Teaching in the Face of Trauma

(Trigger warnings: mass shooting, death, fires, depression)

I am not one for sharing very personal things, especially in public. This might be one of the only posts that I ever write that is so personal, but I felt compelled to write it.

This past semester (fall 2018) was officially the most difficult of my career, and it was personally one filled with several traumas. I’ve really not been able to post to social media, to blog, to do much of anything “normal” that I might have once found exciting or intellectually stimulating. In fact, I have been slowly working on this post over the past month because I knew that I until I wrote it I wouldn’t be able to “move on” and begin to revisit twitter and other social media platforms where I always used to enjoy the conversations and questions of colleagues. And frankly, I knew I needed to write this for me, as a way to slowly process all that has happened (and in some ways continues to happen), because we don’t often talk about how to teach in the face of trauma.

This past fall was the singularly most emotionally and psychologically challenging semester I’ve ever endured. In all honesty, I did not endure it very well, and I had to take a leave of absence. I woke the morning of Nov. 8 to what I can only describe as a string of horrific, sad, upsetting emails that noted that a mass shooting had occurred in my local community, with multiple Pepperdine students who had been there–and some were unaccounted for. The Borderline Bar and Grill where this happened is a place I used to go to when I was younger, and it is a mere 10 minute drive from my house. My husband had just been next door the previous day for a training. The panic of not knowing about our students was enough to make me stare at the wall of my office for hours. And then when we found out that one of our students had been killed in this murder spree–well, needless to say it was a terrible, sad, upsetting, maddening feeling. While I never had the student in my class, she used to regular sit outside my office and we’d exchange pleasantries most mornings. I left campus early to go pick up my kids early, to snuggle them, and to mourn for Alaina and her family. I cannot fathom the loss of child, because it would be the most horrific moment of my life, an unbearable loss.

Around 1:30 in the morning that night, all the cell phones in my house started sounding an alarm, and cops rolled into our neighborhood on loud speakers: we needed to evacuate immediately because of a fast-moving wildfire. (As an aside, in the evening hour I’d heard something about a fire, but it had just started and seemed so distant; plus, growing up in southern CA you tend to brush these things off as “regular things that happen a lot.” In my state of sadness, I paid no heed to the fire.) My husband and I gathered our two small kids (11 months and 2 at the time), managed to find the 2 cats, and load into the car by 2 am and head to my mother’s house 25 minutes away. We all figured we’d return home the next day or so, and we packed nothing–we left in our pjs.

We got evacuated from my mother’s house at 7:30 am. The 5.5 hour drive from her house to get out of the city (normally a 30 minute drive) was long and slow. The apocalyptic plume of smoke that seemed to get closer (too close) with each minute made us uneasy. My husband and I knew that if the fire had reached the ocean, our home was likely gone.

And indeed, our fears proved to be true.

Our home, our retreat, our memory palace was gone, with everything in it. And it wasn’t just us, but friends, students, colleagues who also lost homes. It has been too much to handle, and I don’t really want to detail it here. But suffice it to say that is has been really really hard. I am often sad and angry. And confused. And forgetful. And part of me just wants to become a hermit so I never have to talk about it again. I feel intense anxiety in crowds, especially if I think people want to talk about the fire or the shooting. The smell of fire freaks me out. I have reminders every single damn day about the loss, and sometimes I feel like I’m going to just keep driving and never come back. Sleep is hard, focusing is almost impossible, thinking is hit-and-miss. Motivation is low. I haven’t been able to go on twitter or facebook or instagram–seeing people go on with their lives has been too hard, too painful, because I haven’t been able to do it. But I am going to start trying.

I’d like to say that these two events were all that happened last semester, but I’d be lying. But I’m not ready to talk about those other things in a public way, and it doesn’t particularly matter. Because what I really want to get at is: how do we teach in the face of trauma? When our students are afraid, anxious, sad, distraught, confused, angry–how do we help them when we ourselves feel the same way? Or in my case, how do we help them if we are a total mess?

I had to take a leave of absence for the remainder of the semester, and I feared coming back for spring. Every day that I’ve taught this semester I feel panic, discomfort, anxiety, sadness, rage–sometimes controllable, oftentimes not. I was up front with my students on the first day that I might not be myself this semester, and I told them briefly what I was going through (they all knew anyway!). They have been amazingly supportive and kind.

I’m still searching for answers for how we teach through trauma: our own, our students’, a community’s trauma.

Here is what I have learned, or I am thinking about a lot these days:

  1. My own trauma and emotional journey has given me even greater pause to think about students’ own emotional challenges. Their own anxieties and fears. And I think a lot about what I can and will do better to respect that they all have a lot going on in their lives–whether I am aware of it or not.
  2. It’s ok to be human–flawed, confused, sad–in front of students.
  3. Healing is a slow process, and an often unpredictable one. I hope that students can understand that I might not always be as consistent in my thought process or even my mood–and I will absolutely keep this in mind when thinking about them.
  4. I often want to just watch netflix or listen to music to tune out life. Students who do this, whether in class or outside of it, might be doing the same thing, and I could be better about not judging such practices in the classroom should they occur.
  5. It’s ok to not be perfect. Students are very forgiving and understanding, and I am always amazed at their kindness and compassion.
  6. Trauma is different for everyone. It looks different, it feels different. There is no one right way to “deal with it.”
  7. One day, perhaps more than a year from now, I will look back on this difficult time and realize that I learned a lot and it made me a more compassionate and empathetic person.

Still though: I think every day about how to deal with trauma in the classroom. And I still have so many questions. I wish that we had more conversations about these types of issues, and perhaps others do and have and I’ve just not been listening. But my ears are open, and I am searching.

Thanks for reading, and I promise to get back to more regular blogging soon.

Cite this article as: Lauren G. Kilroy-Ewbank, "Teaching in the Face of Trauma," in Adventures in Pedagogy, Digital Art History, + More, February 12, 2019, http://lkilroyewbank.org/lke-blog/teaching-in-the-face-of-trauma/.
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  1 comment for “Teaching in the Face of Trauma

  1. February 15, 2019 at 8:00 PM

    I think you are very brave and that these events, especially the fire, have honed your kind heart to become even more kind than you already were. I truly believe that events that knock us to our knees help us to become even more of who we are at our core. I do hope you are taking good care of yourself. I do not think it is a coincidence that your book and work has been about the sacred *heart* – and congratulations on its publication.

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