Trauma-informed teaching in the era of COVID-19

See Dr. Foli’s “Middle Range Theory of Nurses’ Psychological Trauma

2020 was the year I applied trauma-informed approaches to my teaching. This was the year I learned being kind and compassionate were also good pedagogical practices. In previous years, I have been recognized as an “award-winning” teacher. I did all the things a good teacher in a research-intensive university was supposed to do: Incorporated students into research studies that also met course learning objectives, developed innovative teaching/learning methods, integrated solid student accountability into my syllabi, and so forth. And I wasn’t an uncaring teacher before 2020, but perhaps I wasn’t quite so compassionate. Perhaps I was fearful that by showing compassion, I would be less likely to hold students to a high standard of performance.

2020 was different. Many of my master’s students enrolled in the theory course became ill with COVID, or their family members did, or they endured significant traumas or confronted and processed past traumas. Several of the students were frontline workers, faced with COVID on a daily basis. This year, I used the resources on by asking them to read two blogs and critique them in their discussion forum – many selected the blogs on issues the nation confronted this year, especially racism and racial disparities. This exercise brought theory to them in a way that no textbook ever could. These blog-writing nursologists were living narratives of those actively advocating for nursing knowledge and theory. As the students prepared their final papers, I saw this year’s learning was at a higher level than previous years and in the context of a virtual platform. Students, preparing for an advanced practice role, stated, “I think differently now.” Nursing knowledge and the distinction between nursing and medicine at the nurse practitioner level has never been more important for us as a discipline.

As a teacher, I learned that I didn’t have to diminish student accountability. But in order for them to take responsibility, I had to gain their trust by authentically showing compassion. Each week, I crafted an email to the class with reminders and updates, and this year, a bit more. I offered hope by reminding them the pandemic would be over at some point. I offered validation that what they were accomplishing wasn’t easy. And I offered them purposeful access to me through technology if they got “stuck.” When I would meet with students, they would thank me for these emails, describing how they would revisit them if they felt “down.” Several wrote me messages of gratitude and described how they looked forward to them every week. In a trauma-informed way, I created a transparent, safe space and established a connection as their teacher. I know now that listening, recognizing trauma, taking time to meet one-on-one, reaching out to “missing in action” students to inquire if they’re okay, giving grace on assignments, and still holding students to a high level can be compatible, and more than that, best practices in trauma-informed education.

6 thoughts on “Trauma-informed teaching in the era of COVID-19

  1. I enjoyed reading this post. Caring theories are selected by some nursing programs which reinforce the use of caring in the classroom, in part by holding faculty to caring standards and actions, on appraisals, for example. Unfortunately, others may espouse a theory, caring or otherwise, on paper only, to meet accreditation standards. Regardless, nurse educators are empowered to embrace and enact a caring philosophy in education with positive results. 2020 was indeed the year this became ever so apparent as students were immersed in high risk front line work, exposure, death, ill family members, and living apart from loved ones to protect them. It is up to us to enact caring to support our students while they strive to attain educational goals.

    • Mary,
      Thank you so much for your insight and comment. After I wrote this blog, I received my student evaluations and they were very positive with most students commenting about how much they could sense that I cared about them. I benefited in that this approach increased my job satisfaction as well.
      Take care, Karen

  2. I think there is an idea in academia, that I have thoroughly rejected for the 20 years I have been teaching, that rigor and compassion are not compatible.
    A colleague and I successfully taught advanced physical assessment to 18 DNP students nearly completely on line this fall. All of our students are working on the front lines as RNs, half of them are BIPOC and at increased risk regarding CoVid. Most of them are parents and/or caring for older family members as well. We held 1/2 hour to hour long one on one Zoom practice sessions with students, often outside of our allotted class time. I did numerous sessions at 9 pm to accommodate the only time that one of the students family member could serve as a model.
    The results were phenomenal. Half of the students performed perfect head to toe test out exams. This has never happened in the 20 years I have taught advanced health assessment. Only one student needed to retest.
    It is clear to me that the students were able to engage in a high level of rigor because of the compassion, support, and flexibility they were shown by faculty. This was confirmed in the course evaluations and emails from students.

    • Thank you so much for this comment. Your experiences mirror my own this past semester and perhaps if anything positive can come from this horrible pandemic, it’s that we can provide compassion to our students and understand that this will support their engagement, learning, and ultimately, their patient care. Take care, Karen

  3. Dr. Foli,
    As a new PhD in nursing student our class was assigned to visit the Nursology website and answer a few specific questions. In addition, we were instructed to read two blogs, respond if we found something interesting or we felt compelled to comment. I am in awe of the website. Most specifically I am in awe of this blog. I am a fairly new nursing faculty member, am entering only my second semester of PhD studies and feel overwhelmed by the stress associated with working during COVID-19. I enjoyed reading this blog and found myself nodding in agreement to many of your comments. I’ve learned a very valuable lesson that I plan to take with me into practice. Trauma-informed education and the strategies you outlines to assist students during this time will certainly help me. Thank you for helping me understand how nursing theory translates to nursing practice in a more practical way. It’s interesting how someone can see something in a totally different light when someone else provides the illumination. I can see why you are an “award-winning” teacher. Maybe one day my students will say the same.

    • I’m so glad you discovered! It’s a wonderful source of important information for the nursing profession. Your feedback is very kind and it made my day/week/month to know that my post was helpful to you! Take care, Karen

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