people this badly. I think that remembering in this time… and I don’t mean, on the weekends I just get to lay around the house, or every night I go and I play video games for three hours. That can be helpful for us to check out, give ourselves a break. But if that is literally the only thing that you know how to do is check out, then you’re doing yourself an incredible disservice. And I would really encourage you to get some additional support. And if you don’t know what that means, you need to talk to somebody. If you don’t know how to do anything other than check out, whatever that looks like for you, then you need to talk to somebody and find some other ways to help yourself navigate this incredibly stressful and traumatic time that we’re all going through.

Rebecca: Can I just say that that’s a good reminder to have compassion for everyone around us, our colleagues who might be going through a lot, ourselves who might be going through a lot, as well as our students.

Em: Yeah.

Rebecca: And putting that dignity piece up front, no matter who that person is, in those relationships is key. We’re talking mostly in that power structure of teacher to student, but I think it’s also across department chair and faculty, across faculty to other faculty, faculty to staff, staff to staff, etc.

Em: Yeah, I mean, everybody, we’re all really, really struggling. And the pandemic alone is bad enough. And there are a lot of other aggravating factors. And we came into the pandemic already really worn down, a lot of people came in really worn down already. And we have had no break, we’ve had no time to re-group and get our breath back. Even if you are a very resilient person, your internal resilience is only going to take you so far. Sometimes the best you can do is say, if you’re interacting with a student or whatever, just be honest and say, “I don’t have it in me to do this right now.” I feel like I’m getting angry and I don’t know why. I want to cry and I don’t know why. So let me just go take a walk around the block, or get a glass of water, or go cry for a few minutes into my pillow, like whatever it is. I think none of us have answers for this. This is an unprecedented time in our lived memory. We’re all really struggling and our reserves are very close to gone. I think we have to do what we can. But I think that teachers, even though teaching is not always seen anymore as a revered institution, I feel like it’s really been relegated to a throw away. And I used to hear this a lot when I was working in tech: “If you can’t do, teach.” And I just always felt like that was one of the worst statements I’ve ever heard. That, oh, if you can’t do the thing then go teach it. It was one of the most disrespectful and just really uninformed, very ignorant. But it is still very prevalent. So I think that we do bear such a responsibility, and I think the content delivery is part of it. But because people come in, and we’re exposing this part that is so intrinsic to us, as humans, we’re sort of opening this vulnerable part of us. Even though as adult educators, we don’t always think about that, especially when you’re outside of the liberal arts. People who are working in aerospace, two-year aerospace degrees so people can get jobs at Boeing, they’re not thinking about, ‘These students are coming in really vulnerable.’ But I worked with those students. And I’m like, “Oh, but they are.” And they come in, and they need a lot of help and support because they don’t really know how to learn, and they aren’t really feeling good about themselves. Sometimes that can be really helpful. But other times, the teachers are just not thinking in that way. And I think that we are given a great responsibility, people are trusting us to see that little vulnerable part of them, and to care for it, and to take it in our hands, and treat it with love and with care. I think that it’s very hard to do that right now. It can be very hard.

John: And that’s especially true, I think, in the context of people who are incarcerated, they are already dealing with a lot of trauma, and then adding the pandemic to that, I imagine makes things quite a bit worse.

Em: So for people who have not been incarcerated, I’m not going to speak from the experience of someone who has been but from observing what’s happened, I just want to be real clear about that. From observing what’s happened and talking with people. Imagine if you find out that there is a deadly plague ravaging the country. And you are locked in an institution with a closed ventilation system with people that you cannot get away from with thousands of them, including staff, who are coming in and out every day. I don’t think anybody who hasn’t been through that can imagine the level of terror.

John: And prisons have been particularly hard hit with COVID.

Em: Yes, they’ve been incredibly hard hit. This is a very large problem, the culture of correction does not lend itself to care. And so there was a lot of pushback around, even masking, I live in Washington. So the level of conflict around masks and vaccines, especially in the correction system, you’re caring for a vulnerable population of people. And I mean vulnerable as in, they literally cannot protect themselves. If you don’t bring in masks for them, they don’t get masks. If you are exposed to COVID and you don’t tell anyone, or you’re not vaccinated, or you don’t wear a mask and you come into work, they can’t get away from you, they don’t have the option of social distance, they don’t have the option to take care of themselves in the same way. They’re relying on the people who come into work to take the precautions necessary to keep them as safe as they can. And the culture of correction does not lend itself to caring about people who are incarcerated. And I don’t think that that has ever been more clear than it has been in the last year.

