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Ryan Pickering


Highlighting SPSSI Teaching Award Winners

Embracing trauma-informed pedagogical adaptability

Ryan Pickering, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Allegheny College,
2021 SPSSI Speaker at the National Institute for the Teaching of Psychology

Trauma-informed mentoring and teaching can be extremely challenging and emotionally taxing. The complexity of trauma-informed pedagogy not only comes from the wide range of potentially traumatic experiences, but also from the diversity of individual perception and response to those experiences. Over the years, I have dealt with many traumatic events in the classroom and wrote a best-practices chapter on trying to communicate with students about these events (Pickering, 2020). However, at this point in history in the United States, we are seeing what has been called a “cascade of collective traumas” (Silver et al., 2021; i.e., COVID-19, the climate crisis, gun and police violence, economic recessions, etc.). Coping with collective trauma has been a novel experience for many of us and has underlined the importance of flexibility and adaptability in our trauma-informed pedagogy (Vagle, 2016).

Three things in particular have stood out to me over the last two years. Firstly, I have been surprised by the novelty of trauma experienced within this pandemic. For example, I had a student disclose that they had been disowned from their family because they received the COVID-19 vaccine to continue their education. We also know that those from low socioeconomic and marginalized communities have been particularly impacted by these collective traumas (Silver et al., 2021), and although this isn’t novel, the news coverage of structural and systemic inequality has been (at least to me).

Secondly, I have been baffled by the inflexibility of some faculty who seem to lack patience and empathy for students and who somehow fail to acknowledge that we are still in the midst of a global pandemic. There seem to be faculty who still demand to see doctor’s notes when students are afraid to spread COVID-19 to their classmates, who seem unable to learn how difficult obtaining a doctor’s note can be for students from lower-income backgrounds or who have chronic health conditions. I have heard faculty accuse their students of being liars or being lazy or being flawed in some other way. I have seen faculty insist on putting grief on a timeline with an endpoint. I have been uncomfortable with faculty who seem to insist upon the status quo and who are replicating abusive teaching and mentoring practices.

Thirdly, I have been struck by the resilience of our students. I imagine this has something to do with the collective traumas they’ve experienced throughout their upbringing. They’ve grown up waiting for communities to do the right thing and failing to do so. They’ve seen the failures to respond to gun violence, police reform, climate change, etc. They are not surprised by the anti-science and anti-community movements. But that doesn’t mean that they have no hope for the future, in some ways it seems to have made them more realistic about what it will take to achieve positive outcomes. We can learn so many things from our students, and I have. Through intellectual humility, an integral part of critical pedagogy, we can learn what our students need, and we can adapt to those needs actively and with grace. We can trust our students.  

When this is published, there will likely be over one million Americans dead from COVID-19. We cannot continue to ignore the collective traumas that have come with this pandemic. We must acknowledge them and we must adapt to the demands that they create. Our students need to survive and to be allowed use the resilience they have been practicing for years. They also need community – and so do we.

Pickering, R. M. (2020). Responding to events in the news. In M. Kite, K. A. Case, & W. R. Williams (Eds.), Navigating Difficult Moments in Teaching Diversity and Social Justice: Perseverance and Resilience.

Silver, R. C., Holman, E. A., & Garfin, D. R. (2021). Coping with cascading collective traumas in the United States. Nature Human Behavior, 5(1), 4-6.

Vagle, M. D. (2016). Making pedagogical adaptability less obvious. Theory into Practice, 55(3), 207-216.

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