Trauma in the Time of Coronavirus and Beyond: A NEJHE Q&A with Karen Gross

Karen Gross is an author, educator and advisor on diverse issues along the educational pipeline. Her current research focuses on student success and the impact of trauma on learning, psychosocial development and health. Sadly, the issues on which she focuses have taken center stage with the coronavirus pandemic and the literally thousands of colleges (and schools) closing their brick-and-mortar campuses for the semester—if not longer.

In the following Q&A (edited here and full version available upon request), NEJHE Executive Editor John O. Harney asks Gross about her work with at-risk students in the new age of trauma and the impact of the pandemic of higher education and the reopening of campuses when that occurs.

Gross has written several commentaries for NEJHE on topics ranging from her book Breakaway Learners: Strategies for Post-Secondary Success with At-Risk Students (which she calls a “sidequel” to her new work on trauma) to events surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s controversial confirmation to the Supreme Court. Gross’s two most recent NEJHE pieces, Am I Next? School Shootings Create Generation of Traumatized College Students and I’m Worried: Higher Education Isn’t Focused at All on COVID-19’s Psychological Toll, signal her growing interest in the issue of trauma. Her new book, forthcoming from Columbia Teachers College Press in June, 2020, is titled Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door.*

She is the former president of Southern Vermont College, which ended operations last year (much to her dismay and despite her efforts to save it), and former senior policy advisor with the U.S. Department of Education.

Harney: When you wrote your new book, Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door, were you presciently imagining the coronavirus pandemic?

Gross: Absolutely not. It never dawned on me that the book would be releasing just as we were in the process of managing a pandemic and when the need for trauma-responsive schools would suddenly be something that needed to be addressed. Had I listened to and then heeded Bill Gates’s TED talk from five years ago, I might have anticipated this. I wasn’t so prescient. There were also articles post-Ebola that signaled how unprepared we were then and going forward; those weren’t on my radar screen either. I admit that I was totally unprepared.

That said, I thankfully had an opportunity to edit the page proofs after the pandemic started, and I was able to add in relevant references to COVID-19. In this way, the book is au courant. And I hope that adds to its usability in these trying times.

Harney: In Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door, you call the new generation of learners “GenT.” Why?

Gross: That nomenclature is even more salient now. Naming generations has been an American tradition for decades (Other nations do generational naming too.) The current Gen Z is aging out, so folks are in search for a name for the next generation, those born after the 2010s. To date, Gen Alpha has gotten the most attention (as A follows the Z to restart the alphabet).

I think that we need to think differently about how we do generational naming. As done now, it homogenizes. It creates and then reifies myths. It provides information that may be useful to marketers but is not particularly meaningful to others in our diverse culture.

I thought it would be wise to name a generation that reflects the ubiquity of some experiences or feelings that join generational members, namely the omnipresence of trauma in our nation generally (including from the pandemic).

The presence of trauma surfaced, at least in terms of vast national consciousness, on 9/11 and continues forward to today. It is person- and nature caused. It affects many and while an equal opportunity offender, trauma is more common among low-income populations (as we have seen too vividly with the coronavirus). Remember too that we have been at war for 18 years. Also, the common use of birth years as generational guideposts misses too many people. Trauma affects individuals of all ages and stages.

Since my particular focus is education, I wanted to focus on those enrolled in schools—starting at PreK and continuing through adult education. I have named these students “Generation T,” Gen T for short. They are young and old; they are male and female and other; they are rich and poor and everyone in-between. Importantly, if we can name an issue (trauma), we can tame it and later frame it—an architecture that assists in its amelioration. So, Gen T encompasses, I hope, the many individuals in our entire educational system affected by trauma. 

Harney: What do people in postsecondary education need to know about what you’ve referred to as the trauma suitcase students carry?

Gross: For starters, that suitcase is often invisible or presents itself in ways that educators either don’t recognize or attribute to some other cause. This means educators need to be aware that trauma’s suitcase exists. They need to know that trauma never disappears and those who have experienced trauma may exhibit trauma symptomology again when a later event rekindles to an earlier trauma.

These statements assume, of course, that folks accept that trauma exists and is not just a new psychological trend adopted to enable us to coddle and create snowflakes. It is shocking to me that educators—yes educators!—think trauma is not real and that the pandemic is not traumatic for students. These skeptics remind me of the Holocaust deniers. How do you convince folks who don’t believe that millions were killed? The answer is, it’s impossible. Trauma and its symptomology are hard to accept because it is so threatening and our acceptance of its existence means we understand that things happen to people that are beyond their control. Rugged American individualism and stick-to-it-ness don’t mesh well with trauma.

