Teaching and Trauma

By Sherrill Rayford

Dr. Rayford, a former high school English teacher, joined Kappa Delta Pi in college. She is a volunteer reviewer of KDP teaching scholarships. She facilitates a devotional group, and is an English adjunct. Her memoir, Teaching: Yakima Ball Vignettes, was published in 2019.

As a novice teacher, peers overwhelmed me with well-meaning advice: “Don’t smile until Christmas.” “Join the union.” “Never give your phone number to parents.”

The advice was often humorous, but I learned attributes of effective teaching from experienced colleagues. However, none of the mentors predicted trauma as an aspect of teaching.

The trauma I describe develops from events or mindsets that impact students’ ability to focus on learning, especially the acceptance of shortened lives or insignificance in society. Too many students I taught believed that they would not live for 18 years. They focused on repetitive violent treatment in society or traumatic incidents they experienced or witnessed in their neighborhoods. During a class discussion, I respectfully disagreed with a student who voiced the expectation that he, at age 16, would not live to be 18. I thought of my sons and the personal dreams I envisioned for them. I imagined those dreams for him, but prior events in his life made me understand why he accepted a shortened lifespan. After the discussion, I realized the significance of the artistically decorated “In Memorial” jackets students, the “In Memorial” tattoos on students’ arms and legs, and I began to ask for details of loved ones portrayed in the obituary programs students shared after attending funerals.

After 9/11, I read that teachers dutifully returned to school after traumatic events; however, that dedication may have limits. At times an administrative directive dictates how teachers should console students’ expressed trauma. For example, a student teacher I supervised was emotionally upset by a principal’s directive to forbid Black students from posing questions or discussing protests that occurred in the summer of 2014. The traumatic incident was partially aired through social media in real time. That same traumatic incident was fresh in the minds of students and staff in 2015 when I retired from the Ferguson–Florissant School District.

During a Kappa Delta Pi conference session in 2018, I posed the question, “How do you teach empathy when it is not in vogue?” Only the novice teacher seated near me responded, by sharing her email address, a website containing empathetic teaching strategies, the title of a “wonderful” book she read in a college course, and that she worked a few weeks in an urban school. I listened respectfully, but the explanation reminded me of the Justice Department’s professional development session I was required to attend in the aftermath of the 2014 protests. There are aspects of teaching best shared by listening rather than telling.

As inequality in living conditions, fear, actions or inactions from important leaders, curfews, Black Lives Matter protests, and COVID-19 trauma dominate since the summer of 2020, teachers will instruct students in remote or in-school locations with residual memories of the pandemic and its impact on spring instruction. Now more than ever, teachers must be mindful of how culturally connected traumatic events, an ongoing reality in education, impact teachers and learners.