April 18 2021

We Have to Tell the Truth: A Liberative Approach to Trauma-Informed Pedagogy

Oluwatomisin Oredein, Brite Divinity School

illustration of a group of masked people

Starts and Fits

Black skin taught me a lot about education, mainly that it is designed to best suit and work with a colonizing mind (the minds and skin tones of the United States’s most famous settlers). I first learned this lesson in a small, white Southern Baptist private school my siblings and I attended. I thought it strange that my class contributions were unwelcome. My siblings, myself, and the other two Black kids in the school were constantly punished for fabricated violations. At age six, I realized that the real education—for the entire school, not only the kids of African descent—was in our, often public, punishment. We were the examples of how not to be, or perhaps “who” not to be. I learned that education was not fully for us, not designed for our advancement, but that it could be used to keep us stagnant and doubting our ability. Although relieved by a shift to public school, the lesson had already been cemented in me: for many students like me—especially curious Black girls who preferred palaver to pacifying—education was to be endured; it was not something to feel connected to nor enjoy.

Educational disparities can concretize a marginal existence in the hearts of many non-white students. They sadly believe and accept difficulty within the education system to be their lot.1 Disadvantage roots their educational experience in trauma: they may learn something, but it will be a painful, arduous learning. It will be learning that goes against the grain of their bodies, personhood, and worldview.

Teaching in Truth

This troubling reality should shatter any idea that education is objective. It should instead remind us that education is experienced—its shape best known through a learner’s particular encounter with the system as a whole rather than simply the material presented; for material presentation is not the point of education, the commitment to how who receives what, is.

Therefore, it is safe to say that we teachers create experiences. It is riskier to say that we are part of the experience—how teachers are teaches as much as the material. Pedagogy is not a decision, but that which spills forth from us. How we teach is an overflow of who we are and what we care about. Pedagogy is character-reflexive. The scary part of naming pedagogy in this way is that it quite bluntly reveals how potentially unimpressive and uninteresting a number of pedagogues, a number of us, actually are.

Pedagogies divulge secrets. I think this radical vulnerability a strategic strength in itself. The outbreak of the coronavirus and the subsequent COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 have illumined many core truths about higher education. But what it has revealed about educators themselves is more concentrated: many instructors are being forced to examine whether and if the material they have spent significant time specializing in matters to the moment. And what the moment has doused every global citizen in is trauma.

Teaching in a traumatic today invites pauses and complete reorientation. We teachers must sit in our breath and our fears and understand that students feel this pressure exponentially. They are wrestling with how to please us with their academic performance in a pandemic. We must call this out as a ridiculous absurdity and instead get on the ground. We must strip our teaching of all pretense and performance and understand that “at best” we are trying to ensure that something we offer in the classroom sticks with our students. If it is our kindness, so be it. If it is scholarship, how fortunate! But if we are so wedded to the white Western performance of intellectual rigor, some of which has traumatized us in the past in our own intellectual formations, we have lost ourselves and our students; to be frank, some would not have been with us in the first place.

The pretense has to go. We must reorient, make ourselves softer, more human(e).

We must see differently, become most interested in the students who are not interested in performing well for us or being our clones. Those who are trying to make meaning of why they should care about what we are presenting should catch and hold our attention. They are the ones inviting us to answer why we are even doing this in the first place, for whom we are even doing this. We must accept their challenge to pause to re-evaluate our standards and thus our understanding of what a “sound” performance looks like.

But first we must abandon pretense. It does not work anymore. It frankly has only “worked” for a certain segment of the population anyway; but power is not the name of the game anymore, applicability is.

The educational experience must be about authenticity in process, in practice, and in performance. We must tell the truth about the academic world we have made homes within, about what information lands where and transforms people for the better. We must be honest about whether our work matters in any way outside of fortifying the delusion tiers of “intelligence” out-of-touch Western voices have created. We must be honest. Hierarchy is not that creative.

In a trauma-filled world, the truth is a balm; it is the way that the possibility of life overpowers a world obsessed with death (yes, even death that reflects pointless recitation as a reflection of intelligence).

