Trauma in the Classroom (Part 1)

Guest Contributors: Allyson Eamer, Amea Wilbur, Katie Crossman, Jennifer Allore 
If you are a LINC or ESL instructor, there is a good chance that you have taught learners who have experienced trauma. Syrian, Afghan and now Ukrainian refugees, for example, have been arriving in Canada in large numbers and are increasingly part of our classrooms. Although you are not a mental health specialist, you are often the first point of contact for many students. They likely see you more often and for longer blocks of time than they see their settlement workers or other professionals in their lives. Your students undoubtedly view you as quintessentially Canadian and very much a part of “the system” that directly impacts their lives and futures in Canada. Because you work hard to be a caring instructor and to build trust in the classroom, you are likely to witness the effects of trauma on student learning, and/or to have trauma disclosed to you by a student. You are therefore an important, if unwitting (and likely unprepared, we will argue), key player in responding to trauma.

We (Allyson Eamer, Amea Wilbur, Katie Crossman, and Jennifer Allore) are researchers who strongly believe that language teachers need to:  

  • understand the impact of trauma on learning 
  • be trained in strategies for teaching students living with trauma 
  • have a plan for how to address the disclosures from students  
  • be supported by their institution and systems to provide inclusive and responsive instruction 

What we know 

The literature is clear on how trauma affects the brain. People who have been exposed to trauma and chronic stress produce the stress hormones, cortisol and norepinephrine. While both are important in dealing with imminent danger and processing stress, too much of them have been found to create lasting effects on the brain’s neurobiology. For example., elevated levels of cortisol negatively affect the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex of the brain, both responsible for memory and executive function in the learning process. As a result, learners who have experienced trauma and stress may be at a disadvantage with their English language acquisition. Trauma may also compromise their ability to concentrate and to maintain motivation. This phenomenon is known as “survival brain,” and is well accepted in the literature. 

What we learned 

In 2018, we explored the relationship between trauma and language learning with a number of refugees in southern Ontario. We conducted interviews with adult refugees from Syria, Myanmar, Palestine, Burundi, and Tunisia. We asked them to describe their language classroom experiences and how they perceived the availability of existing educational, social, and health systems in supporting their language learning and acculturation.   

When we talked with refugees and heard their country-of-origin and passage stories (many of which were filled with traumatic events), as well as their settlement and language learning stories, we noticed thematic patterns of resilience, agency, resourcefulness, and identity development.  

Interestingly, participants described a tension between valuing teacher authority while enjoying teachers who were approachable and flexible. There was also a tension that emerged from wanting program structure and rigor, but also enjoying unstructured opportunities for conversation.  

What we think 

We argue for a more intentional balance between teacher-centered and student-driven lessons in classrooms consisting of refugee students. Achieving this balance will afford learners living with trauma the comfort of predictability, routine, and structure. This approach will also gradually expose them to the “teacher-as-facilitator” model, wherein lessons and assignments are developed democratically in response to student needs. Fortunately, language instructors have done well to develop sensitivities regarding the cultures, values, conflicts, and political circumstances relevant to their refugee students. Many instructors have begun to seek resources that will provide strategies to address these matters in the classroom. We highly recommend Beyond Trauma: Language Learning Strategies for New Canadians Living with Trauma

Next time 

The focus of our 2018 study was on the refugee language learners’ experiences and perceptions. It did not take into account the impact of disclosed trauma on the teachers of these students. So, while the research is very clear that primary trauma impacts learning, we suggest that secondary trauma may impact teachers in similar ways.  

Join us in part 2 on Wednesday where we shift the focus to vicarious trauma in instructors. 

About the authors: This team of four researchers from three provinces and four post-secondary institutions brings a wide variety of experience (ESL teaching, settlement work, teacher training, adult education) to their research on the migrant experience, language learning, trauma and vicarious trauma. Allyson Eamer and Amea Wilbur are university professors; Katie Crossman is a researcher; and Jennifer Allore is an ESL instructor and (former) Chair of the TESL Ontario Board of Directors.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *