TIP and CRT: What they are and why they matter.

So this happened:

Trauma-Informed Pedagogy:
“Trauma-informed pedagogy adapts the trauma-informed care framework from health and human services for the practice of teaching. Trauma-informed approaches to teaching strive to understand how various forms of trauma may have impacted the lives of learners and use that understanding to accommodate learners’ needs, prevent further or retraumatization, and promote resilience and growth.” — ACRL

Critical Race Theory
“Critical race theory is an academic concept that is more than 40 years old. The core idea is that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.

The basic tenets of critical race theory, or CRT, emerged out of a framework for legal analysis in the late 1970s and early 1980s created by legal scholars Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado, among others.” –Education Week

Critical Theory is a foundational piece of the discipline of sociology. Sociology studies how and why we organize and relate as humans and looks particularly hard at systems of hierarchy that claim to be “natural.” To be a trauma-informed educator, I must understand systems of power and oppression and how they create trauma in the populations I work with. There are a lot of types of trauma. Some are generational. Some are social. Some are related to natural disasters, war, and disease. As an educator, it is my ethical duty to recognize how trauma affects my students and take it into account when I design courses, classroom interactions, and policies. That includes systemic trauma.

If you have taken a course on Gender studies, African American Studies, Latinx Studies, Queer Studies, Disability Studies, or Feminist Studies among others, you have interacted with critical theories. If you have taken a course in critical thinking, you have interacted with critical theories. If you have studied history, psychology, sociology, anthropology, the arts, law, or science, you have interacted with critical theories.

At the intersection of critical theories and TIP, we must be educated, open, humble learners who are willing to unpack our assumptions and strive to not assume we understand other people’s lived experiences, especially if they are different from us. TIP demands that I am a learner first, and an educator second.

Simply put, if I think I know all the things, I’m not going to be very empathetic or flexible. If I assume that I don’t know all the things, I am open to recognizing, learning from, and repairing my mistakes. TIP is not about perfection, it’s about jettisoning ideas of hierarchy and power and really committing oneself to the heart of education.

Education changes the world. It is often the one thing that pulls historically oppressed populations out of poverty. Education improves human rights, economies, and public health. But if we pretend that historical oppression doesn’t exist and that it doesn’t affect the ability of students to access education, then it is not education. It is a system for maintaining parasitic class systems that ultimately harm everyone. It’s the Tragedy of the Commons, y’all. And we are on the brink

The amount of trauma I have witnessed in my student population over the last two years is staggering. It’s not getting better; it’s getting worse. If the Texas government, in its infinite wisdom, decides that I can’t talk about racism, or sexism, or transphobia, or the legacy of slavery, or medical bias, or homophobia, it will compound already dire situations for my minority students. It will also be totally impossible since I teach in a multidisciplinary department that studies the wellbeing of children and families, WHICH INCLUDES MINORITIES.

One thing I really want to point out to those still susceptible to the dog-whistle CRT pearl-clutching is that understanding how systems of power and oppression affect minorities does not negate the trauma of my white students. It is not a competition. Trauma is trauma. Recognizing that I come from a privileged background does not negate any of the shit I have been through or the challenges I have faced. It just means that none of them are related to or compounded by the color of my skin. Sexism is alive and well in America and I have faced more than a little of it, but it wasn’t affected by my skin color. That’s why Kimberlé Crenshaw developed CRT: the law, at the time, left no room for the experiences of discrimination faced by black women. Discrimination was determined based on race or gender, but not both. Which is nuts, because of course they intersect. Hence, intersectionality.

As a systems theory nerd, it is impossible not to see COVID as both a result of and a cause of systemic problems, which are inevitably be worsened by systemic inequalities. This plays out for my students every day. As a trauma-informed educator (or as Dan Patrick prefers, a Looney (sp) Marxist Professor), I must recognize that my own experiences are not enough to inform how I view my students’ traumas. I must actively seek out more information, read new research, and listen deeply to the words of my students. And no matter how many times CRT is dragged out as some kind of white middle-class bogeyman, I must not compromise on the foundations of my discipline and the health and wellbeing of my students.

Why we teach.

My teaching philosophy boils down to this: Don’t be an asshole. Give your students the benefit of the doubt.

College students are young adults or old adolescents, depending on who you ask. They go through a lot of brain and personality development during the four-ish years they spend in college. A few of them are entitled, or sociopathic, or just jerks who make your life harder. The vast majority are not. They are just young people who are trying to figure their shit out and get a degree.