Rebecca: One of the things that, in higher ed, we might be in a position where we can have a culture of care. But a lot of times when we bring up those kinds of ideas, sometimes faculty might say things like, “I’m not a therapist.” And so how is being trauma responsive, different from being a therapist?

Em: So that’s a really great question. When Bill and I were first doing this work, and I reference him often because this work wouldn’t have happened without him, this specifically, like talking about therapy, was an early conversation both between us and between people we were working with. Educators don’t see themselves as therapists, they don’t necessarily see themselves as healers because healing is another word that is applied to trauma very often. And I think that when we talk about healing, we’re using this sort of physical analogy to physical healing that is not complete when you talk about trauma. Because healing the physical body, you have markers that you don’t have when you’re talking about healing trauma. So wanting to move educators out of a role where they are expected to see themselves as healers in some way, because we don’t even know what healing trauma means. We don’t even know what that is, that’s such an ambiguous term. And then in terms of therapists, even if you are a trained mental health professional, if you’re in a classroom and you’re teaching, you’re not acting in your role as a trained mental health professional. So you are not there to be somebody’s therapist. Clearly if there is an emergency and you need to do harm mitigation. Let’s not split those hairs, right? Because clearly you would be expected to help with harm mitigation or de-escalation. But you’re not there to act in a role as somebody’s therapist. So one of the reasons that I created the approaching trauma work, the points of entry diagram, was to address that exact question: If teachers are not therapists, then what is their role? And how do they think about working with people who have a lot of trauma? And I would say that it is through settling the body and expanding the nervous system. We don’t have a word for that role, a “settler” and “expander,” I don’t know, we don’t have a good word for that. It can happen in a lot of different places. If you’re somebody who is a legal professional, and you are talking with clients, if you’re doing intake with clients, you can do that work there. If you are working frontline on a government institution, and you’re a social worker, you can do that work there. Anybody can be around other people. And if they are settled in their body, then that will influence the people around them. And that is often a helpful thing. So that work can happen anywhere. I don’t know how we label that role. But I would say that if you are a teacher and you want to work with trauma, then you don’t need to assign yourself a title. You’re a teacher, you’re an educator, you’re an instructor, you’re guiding people, however you think of yourself in that way. Part of the work that you do is helping people settle their bodies and expand their nervous system. And if you want to think about trauma work, I would suggest that you do it in that way. Now these other points of entry, the one that touches all of them, is acknowledging and transforming historical and systemic harm. But all of these other ways, individual personal exploration, that’s a whole variety of things that individual people can do, restoring and strengthening community, creative expression, all kinds of creative expression, harm mitigation, containing harmful behaviors, rebalancing relationships with nature. And then integrating the trauma-informed care approach, I think of that more as systemic change, because trauma-informed care has, a lot of times, been focused on systemic change. You can combine all of those different pieces as part of a settling and expanding practice, without centering yourself as a therapist or in charge of somebody else’s well being.

Rebecca: Thanks for those reminders. So we always wrap up by asking, What’s next?

Em: Well, I think what’s next is we’re going to end up at some point talking about higher ed in prison. What’s next is I am just going to work to bring more people into this conversation. This is the first book on trauma and adult learning. I did write it through the perspective of my experience working with incarceration. But I think there’s a lot of other people who have different perspectives, who could be writing about this. But what I really want to do is get us writing and thinking about it in a way that gives a lot more of us access and permission, if you will, to say, “Oh, I can help people in this way, and not put myself in charge of their well being. But I can, in my role, have maybe a positive impact on them in this way that I wasn’t thinking about.” So that’s I think what’s next.

John: Well, thank you. We very much enjoyed talking to you. We’re looking forward to our next conversation.

Em: All right. Well, thank you very much.

Rebecca: Thank you.


John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

John: Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle, Annalyn Smith, and Joshua Vega.