Coping in the Classroom: Reconsidering the Trigger Warning
There was a time when we didn’t know. A time prior to Purell, face masks, plexiglass, and vaccine hesitation. We’d walk into classrooms, open The Great Gatsby to page 74, look up to make sure that our students were ready—or ready enough—and begin: “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise….”. Things were simpler back then. We weren’t infectious disease experts or armchair physicians. We didn’t even know who Anthony Fauci was. “Tony Fauci? He a chef?” If we turned on the fan or the AC, it was because it was hot. If we opened the window, it was by choice.
But all of that changed in March of 2020—and while we hope it is not a forever type of change, it is a change that will remain with us for some time. As temperature checks, daily screenings, and social distancing have become new norms, another shift has occurred within the classroom. Prior to March 2020, trauma––what Bessel van der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score refers to as “an event that overwhelms the central nervous system, altering the way we process and recall memories”––had been a fairly private matter. Those who had experienced it had the right to bury it, to lock it away, to keep it separate from the classroom. But when schools across the country moved to remote learning and students retreated into quarantine and isolation, something shifted in the way that we conceptualize and attempt to navigate trauma in schools—it suddenly became very public. Even though individual students felt it differently and have handled it differently, the pandemic has been a collective trauma that all of us have experienced.
In the five or so years preceding the pandemic, the trigger warning—originally intended to address PTSD among soldiers returning from Vietnam—has been used in the classroom to psychologically protect students with a history of sexual, violent, or racial trauma from raw exposure to topics that mirror their personal experiences. A teacher might use a trigger warning for suicide prior to teaching Hamlet, for example, or racism prior to teaching a unit on the Civil War. Some within educational circles, as Kate Manne describes in her 2015 New York Times article “Why I Use Trigger Warnings,” have argued that trigger warnings help to create safe spaces, preparing students for potentially unsettling content that might hit too close to home. Others, like Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in The Coddling of the American Mind, have harshly criticized trigger warnings as a threat to academic freedom.
In the wake of 18 months dominated by COVID-19, the way we might think about trigger warnings deserves a second look. In giving a trigger warning, we’re suggesting to our students that the material might be psychologically challenging. But given what so many of us have been through during this pandemic, are trigger warnings more or less important? Are they even relevant? As the school year gets underway, we should think about how we can empower students to choose whether, why, and how they approach psychological challenges and curricular opportunities in any productive classroom.
Informed Consent: Making Engagement a Choice
When initiating work with a new client or patient, therapists often seek informed consent. They let their clients know they will ask them to do things that might make them uncomfortable—such as talking about difficult thoughts and feelings—but they are always free to say no. As teachers, we can include statements with a similar intention on our course syllabi: “I will ask you at times to read about or discuss topics that may pull you out of your comfort zone. My goal is for these moments to be a meaningful part of your engagement with literature, the world, and yourself—but you are always free to decide how you engage. Ultimately, I want every assignment and interaction in this class to be affirming, enriching, and empowering—and sometimes that might mean finding the willingness to experience discomfort.”
Such a statement informs students not of what might upset them but that they might feel upset. At the same time, it empowers them with the knowledge that they always have a choice. We can begin our courses by reading and discussing the statement with our students, but even more important is to continually explore why they might choose to confront upsetting topics in the service of doing work they find meaningful. During discussions, instead of only asking for intellectual responses, we can invite students to notice and name emotions they feel when encountering the content. Our emotions tell us something important is at stake; the more intense the emotion, the more important that “something” is. Imagine if, in addition to learning to understand literature and history and science, students also learned to understand their own emotions—and discover the values underneath.
Breaks and Boundaries: Destigmatizing the Choice to Disengage
When reminded of a traumatic event, survivors often feel the urge to run away—sometimes literally. But students have been conditioned to sit in their seats and pay attention, and they might hesitate to distance themselves physically or psychologically when they feel triggered. As teachers, we can tell our students, early and often, that if they need a break, they have the agency to take one.
We can also model taking those breaks: If we experience difficult emotions while reading a passage or discussing an event, we can say something like: “This is a lot for me. I just need a minute.” We might close our eyes, put our heads down, or take a few deep breaths to show our students that it’s normal and healthy to take care of ourselves. We can also lead discussions on strategies for disengaging when we feel overwhelmed.
Belonging Protocols: Building an Authentic Learning Community
As painful as it may be to feel triggered, it may be even more painful when we’re among people we don’t know or trust. Especially now, as the pandemic continues, it’s crucial to build a supportive learning community—and that means doing more than check-ins, circles, and games. While such activities can help, they also create an arbitrary separation between community and academic learning.
We can’t build an authentic community by making rigid rules and insisting that our students listen and comply. We need to structure learning experiences to ensure that all students can make meaningful contributions, be fully and equitably heard, ask each other for help, provide nonjudgmental feedback, and acknowledge one another’s strengths. Protocols can structure the learning environment such that students feel seen, heard, affirmed, appreciated, supported, and even loved. In that environment, students can take risks—including the risk of staying in a psychologically challenging but ultimately enriching conversation.
Affirming Curriculum: Ensuring Triggering Content Isn’t the Only Mirror
It’s important to prioritize curriculum that explores student identity through a range of potential lenses and perspectives. Students should not see reflections of themselves only in portrayals of the worst traumas in their cultural history. In an article written a month after George Floyd was murdered, author Nic Stone describes meeting only three African-American characters in books from eighth through 12th grade. All three characters reinforced stereotypes and personified Black pain. Stone calls for a curriculum that shows Black people who “do the stuff white people [do] in books. Going on adventures. Saving the day. Falling in love. Solving mysteries. Dealing with a broken heart. Getting caught up in a riveting love triangle. Taking down oppressive regimes.” The curriculum must also represent and affirm AAPI, Indigenous, Latinx, Jewish, Muslim, immigrant, disabled, and neuroatypical experiences—not just the painful and traumatic ones, but the full range.
In calling for a curriculum reflecting a greater range of Black experiences, Stone never says we should avoid potentially triggering content or even warn students about it. The books Stone herself writes—along with the 17 she recommends in her article—contain pain and joy, hardship and healing, hate and love, oppression and liberation. Content that might make teachers want to use a trigger warning reflects human experience. School is an ideal context for students to learn how to navigate their own experiences and choose the kinds of experiences they want to create for others.
Should the trigger warning be used in a post-pandemic classroom? Maybe that’s not the right question. Maybe the emphasis should be on empowering students with the tools they need to respond to triggering content. Maybe through exploring a range of pain ful and joyful experiences together, we can begin to reclaim the connections we lost during so many months of isolation and trauma.