How Trauma Can Alter Your Teaching

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By Suzanne Kelton

Things were going well in my professional life in the spring of 2009. I’d just been awarded tenure, was feeling confident in the classroom, and was teaching a fun group of students in my sophomore calculus course. In my personal life, however, I had a nagging doubt.

For nine months, I had been raising concerns with my daughter’s pediatricians about how she communicated and they had finally referred us to a specialist. My husband and I nearly canceled the appointment as we felt it was most likely a waste of time given all the assurances we had received from her doctors.

My husband took her to the evaluation and called me in my office afterward. When I asked him how it had gone, his response was simply, "Not good." My daughter had been diagnosed with autism, a few months shy of her third birthday. As he began to describe the evaluation and how our daughter had performed, I wanted to bolt out of my office and start my hourlong drive home.

I fought back a rush of emotion and anxiety and told myself that my calculus course had an exam the following day. I couldn’t just walk, or run, out. In a state of shock and denial, I was able to make it through my office hours. I recall feeling some relief when students stopped by — in part to justify that I had stayed but mainly for the distraction. I focused on keeping myself together until I could get home to my daughter, and whisper in her ear not to listen to that doctor and those silly block-stacking tests. We loved her just as she was.

My daughter’s diagnosis was accurate, and she is not on the mild end of the spectrum. Autism has severely blocked her ability to communicate her desires and where and when she feels pain. It inhibits her fine motor skills, so that buttoning a shirt is a slow-and-careful task and writing by hand is arduous. It fills her with anxiety, sometimes leading to epic meltdowns.

Autism has not robbed her of intense sweetness or love for her family. She generously offers hugs, and she has a giggle that melts away the day’s frustrations.

When my husband and I fail to understand what my daughter is requesting, she often throws us an exasperated, yet humorous, look that very clearly indicates she feels she is working with idiots. I have had to learn to cope with my inadequacies and simply carry on doing the best I can.

At least three facets of my teaching have been affected by the experience of dealing with my daughter’s disability. My internal struggle on each front gave me insights into teaching, to a degree I would not otherwise have had.

Patience. My daughter’s challenges have created long stretches of intense stress at home and taken a toll on my classroom persona. She has not slept well in 10 years.

Ten. Years.

Some nights, she is only up for a brief amount of time, 20 or 30 minutes. Other nights have included several hours of unexplained, intense crying or screaming. It is impossible to think that my presence in the classroom hasn’t sparkled a little less under the strains brought on by a night like that — or several months of those nights.

During such difficult patches, I have to consciously keep my impatience and frustrations at home from spilling over into my classroom. Observing my own child work so hard to succeed at "simple" tasks has worn down my understanding for a student’s unwillingness to read the syllabus, and abide it. At times, I’ve struggled to hide my irritation when students make requests contrary to the policies I’ve laid out on, say, late or missed papers.

At the same time, I am mindful of how important it is to maintain an open door to questions and discussion. I may see a clear distinction between a question on course material and a request for an exemption from classroom policies, but my students may not.

I recognize that bristling at one question may prevent another much more valuable one, not only from the student who made the query but from another who observed the exchange. Knowing that doesn’t make it less challenging to cheerfully respond to requests for exceptions, but it provides increased motivation and dedication to keep trying.

Fortunately, I don’t have to bolster my patience for mathematical questions; those are what I love about my job. Clarifying mathematical misconceptions and identifying points of confusion are not only gratifying but restorative for me. At home, I am constantly guessing, fumbling to decipher the clues my daughter tries so valiantly to provide. I get it wrong a lot. Some mysteries about her needs have been solved — I think. Others remain and new ones crop up frequently.

But in class and office hours, there is a right and a wrong and I know the difference. I can pinpoint my students’ mistakes, help them complete their exercises, and clear up misperceptions. The connection I feel with my students — through the illumination of concepts and their mathematical growth — reminds me why I chose to teach and refuels my patience.

Openness. For several years, I shared my daughter’s diagnosis with only a few colleagues and never with my students. Initially, that was due to my inability to discuss the diagnosis without becoming emotional. To function well at work, I needed to keep the grief packed away while I was there.

Beyond that, I wanted my friends and colleagues to know my daughter was loving, cuddly, funny, sweet, and charming — and none of these descriptors are ones most people would instantly associate with autism. I wanted to prevent stereotypical assumptions about my daughter, and I struggled to describe her succinctly in a way that I felt gave an accurate picture. Instead of risking a misperception, I avoided any discussion of her or the difficulties my family was facing.

Just as my students have little comprehension of the personal trials I face, I know only what they choose to share with me about their life challenges. I would never detail my daughter’s deepest struggles to a class, but acknowledging them in a general way at appropriate times may make it easier for students to connect or reach out to me. Allowing my students to see more of the whole me — rather than just the math professor — may help them feel more comfortable stopping by for math help or to share other burdens they face.

Students sometimes assume that their math professors think math is easy for everyone and that poorly performing students are lazy or dumb. In an effort to combat that misconception, I have related to students that I, too, had math courses I found challenging. They often seem a little skeptical to hear that. They may be more able to relate to the personal challenges I face, which they may face at home, too.

Perspective. The achievement of tenure lost its glow in the wake of my daughter’s diagnosis. Everything I had been working for suddenly seemed meaningless.

What purpose was I serving in teaching mathematics? While I did feel a good connection with many of my students, was I really affecting them in a powerful, life-altering way? I had students tell me so, but how greatly would their experience have differed with one of my colleagues? Why was I giving so much of my time and energy to students when there was an entire department of people who could just as easily step into my shoes?

The abstract nature of my research in algebraic topology seemed even less worthy of my time. Did it add anything positive to the world beyond the discipline of mathematics?

I also became wary of the slow, time-consuming, and sometimes fruitless work that faculty members do on campus committees. As my daughter started preschool programs at age 3, she developed intense separation anxiety from me. It was imperative (to me) that I be at pick-up every day, and my husband and I constructed work schedules as best we could to make that happen. Now that I was tenured, instead of enjoying the freedom to choose committees based purely on their interest to me, I looked over the list wondering when each met and if there was any flexibility.

Eventually, perspective dawned: Just as I view the facets of my career through a permanently filtered lens, my students base their own valuations of my course through the perspective of their personal journeys. Students facing trauma in their personal lives may find it difficult to muster the energy or desire to reach their full potential in my class.

The notion that a seemingly apathetic student may have much bigger concerns than math homework is not news to me, but the depth of pain a person can endure and successfully mask has been a revelation. As I have been able to share more with my coworkers about the previous stretches of intensely painful and challenging periods I faced at home, I have been struck by their complete surprise. Even though it had been my intention to hide my pain, the realization that people I interacted with every day were unaware that I was hurting at all, let alone suffering acutely, was eye-opening. It meant the same could be true of my colleagues and my students.

The degree to which one’s entire outlook can be altered by trauma is something that can only be truly understood through experience. Grasping the impact and invisibility of grief feeds my patience and my compassion in the classroom — in case any of the students before me are just trying to make it through the day, too.

Suzanne Kelton is an associate professor of mathematics at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass

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