Teaching in Times of National Racial Trauma: What Can Faculty Do?

by: Aaliyah El-Amin

The United States is in the midst of racial turmoil—and the impact of that context affects students and faculty members in higher education just as it does all teachers and learners in the nation’s schools. Ongoing police killings of unarmed Black adults and children have garnered significant national attention and community protest. Simultaneously, discourse in our election process is laced with racial tension. Whether or not we are prepared for it, these events are likely to be on students’ minds. This is especially true immediately after these tragedies occur. Even for students who are not members of targeted groups, acts of racial violence can produce high levels of stress, anxiety and fear or vicarious trauma (Honos-Webb, Sunwolf, Hart & Scalise, 2006) and interfere with a person’s ability to engage in class (Liverant, Hoffman & Litz, 2004).

How Can We Address Traumatic Events?

Many faculty members struggle to know what to do the morning after a traumatic racial event or how to address these events in class. We may not feel like we have the knowledge to lead a conversation, or we may be worried about not adequately addressing the full range of student views and emotions. Yet, some research shows that it benefits our students when we address events immediately after they occur. In fact, faculty members have significant power to reduce the stress level of students in tough moments with very small-scale actions (Huston & DiPietra, 2007). Even a brief acknowledgement of tragic events from professors has a positive impact and matters to students (Huston et al., 2007).

Saying nothing matters to students too; they assign their own words to fill our silence. They wonder, “Do I belong here?” They wonder if we notice what is happening and whether we care. They wonder if their work in education can have an impact on what can seem like intractable problems. Because faculty members signal what the acceptable norms of dialogue and conduct are, and determine how time will be used minute-by-minute in a course, students rightfully look to us for signs of what matters. As a result, when faculty members don’t mention traumatic events as they are occurring, students can become angry, distrustful, and resentful of both the professor and the institution (Huston & DiPietra, 2007).

Three Things We Can Do in the Classroom

As racism and racial oppression persist in society, we will all likely continue to witness ongoing acts of violence against groups of color in our country. Regardless of what we are teaching in our courses, given the personal and professional benefits to our students, we need to be prepared to address these events in some way. Here are three things we can do:

  1. Acknowledge: With little or no planning, and taking only a few minutes in class, we can acknowledge current racial events. This simply means saying to students that (a) we recognize there is a lot going on in the world and (b) we know that there may be a range of emotions and questions on their minds. If desired, individual faculty members might also chose to share how they are feeling personally, and in so doing, model the array of emotions that one might experience. Faculty members could also choose to offer a moment of silence. Even without sharing personal reflections or taking a step like offering a moment of silence, simply acknowledging recent events in class can have a positive impact on classroom climate and student well-being. We don’t have to be proficient in leading a conversation about racial oppression in order to acknowledge that racial oppression exists and is affecting all of us.

  2. Connect: Another possible route to engaging with recent events is to connect the work of the class to the work of the world. That is, show students how what they are doing in our courses is related to what is going on in society. Faculty members might consider the following questions: How can students use the content from your class to intervene in racialized patterns of behavior in society or to prevent what is happening from recurring? What role does your course or discipline have in moving forward and making a collective impact?

    Professor Jack Shonkoff made this connection in his HGSE course, Driving Science Based Innovation in Early Childhood Practice and Policy. He pointed out that a full understanding of the pile up of adversity and its impacts on child development and health requires a recognition of the physiological disruptions that racism can trigger in parents and children. He further noted that Black parents bear the burden of worrying more about their children’s safety compared to White parents, particularly for their sons as they grow up, and that this can threaten both physical and mental health over time. These are recurrent topics in Shonkoff’s course. This connection between the content of the course and the weight of the world can be made in all of our courses, as the implications of racial inequities and racial injustice are present in every course we teach.
  3. Integrate: Finally, we might integrate a conversation about recent events into our class plan for the day. This can be a discussion that lasts just 10 minutes or an activity that takes more time. It can be open-ended or guided depending on your comfort level and the size of the class. As an example, in the co-taught fall module T-015Y, Equity in Practice, Candice Bocala opened class during the height of events in Charlotte, Tulsa, and San Diego by first acknowledging these events and then asking students to work in pairs briefly to think through the following questions:

    • How are you feeling today? How are you thinking about or experiencing your own racial identity in these moments?

    • What actions are you taking, and are there specific actions you want to share with the group?

These questions integrated the week’s topic of racial identity development with an opportunity for students to process what’s happening in the national context. The whole-group debrief was less than five minutes, but a space was made for students to talk to each other and to the course faculty.

Each of these approaches provides us with the opportunity to put students at greater ease and to demonstrate that we understand that they should not have to separate their human selves from their learning selves. Each of these approaches is also an opportunity to build our students’ trust that we are committed to issues of racial inequity and justice as faculty leaders and as a school. To be clear, it isn’t that we have to acknowledge, connect, and integrate every time tragedy strikes. We don’t need to do everything on this list every time, but we can do something – even something small but intentional – every time.

Resources

Honos-Webb, L., Sunwolf, Hart, S., Scalise, J. T. (2006). How to help after national catastrophes: Findings following 9/11. The Humanistic Psychologist, 34(1), 75-97.

Liverant, G. I., Hofmann, S. G., & Litz, B. T. (2004). Coping and anxiety in college students after the September 11th terrorist attacks. Anxiety, Stress & Coping: An International Journal, 17(2), 127-139.

Huston, T. A., & DiPietro, M. (2007). In the eye of the storm: Students perceptions of helpful faculty actions following a collective tragedy. In D. R. Robertson & L. B. Nilson (Eds.) To Improve the Academy. Vol 25. Resources for faculty, instructional, and organizational development (pp. 207-224). Bolton, MA: Anker.