Reflections on Teaching Practice: Trauma, Learning, and the Supportive Classroom

Introductory note: I wrote the following article during my tenure at the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture from 2004 to 2010. For the last few years, I’ve been thinking about finding for a home for this reflection on trauma and learning, but in the meantime there are some insights that I feel might be useful to teachers and administrators who work with refugees. That’s where the accessibility of a blog comes in handy! At 2773 words, the essay is much longer than my usual posts, but I hope you enjoy it regardless.

Trauma, Learning, and the Supportive Classroom

by Catherine Raine

Inspired by more than six years of teaching LINC at The Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture, I’d like to reflect on trauma’s effects on learning and the need for a supportive class atmosphere.

I.  Trauma and Learning

Trauma survivors bring grief and loss with them to class:

“Death is better than life, teacher.”

“Life is zero.”

“I’m waiting for death.”

“My whole life is pain. It’s better to die.”

“Learning English is so difficult at my age. As they say in my country, ‘Death is the golden lid’.”

However much I’d like to believe the worst is behind my students, for them trauma continues in the present tense. For instance, a new loss can set off an avalanche of grief when relatives die far away, triggering agonizing memories. During my time at CCVT, at least six of my students have lost mothers, a father, a sister, and a nephew. In the last case, my student’s 28-year-old nephew had been murdered for protesting against the regime of his native country.

Fresh losses, suicidal statements, and depression are realities in my classroom. In terms of low mood, I find that Mondays are the most challenging days. With no classes scheduled on Fridays, by the time Monday arrives, the learners have had three full days to sink into their private glooms and preoccupations. On Monday mornings, it’s very difficult for them to rise out of their individual “sloughs (of) Despond” (Pilgrim’s Progress part 1, page 12). Insomnia, poor concentration, and low self-esteem accompany and reinforce students’ low spirits. I often hear:

“I can’t remember the words I learned.”

“I’m too old to learn.”

“I learn fast but then I forget everything fast.”

“I can’t speak English.”

In fact, self-perception of poor language skills makes them feel even worse about themselves. Many are highly critical of their English ability and have low tolerance for making mistakes, refusing to give themselves permission to be “wrong.” Moreover, there is extreme sensitivity to correction. For example, one time a man got angry when a female classmate pointed out a spelling mistake that another male classmate had made when writing a sentence on the board. Interestingly, the actual writer wasn’t upset about the correction, but the angry student had been brooding for a month over a critical remark made by the same female student. In my experience, most students will accept a gentle correction of grammar, pronunciation or reminder to be quiet from the teacher, but they really resent a fellow student taking on this role.

Thankfully, harmony prevails in class the majority of the time, despite the odd personality clash. The only time I needed to intervene over potential physical conflict was when two young women playfully pushed each other as they both reached for the same picture of a lion during a collage exercise. Though they assured me they were “only joking”, I told them to stop. When the behavior repeated itself a few weeks later, I said, “I need you to stop that. I’m serious.” I don’t like play-slaps in class because they undermine the safe, stable atmosphere our students need. Mock tussles can lead to real fights. And worst of all, they send the message that violence is an acceptable way to express anger.

Prompt and assertive correction of inappropriate classroom behaviour is crucial because CCVT students are very sensitive to issues of fairness. It reassures them when authority figures don’t ignore aggressive words or actions, for many of them have suffered from the rule of bullies. With problems such as lateness, I try to remind every latecomer why it’s important to get to class on time. And if a student is extremely late, they don’t receive their full TTC token allotment for the day. Use of this measure has to be consistent because the students are so keenly aware of justice. They watch and remember. And they have the potential to become extremely upset if they feel singled out for “criticism” when others go unchastized.

Not only are CCVT learners extra-sensitive about personal justice, they are also hypersensitive to expressions of anger by the teacher. Victims of torture and abuse become very skilled at reading moods, a protective defense against the unpredictability of tyrants (Trauma and Recovery, page 139). For this reason, I try to greet my students enthusiastically, even when they are late, and then keep my tone gentle when I call attention to issues related to punctuality, being respectful to classmates, and loud talking in a first language.

