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.