Zero tolerance and the college classroom

My colleague Emily recently asked me about how to build more trauma-informed college classrooms. Emily and I both teach at a community college, and trauma-informed classroom environments couldn’t be more essential in this setting. While we certainly don’t ask for or collect any data about our students’ experience of trauma, I can infer that a large percentage of our student population has survived adverse experiences. In a typical semester, my class includes:

  • Students who came to the United States as refugees
  • Students who are currently or have in the past served in the military
  • Students who are in recovery from substance use
  • Students who don’t have enough money to meet their basic needs
  • Students who are currently or have in the past been homeless

Using my trauma-informed lens, I know that it’s essential for me to create a safe and supportive environment for these students to thrive. While the adult learner may have gained more coping strategies and self-regulation skills than an elementary school student, adult brains are still impacted by trauma. My adult learners still need relationship and respect to thrive and succeed.

The “how” is not that different from what we know about trauma-informed K-12 environments. I know that a trauma-informed classroom should prioritize connection, empowerment, predictability, and flexibility. I can build all of these things into my syllabus and the way that my classroom runs day to day.

One thing I do want to highlight is the flexibility piece. In a trauma-informed environment, we recognize that context is key, and the same interventions or responses don’t work for every student. In a K-12 setting, this often means looking at school-wide disciplinary policies or behavioral responses. Most experts on trauma-informed education recommend drastically decreasing or eliminating zero-tolerance policies within schools.

Zero tolerance in the syllabus

In a college classroom, I believe that many teachers impose zero-tolerance policies in the name of learning, and we can do better. These policies come up around grading and attendance. They even come up around students’ use of email.

I recently saw a well-known professor share a piece of her syllabus language. It stated (paraphrased): “You must begin your email to me with a salutation, such as ‘Dear Professor.’ Emails that do not include a salutation will be ignored. Seriously, I won’t reply to those emails.'”

This is a zero-tolerance policy: you mess up, and without regard to context, I will not respond to your attempt at communication.

Unwritten messages

Now, I have no idea if this particular instructor actually enforces this policy, or how she might respond given the context of the email. It’s worrisome if she does: often, the instructor is one of the only points of contact a student has on campus (especially true in community college where students don’t live in dorms). Imagine that I am the only trusted representative of the college for a student, and he reaches out through email, writing: “I am really struggling with some mental health stuff. I won’t be in class tomorrow.” He didn’t write “Dear professor.” Do I really ignore the email?

Let’s give the professor the benefit of the doubt and assume that her humanity trumps her policy. I’m still worried about the presence of the policy itself. When I read the policy, I understand: “How you communicate is more important than what you communicate. My preferences for email are more important than what you need.”

That take-away message might prevent students from building a relationship and reaching out when they need help. It might perpetuate a feeling of a power imbalance. And it might contribute to an overall feeling, especially among community college students: “college isn’t about what I learn; it’s about meeting all of these rules – different ones for each professor! I can’t be successful.”

High expectations with care

So what’s the alternative? Maybe you’re reading this and thinking to yourself, “Okay, I get this, but I still want students to use proper email etiquette.”

Me too! This is where we practice the balance of trauma-informed teaching: holding high expectations and communicating care at every step along the way.

Here’s how I do this around email in my classroom:

The first assignment of the semester is to read a short article about how to write professional emails to college instructors. Just google “how to email a professor” and there are several options to choose from. I used this one last semester.

The second half of this assignment is to send me an email, using the tips from the article. I ask students to introduce themselves to me in this email, tell me something awesome about themselves, and share the last book they read. This serves several purposes: I can assess whether they understood the content of the article, and I also start to build relationship. I reply to each of these emails, making a connection about what they shared, and if necessary, giving feedback if they didn’t follow the email format from the article.

This assignment alone does 99% of the work for me. I’ve found that over the semester, most students follow the format, most of the time. If I get any particularly egregious outliers, I respond to the content of the email first (“Hi Andrew, I’m sorry to hear that you’re sick. Please check Moodle this afternoon for next week’s homework”) followed by any feedback about the form of the email (“One more thing – your email was a little hard to follow. If you scroll back up to our Week 1 assignments in Moodle, you can reread the article about how to write professional emails. Thanks!”).