Harney: Tell us more about how we can train educators to deal with this new reality?

Gross: Within the context of higher education, continuing education is vastly different from teacher training across the PreK-12 pipeline. In the latter, it is not uncommon to have training that is not content-focused; teachers are required in virtually every state to get post-graduation training to improve pedagogy. Sadly, in higher education, there are no such requirements and, to the extent that people attend conferences, most (not all) are content-focused. The economists meet; the law professors meet; the English professors meet. It is not as if we have had, historically, an abundance of conferences for higher ed detailing trauma and its impact on student learning and success. Indeed, in higher education, we often shove psychosocial issues off to those engaged in Student Life. That’s in their area of expertise (read: silo).

One of the points of Trauma Doesn’t Stop is that our understanding of the role of educators must be expanded. Teachers and educators are not limited to having an influence in the classroom or during office hours. Education happens in many places and spaces of which the classroom is but one. Higher education professors need to learn about trauma, its symptomology and its impact on current and prospective students. Then, they need to change what they are doing with their students in and out of class. That’s not in their usual wheelhouse.

Harney: You’ve used the terms trauma-aware, trauma-informed, trauma-sensitive and trauma-responsive … Walk us through what these mean.

Gross: These terms are often used interchangeably and the difference among them often depends on who or what is using the terms. For me and, as addressed in my book, trauma-aware and trauma-informed are the basic steps needed for academics to be aware of the impact of trauma on students in an educational setting. These terms, for me, don’t reflect action; they reflect knowledge and information. To be sure, that is a starting point but far from the end zone. Trauma-sensitive and trauma-responsive both suggest some form of action. Trauma-sensitive is more passive than trauma-responsive in the sense that trauma-sensitivity has to do with actions taken as opposed to a more activist approach encompassed by trauma-responsiveness.

Harney: How might we restructure academic schedules, student disciplinary issues and classroom design to make sure we’re trauma-responsive?

Gross: Let me just start by saying that change is hard in higher education. We educators have been slow to update our model of education and we are not—sadly—among the great innovators in American society. Academics, for the most part, like things the way they are; we may talk a good game about change until it lands on our own doorstep in which case, those old slippers seem awfully comfortable and convenient.

Here are some trauma-responsive strategies to consider (and there are specific trauma-responsive strategies when schools and colleges reopen):

  • Consider classrooms that are not structured as lecture halls but instead are set up as more engaged learning environments, including moveable tables and chairs and no hierarchy that isolates the professor at the front behind a lectern;
  • Ponder the possibility of more interdisciplinary learning where students approach learning across the disciplines with multiple professors with differing perspectives and personalities working together with cohorts of students. This provides enhanced stability and consistency (e.g. if there are professor absences) and it facilitates students who may learn more effectively from one professor as opposed to another (something that elementary educators have instituted when teachers stay with the same group of students for at least two academic years);
  • Reflect on professors meeting with students outside office hours, for example, going to dining halls to eat and athletic events to cheer (when they open) and having students as a group over for dinner (when social distancing permits this);
  • Professors need to learn students’ names—yes really (not “you in the red shirt” or “you in row 4”) and ideally something about them apart from their being enrolled in class;
  • Change disciplinary rules to allow for ample personalization and explanation rather than rigid punishment retained in the name of consistency and fairness; trauma symptomology is not the same as student misbehavior that is intentional and within student control (in the law, this is the distinction between “accidental” crimes like involuntary manslaughter and intent-based crime like first degree murder);
  • Educators need to watch out for students who are struggling based on whether they are engaging, responding in and attending class, and studying and doing well on tests— and to reach out personally to provide help and this is true whether learning is in person or online; and
  • Create spaces where students and faculty and staff can engage together—not a student center. We need a people center.

Harney: Are trauma-responsive efforts likely to open up higher ed to the frequent charges of coddling and enabling snowflakes?

Gross: You bet. If I had a nickel for every time someone said I believe in coddling and lowering standards, I would be a very wealthy woman. Now, some people will never be convinced that trauma-responsive strategies are wise. Those complainers will adhere to the proverbial: I did it the hard way; you can do it the hard way too. They will remark repeatedly that when things get tough, the tough will get going. They will use the adage that we need to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

I have a different approach to be sure. First, I care about student success, and I don’t really care what supportive steps we take to enable that success as long as we are able to help students become their best selves. If that requires more help, then provide more help. Student success is economically wise, as successful students can enter the workforce, stay healthy and participate in their communities.

