Teaching in the face of trauma, part 2

(Trigger warnings: trauma, depression, PTSD)

The spring semester has ended, and I’ve had some time to sit with my experience of it before writing this post. It seems fitting to write a follow up post to my earlier one that described some of my initial experiences with teaching after the traumas I’d endured in the fall semester, despite my reticence about sharing personal information on this blog. Here is how those feelings and ideas have transformed (or stayed the same!) over the past few months.

This semester was hard. As I noted earlier, it was the most challenging of my career so far. I continued to have my own PTSD challenges, and it was clear that the majority of students were suffering from PTSD or at the very least increased anxiety.

So here is what I’ve learned now that the semester is over:

  1. It turns out that my students appreciated my human-ness (often on display this semester). Whether I was in tears, sad, or just frazzled, they rolled with it. They offered support and jokes. Or even words of encouragement that it was ok to be forgetful because my mind was elsewhere. I continued to find so much strength in my students this semester. They are remarkable people, and I made sure to tell them this.
  2. I am proud of my students for their academic achievements, but even more so for their own willingness to be human with me.
  3. My healing process continued to be slow and oh-so unpredictable. Towards the end of the semester I thought I felt a lot better, more even keeled. But then the fire at Notre Dame happened, and everyone wanted to talk about it (with me it turns out). It was hard. Trauma continues to manifest in unexpected ways.
  4. Healing took unexpected forms as well. Sometimes I felt better just sitting alone with my thoughts. But often I found myself energized and grateful to be talking (about almost anything) with students and colleagues. Pretending to be on top of my job eventually did help me feel a bit more normal.
  5. I am not the same person that I was, at least not yet and likely not ever. I have become an email avoider. I don’t answer my phone. I forget to pay bills. I forget things I read or saw only moments ago. I’m terribly disorganized all of a sudden. But I’ve been able to finally say, by semester’s end, that this is OK. I don’t have to be on top of life 100% of the time.
  6. Fragility is not a bad thing.
  7. I often found that my job was not the most pressing “thing” in my life. It had been a long time since I remembered this feeling so strongly, and it was a good reminder that for many students school is not the most pressing thing in their lives either.
  8. Taking time off, from email, from phone calls, from work (gasp) has been really helpful.
  9. The emotional impact of teaching transformed in ways that I could never have anticipated this semester. Often I’ve thought about the emotional impact of teaching others, but what about when I am the one who has the potential to emotionally impact a room full of students? I really feel like we need more training opportunities to help those of us who teach with not only the weight of students’ concerns (if they share them with us), but also our own as we go into the classroom. What is OK to carry in there, and how do we leave some of it behind?

I’m still learning and still listening.

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