What does a trauma-aware approach to the next phase of the pandemic look like for higher educators?

Pair of white tennis shoes on a red background. Photo by Christian Chen on Unsplash

Last week, the CDC announced some pretty drastic changes to pandemic rules, and states are dropping mask mandates and capacity limits. I think I’ll save my comments on that for Twitter rants and therapy. Whether you agree with these changes or not, I do have the sense that a major shift is happening. Vaccines are working; there’s no debate there. As of yesterday, I’m fully upgraded, and my 12-year old son is in the vaccine pipeline. I went back to the library (fully masked for a quick pickup). I hugged my parents for the first time in 16 months. I’ve set up outdoor dates with two of my friends. I don’t agree with the rapid pace of removing restrictions, but a shift is definitely afoot.

It’s got me wanting to think and feel through what a trauma-aware approach to this shift might mean for higher educators.

1. What do we call it?

I am not a fan of the phrase “post-pandemic.” With COVID still raging throughout the world, with massive health disparities impacting vaccine access, and with the immense loss of life we’re experiencing, to imply that there’s an “after” to all of this feels wrong. How does my student who buried seven members of his family last year feel when he sees “post-pandemic”? How do the countless people who are spending every ounce of energy they have to manage their pandemic-induced or pandemic-worsened trauma feel about the implication that this is over, or could ever be over anytime soon?

Remember Faulker’s line? “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

I’ve also seen a lot of “new normal” tossed around, and I’m sure I’m guilty of using that myself more than once. But many folks are stepping up to remind us that the old normal sucked for a lot of people, so why would we want more of the same?

Words create worlds.

I’ve been thinking in terms of shifts and phases instead. The pandemic feels very present to me, and I’m not sure when or if that will stop being the case. That said, I do think we’ll shift into new phases that might include greater freedom, increased social anxiety, communication challenges related to transitions, and lots of other impacts, both positive and negative depending on your privilege and perspective.

I’ll invite you to think about your words and whether or not they fit the global reality of COVID-19’s impacts.

2. Timing is everything.

I got burned out in the fall. I know better, but I don’t always do better. When did the burnout really hit me? A few days into my winter break. Adrenalin is a powerful drug, and when you’re in the thick of things, it can keep you running, even on empty. Paradoxically, when we slow down or stop, all hell can break loose. For me, that looked like my body shutting down on multiple levels, making a return to the pace of my fall term impossible. Bodies are funny like that. They ask nicely repeatedly. We ignore them. They slam on the brakes.

I have been thinking a lot about what people will be dealing with this summer. I hope you find peace, fun, and time to rest. I also know that stuffed emotions always make themselves known, whether the timing is convenient for us or not.

In my experience, burnout has only one solution: do less. I first like to try to put bandaids on it instead. I’ll do some yoga. I’ll exercise more. I’ll bake in some lavender essential oil. I’ll take a bath (sorry, I love baths, but a bath is not all-powerful folks). None of it works.

Do less. Our access to that solution depends on our privilege, of course. Our institutions and leaders need to help us do less. Maybe instead of that workshop on stress management, you give people some time off.

I wonder about how students, staff, and faculty of the global majority will get the support they need to process the events of the past year in their own time. I want to remind us all that racism is a type of trauma. I look toward models like Dena Simmons’s LiberatED and Alex Shevrin Venet’s Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education to guide me. I keep my ears open and remember that if I want to learn, I have to listen.

I hope people will talk about the timing of stress and trauma reactions. I hope people will make sure that people know where they can get help, even if they’re on break or vacation. I hope we’ll give ourselves and each other the time and space to heal.

3. Be careful of resilience.

Resilience is an important concept to know when talking about trauma, but we have to really keep an eye on it. I much prefer a Whitman-inspired take on our strengths: we contain multitudes.

It’s important that we keep our strengths in mind, even as we honor our trauma and challenges. We are never just one thing. The biggest problem with resilience is that we put it (the cart), before the horse (correct care and time to heal).

We should never put the resilience before the trauma. I see all sorts of folks talking about how to be resilient or how you need to be more resilient while people are still experiencing the trauma. They aren’t even close to treating and healing from the trauma yet, and you’re already talking about resilience? That’s not how it works. Yes, we know that resilience can be an outgrowth of living through and healing from a traumatic experience, but that realization must come through the individual. It’s never meant to be foisted onto someone before they are ready.

I admire the work of Rachel Cargle and The Loveland Foundation to prioritize the well-being and mental health of Black girls and women. This is an example of correct care in action.

Instead of focusing on telling people to find their resilience, I hope we’ll instead focus on creating systems and structures that support all students, faculty, and staff. I hope we’ll use our limited time and energy to direct people to correct care for trauma, stress, overwhelm, and mental illness.

4. Things aren’t always as they seem.

Trauma reactions are often domain-specific. That means we might be rocking it in some areas of our lives and barely getting by in others.

You see your student laughing with friends in the cafeteria. Later that day, he asks for an extension on the upcoming paper because he says he’s having a tough time. You think, “No way. He’s lying. I saw him the other day, and he looked fine to me.”

Yeah. No.

Trauma responses don’t work like that. We can thrive in some areas and struggle in others. We also have limited time and energy, so we might make a choice that what we need to stay afloat is a lunch with friends, but because we’re going through a really difficult time, that lunch takes everything we have. We have nothing left to give. Folks with chronic illness have been talking about this in terms of “spoon theory” for years.

You don’t get to decide how other people should process their trauma. You don’t get to decide how they should use their spoons.

