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Responding to an Insurrection in a Graduate Program Classroom

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At the start of this series, I introduced 10 simple trauma-informed strategies for navigating classroom behavior emergencies that have saved me on more than one occasion. Below is a quick recap. Here are more details and the first story – "I don’t WANNA be in your class", and the second story – "Do you know what I’m IN FOR?" You'll find story #3 below - "We didn't do the assignment!"

10 trauma-informed strategies that help me with classroom behavior emergencies.

Breathe and don’t panic.
Stay in charge.
Validate feelings and needs.
Adopt a non-threatening posture and steady voice.
Hold an alert readiness.
Refer to structures.
Reflect back strengths.
Remind of goals.
Offer an alternative.
Help save face.

Story #3: "We didn’t do the assignment!"

THE SCENE.

(Names have been changed.)

Story #3 takes place in a graduate school course I was teaching in an Adult Education Master's program that met one weekend per month for a total of three months.

Our class was studying learning theories. At the end of the first weekend students signed up for one learning theory to study more intensively during the month between the first and second weekends. During this time they were to complete individual research papers on their chosen theory, form teams with others who had selected their same theory, and exchange papers on Blackboard and give each other feedback. They were to come to the second weekend with their papers finalized and prepared to work with others on their shared theory team to prepare a presentation of their chosen theory for the rest of the class in an exchange of peer teaching.

On that second weekend their task was to work as a team and use strategies from their learning theory to prepare a presentation to teach the other teams about their theory. I gave them Saturday morning to meet and plan. They worked for a couple of hours in break out groups and I made the rounds, answering questions or assisting as needed.

THE UPSET.

Around 11:30 a.m. I checked in with each group one last time to dismiss them for lunch and remind them to be back at 1:00 p.m. prepared to begin the presentations. All was well until I stopped at the last group. I asked how it was going and not one of them would make eye contact with me. They all seemed fascinated with the tops of their shoes. After an uncomfortable silence, one woman finally looked up, eyes flashing, jaw set, fairly hissing at me, "We aren't ready. We DON'T have a presentation. We spent the time instead reviewing MY paper. I NEVER get good feedback in peer review and I was determined to get the feedback I needed so we did that instead! We have NO PRESENTATION!" Nostrils flaring and red in the face, she glared at me. Apparently not able to resist the unfolding drama, the other five pairs of eyes unglued themselves from the tops of their shoes and slowly raised them to look up at me with flushed faces of embarrassment and discomfort.

BREATHE AND DON’T PANIC. STEADY MY VOICE. REFER TO STRUCTURES. REMIND OF (COMMUNAL) GOALS. OFFER AN ALTERNATIVE.

I looked back at the woman who had spoken, absorbing her glare for a few seconds while willing a look of calm composure over my face. Taking a steadying breath I said as evenly as I could manage, "Well Sue, at the start of this course we made a Community Agreement that still hangs on our wall. On it, by everyone's agreement, it says that each of you would support the learning of your peers. The way you agreed to do that today was to prepare and deliver a presentation on your chosen learning theory. That's how your colleagues will learn the important principles and teaching strategies of Social Learning Theory, through your peer teaching this afternoon."

Glancing down at my watch I said, "You have 90 minutes for lunch. I'm confident your team will keep its agreement to your peers and have something ready for your colleagues by 1:00 p.m.," and then, with some trepidation, I turned and walked away.

THE SELF-DOUBT.

What if....

What if they came back from lunch with no presentation?

What would I do then?

Should I give the presentation?

If I didn’t give it, how would I make sure that the rest of the students left with their needs met around Social Learning Theory?

STAY-IN-CHARGE. OFFER (MYSELF) AN ALTERNATIVE. REMIND (MYSELF) OF GOALS.

With my mind racing and my lunch appetite gone I decided that no matter what happened, I could "teach" the theory through my response to the situation and the ensuing class discussion.  I would not do their assignment for them, but I would make sure our class conversation about the missing presentation addressed the key principles and strategies of the theory. This was, after all, my opportunity to live out my belief that everything is curriculum, including the challenges of collaborative learning gone awry and modeling classroom management that walks the talk. This was especially appropriate as these were masters students in adult education!

A SURPRISE TWIST.

Just before 1:00, everyone returned. The self-appointed leader of the "no presentation" group, the one who had unloaded her frustration on me,  asked to speak to me in the hall. Meeting her there she said, "We have a presentation, we are ready." I nodded silently, willing my face to not to look too relieved. She cleared her throat and said, "I owe you an apology. I was very rude to you."

"Yes you were," I surprised myself by saying, and then, added "Thank you. I accept your apology."

SHE: REFLECTED BACK STRENGTHS, REFERRED TO STRUCTURES & HELPED SAVE FACE.

She looked at me some more and said, "One other thing...I learned a lot from you in the last two hours about how to respond to a resistant student. You gave me the perfect response. You didn’t get angry or defensive. You calmly returned my problem to me, where it belonged and trusted me to fix it. I think your response was probably the most helpful thing I've learned this term as an educator, so...thank you."

This is my case for universal trauma-informed precautions in every teaching setting.

I do this work to be of service to my students but I will honestly admit it was much harder for me to weather this behavior from someone I considered a professional colleague than it was to work with it from a trauma-impacted, incarcerated learner. I expect it in prison. I wasn’t expecting it in a graduate school classroom. 

But here is what I learned that day. Trauma-impact doesn’t come in a particular package marked by the same set of circumstances. I knew less about my grad students than I typically know about my students in prison or social service settings. Most of them come with case managers I can talk to before class begins or when stuff comes up once we are under way.

Just because ‘Sue’ was a graduate level adult educator did not mean she wasn’t trauma-impacted.  She was upset about something in the past that got triggered in the present – not feeling as if she got the support she needed in peer review. The lesson for me is to view trauma-informed strategies and structures like a set of universal mental health precautions – a way I teach, no matter where I teach, no matter whom I teach, just like medical professionals who treat ALL patients using universal health precautions. I learned that weekend that I must take the advice to Hold an alert readiness and the other 9 trauma-informed strategies for navigating classroom behavior emergencies into all of my classrooms.