I also encourage students to email me often. In my experience, reaching out for help is the difference between a student who fails or drops the class and a student who struggles but still passes. I want students to reach out, even if they don’t do it “right.”

Finally, I never ignore an email from a student.

Embracing the “both/and”

Trauma-informed teaching is often about the “both/and.” We can both hold high expectations and communicate care. We can both treat adult learners as adults and recognize that “being an adult” doesn’t mean going it alone.

To build a trauma-informed college classroom, I encourage instructors to critically look at how they might decrease zero-tolerance policies and seek to prioritize relationship. Learning is messy; so is healing from trauma. Embrace the mess and we can all be a little more human together.

Social-emotional learning can be simple

While the buzzword factor may loom large, it doesn’t have to be complicated to get started with social-emotional learning in the classroom. SEL “programs” or curricula may certainly be helpful in providing a common language or structure for educators across a school, but you don’t need to buy anything to provide social/emotional learning opportunities. It can be as simple as acknowledging emotions, making space to understand them, and reflecting on the intersection of academic and social/emotional learning.

I teach a community college first semester seminar. The goals of the course are around reading, writing, and research for college, and there’s an overarching mission that the course will help students start their college careers successfully. We learn good habits of college work and identify resources. I also incorporate social/emotional learning because I value emotional self-awareness as a key tool of college (and life) success.

Social skill-building in 5 minutes or less

In an ongoing way, we do a quick rose-and-thorn check-in at the start of each class. Rose- something good that’s going on for you. Thorn – something not so good. It brings everyone’s voice into the room (even if just to say “pass”) and it acknowledges that we’re all bringing things to the classroom that evening with us. It helps set the stage for our interactions with one another – if you shared about your really bad day, I can offer you some extra kindness. If you shared that you’re feeling good this evening, I can borrow some of your enthusiasm. It also provides a platform for creating social connections. I’ve watched students connect with one another over shared interests that they might not have known about if not for check-in. You have a two-year-old too? You also play soccer? You drive a motorcycle? Healthy social interactions are easier when you have a place to start, and this structure provides a platform for students to share something authentic with their community. It’s a really simple structure that takes less than five minutes, but the benefits are huge.

Incorporating emotional awareness into content

For a more focused social/emotional learning experience, I’ve been slowly transforming the section of the course that explores the concept of systemic oppression and privilege to incorporate emotional self-awareness as a key concept. We begin by reading Margaret Wheatley’s essay “Willing to be Disturbed.” We discuss the emotional barriers that can get in the way of hearing one another’s stories. Then, students read and dig in to the concept of privilege and write a reflection – not just on the content, but on their emotional experience with the content. They answer the question, “why is it so hard to talk about privilege?”

When students arrive in class to discuss privilege with one another, we start with a self check-in: what emotions am I feeling right now, and how is that going to impact my ability to listen? I use a chart with a list of common emotions arranged by intensity, and students reflect on how intensity of feeling might help or hinder your listening skills. I’m transparent when we do this activity: I know this may feel childish or unrelated to academics, but at the heart of academic discussion lies empathy. Our healthy emotional management supports our capacity for empathy, and our social skills support our capacity to build empathetic relationships. Students take this reflection seriously and bring the self-awareness into their conversations.

With all of these proactive steps, I’ve experienced an improvement in the depth of conversation, the risks students are willing to take when trying on a new perspective, and their ongoing growth as learners.

SEL is just like any other teaching strategy

None of these social/emotional learning strategies are complicated or groundbreaking. They don’t take a lot of prep work. They cost nothing. Social-emotional learning is an investment of time – but it doesn’t have to be that much time. It’s an investment of energy – but as with all new classroom strategies, after the first go-around it gets easier. It doesn’t need to take time away from content, but rather can enhance students’ ability to dive into content and skill.

So I see social-emotional learning more as holding a central value about how I see my students. We do this already in the classroom. If I understand my students to be emerging critical readers, I’ll make room for skill-building. If I understand my students to need practice with the writing process, I’ll build in opportunities to learn. When I understand my students as whole and emotional humans, practicing their self-regulation and social skills, of course I’m going to make time to attend to their needs. It can be that simple.