Supporting students and faculty in the classroom

Graphic for "Supporting Students & Faculty in the Classroom, CTL Trauma-informed teaching Resource guide." in a white background with Watercolor image of lonely figure with head down in a blue and grey circle

Contributed by Jean Otsuki and Deb Breen, CTL

(3 minute read)

After more than a year and a half of pandemic pedagogy (masks, social distancing, remote and hybrid teaching), many students and faculty have been looking forward to the prospect of a return to face-to-face classes. Yet the spread of the Delta variant has subdued the first exhilaration of vaccination and recent blog posts in higher education sites have drawn attention to the misnomer of the “return to normal”. We may want to return to teaching and learning as we knew it at the start of the academic year two years ago, but the reality is that we have all, students, faculty and staff, been changed by what we have been through – and many continue to be affected by the losses and difficulties brought about by COVID-19. 

So, as we prepare to return to campus, many of us are still experiencing heightened levels of stress and anxiety. Research has shown that acute and chronic stress impact our ability to concentrate, problem-solve, manage time, and other skills critical to teaching and learning. How can we compassionately engage students and practice self-care under these circumstances?

While it would be inappropriate for faculty to serve as therapists for their students, adopting a trauma-informed teaching approach, in which we recognize that students’ adverse experiences (past or current) impact their ability to learn, can benefit everyone. The CTL’s guide on trauma-informed teaching features research on how stress affects learning and provides strategies used by some BU instructors to support their students.  Faculty can utilize these strategies even before the semester begins, reaching out with a “get-to-know-you” questionnaire to begin making connections with their students. These questionnaires, which may be sent via Google or Qualtrics forms, typically ask for general information about students, such as major, year of graduation, or place of residence on or off campus. They may also be used to ask students about access to technology or other issues that may present a roadblock to learning. This early contact between instructor and students can be a great way to begin community building that will provide a supportive and welcoming environment to students.

Trauma-informed pedagogy also highlights communication as key to building a supportive and supported learning community. Ellen DeVoe (School of Social Work) suggests checking in regularly with our students, reminding them of the impact of self-care (including sleep!) on academic performance and well-being. Tom Underwood (CAS Writing Program and College of General Studies) encourages us to practice ice-breakers throughout the semester – a tip that was very helpful in the remote and hybrid teaching period, but also remains an important strategy for connecting students with one another in our coming semester. Social media tools such as Pronto may also open up avenues of communication, between students and with faculty – using Pronto in class for quick feedback, and out-of-class for individual, group, or whole class messages can also help students feel supported and connected. This post, by Amy Shanler and Anne Danehy, from COM, suggests a number of ways to build community, an essential feature of trauma-informed pedagogy.

The CTL guide to trauma-informed pedagogy also highlights transparency and consistency as important teaching approaches that bolster supportive environments for student learning. For example, explaining assignments and providing clear rubrics for grading may ease the stress of undertaking assessment tasks. See Jessica Kent’s (CAS Writing Program) Lightning Talk on “Trauma-Informed Practices in the Age of COVID” for further thoughts on transparency.

The guide also features Dr. Sarah Ketchen Lipson (BUSPH), who discusses the role of faculty in student mental health and offers strategies on how to support yourself and your students in this podcast. As Dr. Lipson advises, be sure to recognize signs of stress in yourself and seek out support. The Faculty & Staff Assistance Office offers workshop and confidential one-on one counseling sessions, as well as tips for self-care.

We encourage you to browse the guide for further tips on teaching within a trauma-informed framework. We may be returning to the classroom, but our teaching and learning journey continues!