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The Role of Trauma in Teaching and Learning

globe-like sphere breaking apart

Here in the US, we are getting ready for Thanksgiving, and for many families this may be their first time gathering together indoors in as long as two years.

It feels joyful to anticipate such an event (and also stressful, and also potentially sad).

Some people don’t have families to go to. Some are too far from home to travel. Some are not on good terms with family members, or need to keep playing it safe and stay away from people.

And then there are all those empty places at far too many tables, where those lost to the pandemic should have been.

The planet has been through a collective trauma and is still going through it.

Community, connection, thankfulness are among our most important tools in dealing with trauma, but how does that work when EVERYONE has been traumatized, to some degree, and when the systems that support our lives are continuing to experience severe and prolonged stress?

How does trauma relate to teaching and learning?

Trauma is caused by extreme situations that affect us deeply and for which we are not able to adequately prepare.

A car crash or house fire that are traumatic to the driver or residents, are just part a normal days’ work to the police or fire crews that respond to the scene.

One of the many differences in how the driver or homeowner experiences such an event, as compared to professionals who handle these types of situations every day, is that the professionals have extensive training in how to respond.


One way to define learning is to see it as a process of adapting to one’s environment in ways that promote survival. 

Because traumas threaten our survival, they are powerful teachers, for both good and ill.

Trauma teaches at a biochemical level that can leave an imprint on the body that lasts for multiple generations.

That makes sense.

A biochemical marker passed down to future generations could provide crucial seconds of advanced alarm and alert, 

allowing time to escape from a harmful situation or predator. 

What does all this mean for us

 as online teachers and online learners

  • As we start to emerge from this collective trauma, it’s important that we be patient and understanding.
  •  Be extra nice to yourself, your clients and students, and everyone around you.
  • Everyone is under a tremendous amount of stress right now.
  • We’ve all been under pressure to adapt to extreme, unpredictable, and constantly changing conditions, for a long period of time.


We need to recognize that

we really HAVE been exposed to

 an ongoing global trauma.

When in the midst of dealing with extreme situations, an adaptive response is to simply push on through and deal with it.

We go into coping mode. Noticing how we feel is a luxury we can’t afford. 

When things calm down enough for us to begin to come out of this coping mode and return to what feel like more normal activities (such as, say, a family holiday gathering), we may not realize that the world we think we are returning to is not the same world we left behind.

Planet earth with a large crack.

We may try to do the same things we’ve always done, and notice that it doesn’t work anymore. 

We’ve forgotten the intricate steps that keep the dance of interaction with other human beings in a shared physical space, moving smoothly.

 Little things may take on  significance beyond their literal meaning. 

Snapping that family photo, raising one’s glass to make a toast, who gets to say the blessing, who sits next to whom… these may assume a weight and meaning greater than they had before... so that if one accidentally gets left out of the photo, or misses the toast, or is seated at the far end of the table, it becomes a big deal, or even leads to a fight.

 (Don’t ask me how I know these things, lol).

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Those of us in the online course creation space are among the luckiest people on the planet, in these challenging times, I feel.

 The pandemic has pushed business towards us, rather than taken it away.

If people were not convinced of the importance of online learning before the pandemic, they certainly are now.

We have important and meaningful work to do, and we have the ability and tools to make a significant positive difference in the world.

Working online keeps us safe and out of harm’s way.

Afro-caribbean woman working from home during the Covid lockdown

And yet, as we return to the beginnings of what hopefully will someday be a much more normal way of life, 

we too are subject to the impact of collective trauma,

and precisely BECAUSE we’ve been so lucky and protected by the nature of our work, we may not realize that.

It’s only when starting to return to a more normal way of life, that the pain of all that’s been lost, changed,

or missed over the past 2 years,

 begins to sink in.

My message in this blog post is to be prepared for that.

I wasn’t. I went to a family gathering that we hadn’t been able to have for two years, and little tiny things (Was the salad ready? Who got included in the toast? Who got to snap a picture with whom, first?) took on a huge significance.

If you don’t realize this can happen, you and your loved ones may mistakenly think you are having a fight with each other, about what’s happening now. You’re not. 

You are having a fight with the pandemic, and with the two years of family gatherings you lost, and with being overwhelmed by the enormity of everyday things:

  • The power of connection.
  • The ability to sit with your own relatives and friends.
  • The ability to trust the continuity and safety of the world beyond your screen.

It’s not yet clear, and won’t be for some time, exactly what lessons the pandemic has taught us. 

What is clear is that trauma produces an extreme kind of learning which is often not applicable to non-traumatic situations (PTSD is an example of that).

Like soldiers returning from war, or prisoners getting out of jail, we have to relearn how to function in less traumatic conditions.

Hispanic couple having barbeque battle

My message for all of us is simply: be kind.

Be extra patient with yourself and your loved ones.

Be prepared for little things to take on much more meaning than you thought they would.

Don’t get into a fight with your family because the salad wasn’t ready, or someone sat next to someone else instead of you.

 Or if you do get into a fight about such things (because sometimes we do), look beyond the surface to understand why none of us is acting quite normal these days.

It’s not you. It’s not them. It’s the pandemic.

As we climb out of the (metaphorical) bunkers we’ve been living in, the (metaphorical) light may hurt our eyes at first. We have to learn how to adapt and re-acclimatize to a new reality... and we don’t even know what that new reality is going to be yet.

walk way and hand holder beside forward to the light exit or light of hope.

The good thing is, we are all in this together. 

And as online teachers it is our job to lead the way in helping our students, clients, and communities adjust to whatever is coming next.

red wound heart with bandage on white background

Trauma can’t always be avoided. Pandemics seem to be a natural part of life for biological beings like us.

 Forest fires happen.

 Lightning sometimes does strike twice.

But if we can learn to recognize when we and others around us HAVE been traumatized, we can adopt some first aid measures to take care of ourselves. 

Kindness and understanding are the most important tools to have in our emotional first aid tool kits.

As Thanksgiving approaches, I am thankful for you... for this wonderful community of mission-driven, service-oriented experts who have worked so hard to create ways to help the people you serve learn and get smarter.

Thank you for being here. Thank you for being you. Thank you for all you do.

Thank You Word Cloud On Wall