Teachers are in an era that requires emotional intelligence. Practicality, not imperviousness, is the “new” intelligent. It either helps academic categories mean something or exposes those categories which it would be best to pause and re-evaluate for their practical efficacy.

Pedagogical Honesty: Approaches

Education has to have a point, so for the fall 2020 semester I decided to do some interactive revamping and assignment de-ornamenting. It is new and in process, but given we are living through the COVID-19 era, pedagogy that fits the moment should be most pressing.

In my mind, each part of students' learning has to sharpen something; if not, it is pointless and a waste of time. In order for students to feel the weight of their questions or confusion or excitement or curiosity with the material, in fall I made some pedagogical shifts to the classroom culture and our interactive habitus through welcoming diverse means of expression including oral assignments and allowing current events to impact the classroom space.

Language

It has always been welcome, yet typically unspoken, but this time I made it part of the classroom ethos: I am inviting authentic cultural linguistics into synchronous conversation, asynchronous work, and into assignments. No more code-switching for marginalized students: Every single person taking part in the course can be who they are.

I want my students to “speak how they speak.” If a non-white student uses a term or expression that white culture has deemed technically incorrect or that they may not know, I welcome it. It makes absolutely no sense to ask my marginalized students to adopt a voice and tone they may hardly or never use in order to fit into the environment of a divinity school. I do not want my students to leave who they are at the doors of the institution for three to five years, but I want them to bring who they will be in their respective communities into the classroom. I want my students to sound like their respective communities, but first and foremost, I want students to sound like themselves. Time is too precious to lose one’s voice in a space of learning. A space of learning should instead help students hear and articulate their heart and the heart of their community’s concerns and joys, well. What a waste it would be for students to not know how to use what they learned because they could not process it as themselves.

Within the classroom, I want our practice to be about students bringing every aspect of who they are so they can mold it for the contexts in which they will be in the future. The classroom as a space of “practice” is a key concept in how I teach—dear students: practice in class who you are going to be in the world! But you cannot do this if your institution requires your code-switching as a sign of progress. It is not progress nor admirable; it is suffocating, a waste of time and energy, and a suppression of personhood.

Oral Assignments

I also included oral assignments as an option for students who are masters of the tongue but who may not feel their strongest or most themselves with the pen. Unfortunately, writing has been the main marker of marking intellectual engagement. How unfortunate many of us within the academy speak of recognition and honor but do not honor that multiple intelligences exist in the world. Justice must be a critical aspect of trauma-informed pedagogy; teachers must recognize the different means of processing information within their classroom. Oral assignments are a way to begin evening the playing field when it comes to students’ various means of synthesis, analysis, and processing. It would show a teacher’s commitment to Western-bias to only measure a student’s progress or intelligence by writing assignments alone.

Current Events

One of the most sure-fire ways to ensure students are traumatized is to ignore what is happening in the world around them. Current events are so impactful on so many lives that I argue it the “startling curricula variant.” Whether one callously and incorrectly chooses to think it not impacting themselves or their students, current events will make its way into a classroom, invited or not. It therefore makes the most rational sense to treat current events like relevant material—material that may alter the affective or lesson-driven direction of the day.

 I try to allow current events to impact the rhythm of my class. Students do better allowing what is on their hearts and minds to enter into classroom space—a space of “practicing” sharpening voice—than not. In allowing current events to take up the room they deserve, I am demonstrating that everybody in the class, myself included, will be treated justly and humanely. I am naming that whatever affects one group is important enough to recognize and sort through. It is trauma-inducing and unjust to require students of African descent to perform studenthood in the midst of racial crisis, for (a too common) example. No, trauma-informed pedagogy reconfigures the classroom space to allow total room for Black (or other marginalized groups) to fully exist in their bodies and realities, even if it “inconveniences” the lesson for the day. These students are invited and encouraged to be present to themselves. Minoritized faculty must be given this same opportunity as well. If students are honored with space to process the world in process, marginalized teachers must be able to model that they deserve the same courtesy.

