Trauma-aware teaching: Listening to Karen Costa on the “tea for teaching” podcast

Today was the first time in half a year or so that I listened to a podcast (other than the Academic Imperfectionist, where I make sure to not miss an episode, and, occasionally, the Amazing If Squiggly Careers, which I also find super helpful in navigating my own squiggly career), and I will take that as a good sign of slowly adjusting to life in a new country and slowly starting to have the capacity to listen to things on my walks again, instead of just being happy about low-input time (well, except for the wave watching, of course!) to process all the new things around me.

The episode I listened to today was on trauma-aware pedagogy on one of my other favourite podcasts, tea for teaching, with guest Karen Costa, and it has given me so much to think about! (And, I actually just registered for a workshop on Climate Action Pedagogy she’s leading in August because she was just so inspiring and I want more of that!)

The conversation is centred around student disengagement, which many teachers report having noticed since the beginning of the pandemic, and three main questions around it: Why is it happening, what about other disengagement, and what can we do?

First to the why of student disengagement: It’s basically a survival response to all the stresses of the pandemic (and other stressors that are also present, like for example climate change!): Students focus on getting out of the figurative burning building rather than on whatever teaching we might think they should be engaging with inside that building. And this flight response influences students’ executive functions: their decision making, time management, concentration, … This is just a biological reaction that we need to be aware of, not much we can do about it. Although, yesterday I listened to an Academic Imperfectionist episode where she talks about how we can strap our anxieties into the passenger seat and keep on driving, and just pick dedicated times to actually confront the anxieties, so there are strategies that we, and students, could employ to stay more focussed on what we want to focus on. BUT! Student blaming is not the point, and it leads nicely to the second big theme:

Why do we always talk about student disengagement, not about faculty disengagement, or dean disengagement, or politics disengagement? We are more than two years into this pandemic, where are the strategies from deans, universities, governments to help us all deal with it in a constructive way?

So what can we do?

One super important message in this episode is to, no matter how much good you want to do for your students, not sacrifice yourself. Even though offering more flexibility is a great way to make life easier for students, it still needs to stay manageable and not lead to burnout; that would not serve the students, either. And just because some other teachers might be able to do more to accommodate students does not mean that you have to, too: everybody has different resources at their disposal and lives different lives. Being transparent to students about what you can do and where your boundaries are is really important. And transparency is also important in communicating “upwards”: This is what I would like to do, this is what I can do, this is what I need more resources for. We all do have choices of where we allocate time and money, and if we all communicate what we need, maybe “those up there” can and will take it into consideration more.

The perhaps most thought-provoking prompt in this episode for me was that this pandemic is a symptom of climate change, and we need to be prepared for what is to come: Things are very unlikely to become easier in the future, so how can I best prepare for what will be needed then?

For me personally, a lot of my work is currently focussed on creating environments in which students feel like they belong, and where they can concentrate on learning and are not distracted by stereotype threats, harassment, etc.. I believe that this is super important, but one aspect that I think I should focus on more than I’ve done so far is how those efforts would translate if we had to go back to virtual teaching, possibly on short notice. Would my workshop concepts still work, or can I figure out a virtual or hybrid version in parallel to the in-person ones we are currently planning? And in addition to thinking about obstacles to belonging (like harassment etc), can we strengthen belonging even in virtual settings? Of course there are strategies that I have employed over the last two years that focus on creating community online etc, but one aspect that I hadn’t really thought about was that belonging, in addition to feeling part of a peer group in the subject, also has the component of feeling connected to the content, the discipline, the books etc.. And I have definitely experienced that aspect myself: When I moved out of oceanography research almost 10 years ago, and lost the daily direct access to oceanographers in coffee rooms and at conferences, my #KitchenOceanography and #WaveWatching work became more important to me to keep my identity as oceanographer alive while I moved into academic development work. So I will be thinking more about how both #KitchenOceanography and #WaveWatching can be useful to not only connect disciplinary content to everyday experiences, but also to strengthen a sense of belonging with the discipline and identification with the subject. The often-repeated message of this episode, “small is all”, is a good motto to live by as I take on this new task!

So go, listen to the episode and let me know: what is your next small step?

P.S.: One thing that I’ve never done before and that feels slightly weird is feature specific scientists whose work I find inspiring. But since I wrote about the “tea for teaching” podcast episode just now, and when I wanted to tweet my blog post, came across the Twitter profile @teaforteaching, which, as far as I can see, is not related to the podcast at all, but belongs to Katie Bateman, and her research is the PERFECT continuation of the things I was pondering this morning, so here we go: check her out, her work is inspiring! She recently published on how playdough can help learn spatial skills in geoscience education (which I would put under the wide umbrella of #KitchenOceanography, but check it out: Bateman et al., 2022), and also about what we can learn from this pandemic for future disruptions (It’s not only about how individuals adapt, it’s also about what kind of support network they have / their caring responsibilities / …, stress levels are highest for people on non-permanent positions (surprise!), and different people need different kinds of support in terms of good learning management systems, support from academic developers, … And: the more time people have to prepare, the better. So universities should be as quick as possible, making decisions as early as possible, to give people security for their planning. Read more here: Bateman et al., 2022)

Bateman, K. M., Ham, J., Barshi, N., Tikoff, B., & Shipley, T. F. (2022). Scaffolding geology content and spatial skills with playdough modeling in the field and classroom. Journal of Geoscience Education, 1-15.

Bateman, K. M., Altermatt, E., Egger, A. E., Iverson, E., Manduca, C., Riggs, E. M., … & Shipley, T. F. (2022). Learning from the COVID-19 Pandemic: How Faculty Experiences Can Prepare Us for Future System-Wide Disruption. GSA Today.

One thought on “Trauma-aware teaching: Listening to Karen Costa on the “tea for teaching” podcast

  1. Pingback: Reflecting on my Scope of Practice (Inspired by Karen Costa's interview on the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast) - Adventures in Oceanography and Teaching

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