The rare times I have gotten visibly angry, I always regretted it afterwards. Gentle correction and reasoning work better, especially for sensitive students like the one who once said, “You’re gonna kill me!” when she kept yawning while trying to ask a question during a reading lesson. I laughed and said, “No, I’m not going to kill you, but I don’t know how to speak yawn!” On another occasion, I received a startling reaction when I slightly leaned over a student’s desk to point out something on his handout. He cringed and recoiled as if I had raised a hand to hit him. I’ll never forget his haunted expression, the face of someone who expects to be beaten for no reason.

II.    The Supportive Classroom

CCVT clients have unique learning difficulties, but that doesn’t mean they are impossible to overcome. I have found that building a class community, cultivating a welcoming atmosphere, and employing supportive teaching methods can provide hopeful and restorative measures to counterbalance the negative effects of trauma.

The foundation of any class is a strong, positive relationship between each student and their teacher. This foundation also includes a feeling of solidarity and bonding between classmates. We sometimes have birthday parties for the students, which helps bring us all closer. Yet even these celebrations can be bittersweet. I once asked the class, “Are there any birthdays in January?” so we could make plans for the next party. A young woman responded, “Not a birthday, but the anniversary of my husband’s death.” Such heavy grief can’t help but surface at the mention of yearly rituals, the painful annual reminders of lost loved ones, including birthdays no longer celebrated.

I strongly believe that one of the purposes of CCVT is to correct the balance of loss in some small way, to create new friendships that caulk the scars of lost loves, lives stolen too soon and with so much brutality. Nothing could replace entire personal worlds dissolved forever, but new stories, new relationships can partially refill the emptiness that follow survivors wherever they go. For instance, a lively Somali woman received her Canadian citizenship three summers ago, and we had a wonderful party in her honour. Two tables supported a pot of rice, pans of vegetables and meat, homemade bread, pastries, chocolate cake, and three big bowls of chocolate ice-cream. The entire student body was talking, laughing, and dancing, and it felt good to be connected to a community, laughing and leaping in celebration of our new Canadian. Her happiness was contagious and I felt so proud to be part of the new life she is building in Canada.

A few months after the citizenship party, we did a Thanksgiving exercise in which each student told the class what they were thankful for. A great number of them said, “I’m thankful for my class and for CCVT.” Their sincere gratitude impressed on me just how much our English class means to the clients. It is much more than a place to study verbs and vocabulary. Our students come to be with their friends and to create meaning in their lives after the experience of senseless violence.

A stimulating class can be a place to forget past and present troubles. Many of my students are primary caregivers for either young children or ailing elderly spouses. For them, class is where they go after dropping three kids off at day care or taking a husband to the hospital for dialysis treatment. I try to keep their situation in mind when I’m planning my lessons because I really want them to enjoy their hard-won time in class while they learn some new English vocabulary, a grammar point, or a useful fact about Canada. For these caregivers and indeed for all the students, a lively yet stress-free class motivates them to come regularly. Our frequent laughter cheers all of us up and creates more togetherness. With so many responsibilities and troubles, my students often need a really good laugh. As one of them once told me, “A lot of us come to class and can only half pay attention. Some have trouble at home, thinking too much, others worry about money, their families, many things.”

Games such as Bingo are a refreshing antidote to too much serious grammar, and to add further interest I like to provide small prizes. Even though a pencil, a travel size bottle of lotion, or a piece of candy has little monetary value, the social currency is high because the prizes increase motivation as well as create a stronger bond between students and their teacher (everybody gets a prize). The gifts could even be regarded as a positive “transitional object” (Trauma and Recovery pages 150, 152), reminding the learners that their instructor cares about them even when she’s not physically present. Lately, I’ve been offering selected books from Toronto Public Library book sales as prizes, and the students really appreciate receiving books on spelling, science, gardening, world religions, and grammar.

To further build educational and social support for the students, we occasionally leave the classroom altogether to venture into the city and beyond. Field trips are especially beneficial for our learners who rarely leave their homes except to go to CCVT, work, or No Frills. Some may lack a social network and others are inhibited by language barriers or financial constraints. It does us all good to break out of routine and visit the Royal Ontario Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Film Board, the CN Tower, Casa Loma, and Allen Gardens. Sites of natural beauty that have soothed us include The Toronto Islands, Niagara Falls, The Beaches, High Park, and the Harbourfront. In addition, class discussions of politics and world events have been made more concrete by visits to Queen’s Park and joining the Refugee Day Celebration at Dundas Square every June.

