Trauma-Informed Teaching is an Act of Love
Updated: May 26
“The word ‘love’ is most often defined as a noun, yet . . . we would all love better if we used it as a verb.” –bell hooks
I find bell hooks’ statement a valuable correction to our common way of thinking. Love the noun is something that “sits there” until we might, by luck, find it— “like a four-leaf clover.” Love the verb requires us to “do something.”
Similarly, trauma-informed practice in school often seems like the right thing in our highly traumatized world. But we may find our students’ inconvenient practices standing objectionably in the way of acting on our good intentions. When a student is easily angered or annoyed (Fight), or puts their head down on their desk, or repeatedly goes to the restroom (Flight), or sits passively while others do the assignment, or never turns in their homework (Freeze), we are often perplexed about what to do.
We may be inclined to judge the student in relation to our goal for them—to fit into the class, darn it! However, the Hindu Guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, reminds us, “The wise are always merciful because they see beyond the actions to the reasons behind them.”
If mercy is most often the right response to trauma, and if “action” is needed, not just passive good will, what actions are called for?
There are a few basic steps that do not require sophisticated knowledge of trauma-informed practices, that can enact healing in our classroom.
LOVE AS ACTION
TRAUMA-INFORMED TEACHING IS AN ACT OF LOVE:
WE LISTEN ATTENTIVELY AND APPRECIATIVELY.
WE HOLD POSITIVE REGARD FOR THE OTHER PERSON.
WE RECEIVE AND CARE FOR THEIR CONCERNS OR PROBLEMS.
WE SUPPORT WITH WORDS AND ACTIONS.
Each of these statements presents an action. We can either listen with our cell phone nearby, or with agitated impatience, or we can REALLY listen, with eyes connected, and with care in our hearts. We can commit in advance to find a way to help with what is going on with them, knowing that “caring” only actually exists when we show it through action.
• STUDENT ERROR, MISUNDERSTANDING—ASKS FOR--MINI-FORGIVENESS.
• FORGIVENESS PLUS INTENTION OF KINDNESS BRINGS—
• PATIENCE—TRAVELS WITH A WARM HEART AND A WARM SMILE—
DESIRE TO HELP.
• ENDURANCE—IS DELIVERED THROUGH GRITTED TEETH.
In Buddhism key concepts often are presented with “near enemies.” Patience is a fundamentally caring step; its near enemy is endurance.
James Moffett used to say, “We prepare everything about our classrooms and teaching with great care, so that everything will go perfectly; then the wrong students walk into the room.” We are working with imperfect people when we teach, who will make errors. They might not be listening when we give instructions. They might not follow through with our coaching suggestions. They might make an unkind step. Of course, part of our work is trying skillfully to help students make productive adjustments.
But when we do that with harshness and blame—“Why weren’t you listening!” Then we are shaming students—increasing their trauma—instead of making them psychologically safe. We can take the approach of “Let me help you take this step,” or “Let’s think about what we can do next.” When we do this we are offering a mini-forgiveness for the specific error. And this too is love in action.
Humility is a core goal of nearly all of the world’s great spiritual traditions. I believe this is deeply wise, but also difficult for us ego-driven, self-focused humans to attain. Benjamin Franklin said, “If I ever achieve humility, I am sure I will be proud of it.”
Humility is a concept, but it is also a path to important actions. Humility helps us not rush to judgment—because we do not think we already know everything. It leads us to be curious, realizing our current understanding is not perfect or complete. Compassionate humility leads to reverence for the other. What we do not have reverence for we are capable of harming. Reverence is what unlocks or uncovers beauty.