When I talk to professors about the stuff I’m passionate about (Trauma Informed Pedagogy, Intersectionality, Critical Pedagogy) they are usually interested. But when I talk about my policies, or how I deal with students who are experiencing trauma, some get uncomfortable. “I don’t want students to come talk to me about their lives.” “What if they are taking advantage of you?” Some are openly adversarial and hostile towards students, though I don’t hang out with them much. Shocker.

If you want to see yourself as a nice person or a good teacher, ask yourself this:

  • What do you have to lose by giving students the benefit of the doubt?
  • What do you lose by being friendly and approachable?
  • And more importantly, what do you gain by being suspicious and judgemental?
  • Who are you helping?
  • Is your work more fulfilling when students are afraid of you?
  • Is it healthy or realistic to assume students are lying or manipulating you?

I’ve had some shitty teachers because I’ve had a whole lot of school. One yelled at the class and told us our ideas were “pablum” because we didn’t mimic his conclusions. He was special. One, a terrible writer, tried to convince me that accessible writing was bad writing. My sixth grade teacher hated smart kids and bullied and intimidated them in front of the class. They were all either adversarial towards students or easily threatened. They lacked ego strength. They were bullies who got off on the power distance between themselves and their students.

The thing that ties together the best of my teachers and professors is this: Grace. Assuming the best, but being able to critique in a concise but kind way. Having clear boundaries but being willing to hear critical feedback. Having compassion for students and genuinely liking or loving teaching. Having ego strength and being willing to deal with setbacks and failure as steps on the path towards being better rather than blaming students. They had humility and compassion mixed with a goodly amount of confidence in their own abilities and a willingness to learn and improve.

The last year, and particularly the last semester, has just absolutely sucked for students. It’s sucked for teachers too, but it’s REALLY sucked for college students. My students have had issues with housing, anxiety, depression, relapse, and the suicides of their classmates. Lots got COVID because they live together and they can’t control the practices of their roommates. Many are working full time to lessen financial strain on families hurt by the pandemic and our inability to provide anything like a social safety net for our population. They’ve lost friends and relatives to COVID, mental health issues, and other stuff worsened by the social upheaval and ongoing racism in our society. They are tired, stressed, and some are past their limits.

My university is usually pretty hands off when it comes to how we run our classrooms as long as we are in compliance with the law, and those of use who have been sounding the alarm on student mental health are often ignored. But this semester the shit really hit the fan in the form of Snowvid – the mass power, gas, and water outages in Texas due to a snowstorm and prolonged freeze. We were all affected, me included. It sucked. The university urged us to give students extra grace: time on assignments, absences, etc. Most of us did. Some didn’t. Too many of my students told me about teachers holding Zoom classes on days the university was closed due to the freeze (after explicitly telling faculty not to hold classes or give tests).

I got the highest student feedback scores ever this semester, and they are always pretty high. Here’s why: I didn’t assume students were trying to take advantage of me, BECAUSE I DON’T CARE. I am worried about students dying, not whether or not I’m a sucker. If I catch a student blatantly lying or cheating I will take action because it’s irresponsible to let them think it’s okay, and they may do much worse harm in the future if someone doesn’t hold them responsible. But beyond that I do not fucking care if a student asks for an extension for a hangover or a hospitalization. I really don’t. I still failed students this semester, despite a super lenient policy about late work and willingness to be flexible on attendance. If you don’t do the work, you don’t pass. That’s part of my job. But I do not regret helping the students who were able to pull their shit together at the last minute pass my classes. I don’t regret making accommodations for students who were having issues with depression but hadn’t gotten a letter from the disability office yet. I don’t regret letting students who were doing full time child care for bereaved relatives have a pass on Zoom.

If your main joy in teaching is really schadenfreude and you relish the power you have to make your students lives suck, please find another profession. If you are more concerned about being hoodwinked than you are about your students learning, why are you teaching? It can’t be the money.

Stressed out students don’t learn well. (Stressed out teachers have issues too – believe me. My memory this year has been shit.) Further stressing them out unnecessarily when you could extend them some grace is just sadistic bullshit. I am so tired of hearing about “weed-out” classes that result in students dropping out of school. The students who really don’t want to be there will leave, believe me. You should not have a free pass to be an asshole because you teach a difficult course.

If the culture of your department or school is adversarial towards students, say something. Do something. You CAN influence culture change over time. Showing students that they can expect compassion and humanity from teachers empowers them to make change. Giving students a place where they can be authentic has the advantage of making me a better teacher. When students trust me enough to tell me I fucked something up, I can fix it (or myself). You can effectively wield authority while still being a decent human being who treats students like decent human beings. I promise. I could post a ton of research from different fields on the minutiae of why trauma informed, growth mindset, inclusive, experiential, reflective teaching is better teaching, but it really boils down to this. Don’t be an asshole to your students.