Based on the principles of trauma-informed care as expressed in social work, nursing, and other direct services, I propose the following methods for creating a trauma-informed, hope-infused graduate theological classroom.
Provide for the physical safety of the students in the classroom and around campus. Follow universal design methods and be sure the campus and classroom are ADA accessible. Maintain healthy relational boundaries. Trauma-informed approaches need to be implemented at all levels of an institution if it is going to be successful. Syllabi should also include resources for counseling and give clear guidance for Title IX compliance and reporting.
Understand that trauma often occurs at the hand of those in authority over the victim, including teachers and clergy. In addition, survivors of trauma have often felt let down or betrayed by teachers or clergy who did not protect them when needed. Teachers in the graduate classroom should never assume that their students see them as trustworthy. Do not begin a course by reviewing the “rules and consequences” encoded in the syllabus without first attending to some formation of community and relationship. Allow trust to develop slowly over time. Prove yourself trustworthy through consistent and predictable behavior in and out of the classroom.
Trauma survivors have often been put in situations where choice was taken away from them. Because graduate theological educators teach adults, we are especially able to incorporate choice into our course design. Choices may include what kind of final project students create, a choice of due dates so that students can coordinate workload across multiple classes and professional obligations, or a choice of assignment options for weekly work.
Provide opportunities for students to collaborate with one another and with the professor in shaping their learning experiences. Students might write their own learning objectives in addition to the ones in the syllabus. Students can take a significant role in the design of class discussion and small group work. Students can be given the opportunity to provide feedback on assignments, readings, and course expectations, and be allowed to suggest modifications of these assignments when needed.
Empowerment in the graduate theological classroom engages in reflective praxis, takes a liberative approach to education, and values the voices and perspectives of learners. A trauma-informed, hope-infused pedagogy embraces these approaches to help equip students to address systemic oppression, recognize and work from their strengths, and value their contributions to knowledge formation.
It is essential to understand that the experience of trauma–whether a single event, historical or intergenerational, or complex trauma–is not a life-sentence that dooms someone to an unhappy, tragic life. In fact, trauma survivors are also often deeply resilient, empathetic, and gifted individuals who have much to contribute to the classroom, to theology, and to ministry. Equipping faculty, staff, and administrators with trauma-informed, hope-infused approaches to graduate theological classroom will help all students thrive and succeed.