I think this will increasingly show up in our work, not only with our students, but with our colleagues. “She was tweeting all day yesterday, so why did she need to cancel our meeting? If she’s well enough to tweet, she’s well enough to show up to work.”

Yeah. No.

Trauma responses don’t work like that.

I hope we’ll keep talking about being respectful of the domain-specific nature of this being human. Let people reach out to the lifelines that they feel they can reach.

5. Can it be online?

Pre-pandemic, I spent a fair amount of time asking conference and workshop organizers if their events would be offered online. The answer was almost always, “Oh no, we’re sorry. This is only an in-person event.”

In-person (I don’t love that term, but we’ll go with it for now) events and courses are inherently inaccessible for some people. Period. Sorry, not sorry. Let’s just call it what it is. This was true pre-COVID, it’s true now, and it will continue to be true as we shift into this next phase.

Providing access to online learning is a reasonable accommodation. A lot of people didn’t want to acknowledge that before, but this is now undeniable. We just did this for a year+. You don’t get to say now that it’s not an option.

I am really curious how this is going to show up in higher education around entire courses, specific classes, meetings, and conferences. Can it be online? Yes. Will it be offered online? Time will tell.

I think a lot about our highly mobile students who have to drop courses because they need to move for work or to have a roof over their heads. Why can’t these students shift to online? Don’t we want to keep them enrolled and moving forward on their path to graduation?

Travel can be hell for many people who live with chronic illness or a disability. Routine is our friend, and travel busts all those routines. Some people cannot afford the costs of conference travel. Why can’t we attend that conference online? Don’t you want us to learn with you?

I hope we see an increase in flexibility around learning opportunities in this next phase. I hope those among us who can learn safely in an in-person environment think about how they would’ve felt to be forced into unsafe learning conditions during COVID. I hope we listen to and center the voices of disabled staff, faculty, and students.

6. Will we finally give community colleges the respect (and funding) they deserve?

Community colleges are typically the most trauma-aware spaces in higher education. They’ve been doing this work for decades.

When I think of “higher ed” writ large and how the institutions that serve the most-resourced students have the most resources and the institutions who serve the least-resourced students have the least resources? Well. It’s a lot. Higher ed is upside down and backwards.

I had a friend who left the community college where we worked to take a job at a 4-year public institution. Still not rolling in the resources, but she came back to visit and told us that it was a completely different world. She laughed, one of those laughs that’s more sad than funny, and told us that she didn’t know how she’d done so much with so little for so long. She told us that in her new role, she was expected to do one job instead of five, and that she felt like a different (happier) person at work and at home.

Maybe having an advocate in the White House will help?

I hope that we’ll finally come to realize that community colleges are the heart of higher education. I hope we’ll continue to challenge these weird narratives around admissions and yields and toxic rigor and perfectionism in academia. I hope we’ll start having better conversations about cultures of care, the intersections between student and faculty/staff success, and making that word “higher” hold actual meaning in our work.

I don’t expect it, but I hope nonetheless.

7. What are some practical considerations?

I think we’re going to be called to keep adapting on the fly, one day at a time. There are things we’re just not going to be able to plan for, so I think the best plan is to take care of ourselves and each other. Let the other chips fall where they may.

I imagine some people are going to want to continue to wear masks in person, and they won’t feel comfortable sitting close to others. Do we have spaces in our classrooms to accommodate them? Stacks of chairs spaced throughout a room are an incredibly underrated accessibility tool.

Many of us who taught online pre-COVID were nearly 100% asynchronous. I’ve noticed an increased interest from students in engaging in synchronous meetings. Y’all know my take on this: asynchronous is the burger and sync is the ketchup. I love the idea of weaving in a few sync experiences to our online courses. Institutions: you’re going to keep funding Zoom and the like for us, right?

Speaking of the balance between sync and async, maybe once we get through the worst of this, we can talk about terms? I’ve seen Hybrid and HyFlex and Blended and Bichronous all merge into one another, and as we discussed earlier, words create worlds. I’d love for our online teaching and learning communities to take the lead on this conversation.

Our K-12 colleagues are ahead of us in terms of pedagogy, but we’re ahead of them with online learning. We’re seeing a lot of K-12 school districts now talking about keeping online learning options in the future. How can we support them? Do we have enough online teaching and learning support professionals to meet this need? How can we boost that pipeline?

8. Are we ready to talk about trauma?

I recently subscribed to the Sunday NY Times. I’m having fun collaging it, and I love the book section in particular.

I’ve noticed the past couple of weeks that two books about trauma are on the bestseller list. One of them was published in 2015, but is experiencing a resurgence in the past year. The other is co-authored by Oprah.

For better and worse, COVID pushed trauma into the mainstream. We are starting to talk about trauma. We are naming it. I’m always impressed by the power of naming something to create change. I’ve talked previously about how I feel that higher education, as a whole, has long been hovering in a pre-trauma aware phase. Today, as I write this, I’m not sure that’s still true. I’ve personally connected with thousands of faculty and staff over the past year in my trauma-aware teaching trainings. I know I’m not alone in this; the demand for trauma-awareness learning experiences is immense. I hope others will join us in this work.

Higher ed, are we ready to talk about trauma? Are we ready to talk about how it shows up in our classrooms, both in ourselves and in our students? Are we ready to recognize that trauma-aware campuses will create brave, effective, and yes, fiscally-sound spaces for teaching and learning in an increasingly uncertain future?

What else?

What did I miss? What are you hoping? What does a trauma-aware approach to this next phase of the pandemic look like for you and your campus?

I support higher education faculty with online pedagogy and trauma aware teaching. Author of 99 Tips. She/Her

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