We must remember, many students are watching their teachers to learn how to be. If trauma-informed pedagogy is about truth-telling, those who are teaching impacted by current events, just as much as their students, can illustrate how they honor themselves by shifting the classroom focus for the day or demonstrating other ways of self-care and humane treatment. Teachers from marginalized communities model how the world should treat them by how they treat themselves. Of course, their administrations would do well to combat injustices such as racism, sexism, classism, queer-phobia, etc., by including this measure, a measure of self-care, in institutional policy as well.

A Charge for Care-full Teaching

Trauma-informed pedagogy at its core treats people—students and teachers alike—like humans. It slows down or stops rushing down the predetermined pedagogical path, showing students that their pain or the teacher’s pain is worthy of an appropriate, grace-filled response.

I know it may not always feel like it, but dear teachers: we get to be people.

It is a shame that the classroom environment is a place where the full humanity of all persons is constantly in question or jeopardy in the first place. The educational institution is supposed to prepare students for life in the next stage; what is more pedagogical than seeing, reflecting upon, and thinking critically (honestly) about the shared and injured parts of humanity.

Trauma pedagogy then is reframing responsibility. Teachers are responsible for the humane treatment of their students and of themselves. This is teaching of the rarest sort, yet the highest order. We teachers teach/show students how to be in the world; our first task should be respect for the humanity of all, not an impossible assimilationist project.

Western education has built up an unkind awareness: many students will fail the assimilationist project. And instead of thinking it our responsibility to redesign the classroom environment, many teachers misread, sometimes proudly, the failure of students to survive an inflexible setting a mark of their teaching pedigree. They see students having difficulty in their class as a reflection of their superior knowledge when in fact it is a grave sign of their callousness and lack of care.

This is what I am asking for: I need teachers to care—not care in the vague “I have a minimal awareness of race, or economic status, or disability, or gender” sense—but care for students through revising the features of the classroom experience. Care is a means of liberating the educational experience to be meaningful to marginalized and majority communities alike. Trauma-informed pedagogical care charges teachers to center non-white students; it reflects how a teacher is moving towards an embodied awareness of what both materials in the course and the materials of the current moment mean for their students. Care in this way forces us teachers to see where we have been willfully ignorant and unnecessarily unkind to our students’ realities. It forces us to change how we view the world, to be perpetual students of the world around us from the perspective of those whose present and future have been most determined by a Western world.

Last year I recognized my willful ignorance. I had students employing language in their work that was just outside of its proper use. What was the cultural use of certain words my theological training helped me deem “incorrect writing.” I thought about what was nagging me about the corrections I was making on these writing assignments and realized what was bugging me was my own traumatic history. She had been rekindled and I had helped resurrect her. My classism was the problem, not students’ grasp of and impressive engagement with the material. I made the decision right then and there to drop pretenses around “proper” writing or “appropriate” engagement in the Western sense. I decided not to give my trauma or other’s trauma with Western education another platform. I was never interested in being molded in white-male-leaning thinkers; neither were many of my marginalized students. No one wants this except white males.

If the power of “the West” is stripped from education, a number of us teachers will be exposed as being not that impressive. We must tell the truth about ourselves and realize that we can, however, be impactful. We can either be the antagonist of a student’s traumatic classroom experience, the neutral do-nothing, unmemorable teacher, or, through our creativity, awareness, and care be the protagonist pedagogue who courageously shows students, especially minoritized students, that this world has always been for them.

Trauma-informed pedagogy requires Western-focused teachers to do the hard work of transforming themselves, it requires teachers who only talk about liberation in the class to do the even harder work of actually demonstrating it, and it needs teachers whose goal has always been liberation to first care for themselves in order to extend that same energy in the classroom.

 


Notes

1 Oluwatomisin Oredein, “Pandemic Predispositions: Minority Trauma Responses in Higher Education,” in Praxis: The Responsive and Expanding Classroom blog series, Wabash Center, May 18, 2020, https://www.wabashcenter.wabash.edu/2020/05/pandemic-predispositions-minority-trauma-responses-in-higher-education/.


Oluwatomisin OredeinOluwatomisin Oredein is an assistant professor in Black religious traditions and constructive theology and ethics and the director of Black Church studies at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. Her scholastic work engages creative articulations of African feminist, womanist, postcolonial, and Black theologies with particular attention to women's voices within the African diaspora.