Next, I do not think that being trauma-sensitive or trauma-responsive is lowering academic standards. Do we consider other support measures as “bad”? Tutoring? Test prep? Psychotherapy? Therapeutic pharmaceuticals? Do we look down on those who get illnesses not of their own making like cancer or ALS? At the end of the day, we should all want to help others succeed. It is a sign of our humanity and our belief in the power of each individual.

Harney: You call your upcoming book a “sidequel” to Breakaway Learners. What do you mean by that?

Gross: Well, some people see the new book as a sequel; others see it as a prequel. Although it is a term not often used, a sidequel is a book that stands side-by-side with another book. Breakaway Learners deals with students who have succeeded and what enabled their success, namely lasticity. Trauma Doesn’t Stop focuses on students who are not succeeding and what we can do to help them succeed so they can become lastic. The two books speak to the different groups of students but they speak collectively to how to facilitate student success. That is why they are sidequels. They reference issues within the same timeframes within our educational institutions but are different in terms of what the students need. For example, building lasticity focuses on decision-making, which is only possible if one is not in a traumatized state; students displaying trauma symptomology need strategies so they can get to the point where their cognition can kick into place, meaning their autonomic nervous system needs to be under control.

Lasticity explains what the students who have succeeded possess. But sadly and realistically, many students are not lastic and do not live or learn in lastic environments. We need to help these students by enabling them to become lastic. That requires that we create trauma-responsive schools and colleges; then, these students can and should become lastic. In sum, trauma erodes success. But we can’t just push traumatized students into being lastic; first, they need to be in environments that can help them ameliorate their trauma symptomology.

Harney: What are some success stories in terms of cultures being changed to address this issue?

Gross: I think that success can be seen in several contexts although I am not sure these institutions would self-identify as trauma-responsive. Look at the success of many small colleges (including some that have closed) with high numbers of Pell-eligible students. These institutions, including some minority-serving institutions, understand who their students are in real life. These institutions treat the students they have, not the ones they dream about or that they themselves were. The students at these institutions outperform their predicted success. These places matter—despite their fiscal fragility.

On an individual level, I know of more than a handful of professors who define their roles as educators broadly. These are remarkable men and women. One example is the now-deceased head of healthcare education at Southern Vermont College, a stellar educator named Mary Botter. Botter never lowered her standards; she never enabled students to “slip” through. No, but she knew her students. She worked with them one-on-one, often early morning or late evenings. She did not give up on students either. She believed in them. She knew every student’s name. She understood their strengths and she fostered those positives. She counseled students for whom healthcare was not the right pathway but never undercut her belief in them as future leaders. She led with grace and dignity and she respected her students, even those who were not living up to their potential (yet).

I remember reaching out to Botter about a student who had failed a clinical rotation; the student’s father and a trustee had both reached out to me to complain that the student had gotten a “raw deal.” I asked for the real story. She explained the real issues: The student was struggling; she never arrived on time; she did not get the case notes completed; she was not mature enough (although older) to become a nurse; she needed to retake the clinical and show professionalism; and she needed to listen to and engage with her supervisors. But, Botter did not give up on this student. She did not kick her out of the program. Instead, she met the student where she was—and the student had been exposed to trauma (although the term was not used) that contributed to her behavior. Bottom line, Botter was trauma-responsive. P.S. The student graduated (albeit later than she wanted) and became a nurse and, I suspect, a good one too.

Harney: Explain you concern about “secondary and vicarious trauma” in educators?

Gross: Long story short, trauma is catching. That makes it like a virus. If you are exposed to students who have been traumatized, dealing with these students can be traumatizing. The educators may not even realize that that is why they are feeling as they do.

There is a difference though between secondary and vicarious trauma although these terms are often used interchangeably. Secondary trauma is caught; and it can be addressed more easily than primary trauma. Self-care is key; recognition that one is exhausted and intolerant is important as it signals secondary trauma.

Now, vicarious trauma is a loss of belief in self and in the goodness of the world. Vicarious trauma requires more than self-care. It requires a re-evaluation of one’s beliefs and values. It requires time to recalibrate and rebalance. And it may require a break from one’s current position.

Harney: Do you have a next book in mind?

Gross: Is that a joke question? The short answer is yes. I have both adult and children’s books still to write. I want to write about trauma-responsive pedagogy in vastly greater detail, with concrete examples across the entire educational pipeline. As for children’s books, I have several in the works (another in the Lady Lucy trauma-responsive series) and a word-play book to help students get their autonomic nervous system post-trauma under control.

* To order copies of Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door at a discount, please click here and use the discount code NEBHE2020. Code expires May 1, 2020.

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