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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.

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