Finally, outings to the Parliament Library and Toronto Reference Library have reinforced independent study skills and given me the chance to guide students towards learning materials geared to their individual needs. On a personal note, I get a studious thrill out of all the new library cards issued, books checked out. A new library card is so meaningful because it represents independence for newcomers, especially for some of the women who don’t necessarily think in terms of having their own card in their own name. Tucking a shiny blue card into your billfold is also one more positive step towards that accumulation of identity that adds up to settlement in a new country. Some of our students need this affirmation and that extra nudge just to fill out the library membership application form. In the words of a student: “When you’ve been a refugee and haven’t lived a normal life for five years, ten years, then little things become big.” Just mustering the energy to get a library card can seem overwhelming, so anything CCVT can do to make their lives more normal, stable, and coherent is so very welcome.

The need for stability after so much uncertainty guides the structure of our classes at CCVT. That’s why the teacher’s punctuality makes a big contribution to creating a reassuring routine. Our students have experienced a lot of limbo as well as worry about the welfare of others. There have been times when I was delayed by five minutes, only to enter a classroom where the learners were wondering aloud what happened to me. Punctuality not only comforts the students, but it also testifies to a seriousness of purpose that builds stability. Being on time shows that I want to be there with them and that I am committed to teaching. The learners also appreciate homework and efficient time management, as both signal a strong concern for their learning and progress. A student once gave me some helpful feedback along these lines: “I like how you start the lessons early and don’t waste time.”

Even though many of my students struggle with tardiness (due to insomnia, depression, family responsibilities), I strive to start class on time for the sake of those who have arrived early. As latecomers arrive one by one, I greet them, give them the papers, and continue with the lesson. This practice emphasizes that class doesn’t stop because of the unpredictability of outside factors. Individuals may be late, but that doesn’t mean that they are allowed to undermine or disrupt our central purpose, which is to learn English.

Asserting the primacy of class structure and clarity of focus is a vital part of building normalcy, routine, and predictability in our students’ difficult existence. I believe this is essential for rehabilitation. Both before and after they came to Canada, CCVT clients’ lives have been disrupted by chaos, uncertainty, instability, limbo, loss, and lack of control. Many have had to abandon their education, their dreams, their goals because of war. They need CCVT to be there for them, to not be bombed, shut down, destroyed. They need to believe that they can continue their education without disruption or abandonment. For all of these reasons, their LINC class should ideally be an oasis of calm and stability, a place where they know what to expect from the schedule, their teacher, their classmates and the curriculum.

Repetition and reinforcement are essential tools to integrate learning into a stable framework. I like to introduce new topics, grammar concepts, and vocabulary by linking them back to previous lessons. Homemade flashcards are especially useful for repetition and review of grammar points, Canadian history facts, Canadian geography, and general citizenship questions. What’s extremely rewarding for both myself and the learners is when they realize how much they have retained. After hearing “I can’t remember anything” so many times, it’s a joy to contradict false beliefs about their inability to learn. I have one student in her late fifties who frequently gets mad at herself for forgetting words, but when I ask the class questions about Canadian history or geography, she’s often the first one to answer correctly.

I believe my students appreciate repetition for its own sake and also for the patience it implies. I strive to be very patient with mistakes because there’s so much sensitivity to correction. That’s why I monitor my tone when I point out grammar and pronunciation errors. My tone needs to be gentle so they understand that mistakes are allowed and do not deserve anger or punishment. I also hope that this gentleness will influence them to be less hard on themselves and each other when they get a word or grammar structure “wrong.” A number of my learners have told me how much they appreciate this approach. Some of their feedback includes:

“You have a different way. You teach us side by side and go slowly. Your way is beautiful. You understand maybe how to work with people at CCVT.”

“You gave us confidence to speak.”

“I like your easy-going attitude, how you are patient but don’t treat us like kids.”

Another student wrote: “Teacher I appreciate your patience and your teaching method . . . I never forget your smile and your strength.”

Drawing these observations to a close, I want to say how privileged I feel to be part of CCVT’s learning community. Every time my students walk through the door, I want to applaud the human spirit. Even though they often say they’re too old, too tired, or too depressed to learn, they come anyway. Their presence is a testament to their courage, and their story celebrates a series of personal victories over trauma to which I hope this article has given testimony.

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