The UNLV family will reunite en masse this week for the first time since the horrific Dec. 6 campus shooting that tragically claimed the lives of three faculty members.
As they return to campus for the start of the 2024 spring semester, many students, faculty, and staff members likely will be overwhelmed by an array of unpleasant emotions. Among them: anger and fear, melancholy and grief, confusion and trepidation. Others may have already processed the experience.
What’s important for the entire Rebels community to understand? These and many other trauma-induced feelings almost certainly will wax and wane as the semester unfolds. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
“If you’re in a 100-student classroom, plus the instructor, there are going to be 101 different emotions and thoughts,” says UNLV associate professor Kaitlin Clinnin, the director of composition for the English department. “And those 101 emotions and thoughts might change over the course of the hour-long class. Or the course of that day. Or the week. And that’s completely normal.”
Clinnin speaks with authority on the topic because her research in recent years has focused on trauma-informed teaching. She was drawn to the subject because of her unfortunate connection to multiple distressing events.
“Trauma has been a presence in my life, specifically campus violence,” Clinnin says. “Unfortunately, this was not my first campus shooting. In fact, at every institution where I’ve taught or been a student, there has been a lockdown situation and, in many cases, a campus violence situation.
“Also, I’m from Newtown, Connecticut, which is where the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting took place. That’s where I played rec basketball.”
Clinnin has developed a multifaceted blueprint to help teachers recognize, understand, support, and empathize with students who have been or are going through a traumatic event.
The Tenets of Trauma-Informed Education
Only six weeks have passed since UNLV joined an ever-growing list of educational institutions that have experienced a shooting. So for the vast majority of students returning to campus, the emotional trauma associated with the tragedy undoubtedly lingers.
What can professors do to foster a comfortable and productive learning environment during a unique and challenging semester? The first principle is to establish a consistent classroom structure so students know what the semester will entail.
In addition to creating — and sticking to — predictable in-class routines, professors should be clear and transparent with their expectations, policies, and procedures.
“Trauma disrupts us,” Clinnin says. “It takes us out of our usual routine, disorients us, and makes us feel powerless and out of control. So we want to create a classroom where everyone can learn to the best of their abilities, while reestablishing that sense of safety and security that’s been disrupted.”
The second principle focuses on flexibility. While it’s important to develop and clearly communicate attendance requirements, classroom expectations and assignment deadlines, this is not the semester to rule with an iron fist.
Rather, Clinnin recommends instructors try to be accommodating whenever possible. For instance, if a student doesn’t feel up to engaging in class on a particular day, don’t push them. And if past policies have allowed students to miss up to two classes without punitive actions, consider pushing it to three or four classes.
That dovetails into the third principle of empowerment — that is, give students a bit of control over certain aspects of the class.
“This is not to say that students should completely determine the course structure,” Clinnin says. “But maybe letting them decide when they’re going to turn in an assignment — say, within a 48-hour window. Or consider flexibility within how assignments are completed, which gives students multiple ways to demonstrate that they understand the course content.”
Lastly, there's the principle of connection — to students and among students. Instructors should make a concerted effort to connect with students on an empathetic level. Doing so shows that they care not only about a student’s academic performance but also their general well-being.
Also important: Foster student-to-student connections, preferably during the first week of classes.
“It could be as simple as having the students introduce themselves to the person next to them on the first day and exchange email addresses and phone numbers so they can check in with each other,” Clinnin says. “These are just small ways that we create that human connection.
“Really, all four of these strategies are just good pedagogy — but they are especially important after a traumatic event has happened.”
Professors: Know Your Role and Responsibility
While Clinnin strongly believes that professors like herself have a professional obligation to assist in trying times like this one, she’s also quick to stress a critical point: She is not a licensed behavioral therapist or social worker. And she says it’s important for her fellow professors to understand their role, too.
“When I’m presented with a student who has experienced trauma, as an educator, of course I want to help and do what is right by them,” Clinnin says. “But I also have to recognize my training limitations. I’m trained to help students learn, not to diagnose, treat, or solve students’ mental health problems.
“That’s a question a lot of faculty struggle with: Where does our responsibility begin and where does it end?”
If a student is in distress, anyone can use the Student Support Team’s Referral System to get them help.
But in general, Clinnin encourages professors not to pretend like Dec. 6 didn’t happen as a starting point. Rather, address what happened — whether it’s through an email to the class, an intro to the syllabus, or from the lectern — and do so early on.
The Faculty Center put together these Sentence Starters to help faculty foster a supportive atmosphere during the first days back this semester.
At the same time, Clinnin says, don’t dwell on the topic or force students to talk about their thoughts and feelings in an open forum.
“Again, there are going to be a range of experiences and emotions within [each] classroom context. But we are not therapists,” Clinnin says. “We could potentially set back some of the healing by forcing students to disclose emotions that they might not want to share or be ready to share.”
As students express their concerns and needs, faculty can encourage them to take advantage of the resources and events that are part of the Rebel Recovery Program or listed in the Student Support Guide.
But faculty should be mindful of not overwhelming students with a long list of resources that might not be relevant to them. The How Can We Help Form is a good place to start when students or faculty are unsure of the right resource for their situation.
“What’s important is thinking about what our goal is for this semester," Clinnin says. "And while we want to recognize that the shooting is the context for how we’re teaching and learning this semester, we are going to move forward." By reestablishing a sense of safety and security at the beginning of the semester, she says, "we can turn our focus to learning.”
Finally, and perhaps most important of all, Clinnin encourages faculty to be mindful and understanding of their own emotional state and seek support as needed; because what happened on Dec. 6 had a profound effect on professors, too.
“It’s going to be very important to extend the same sort of grace and empathy that we have for our students and our colleagues also to ourselves,” Clinnin says. “Realize that this is not going to be the semester that we’re going to completely overhaul our curriculum. Also, we might not be as productive in our faculty research. And that’s OK, because we have other priorities right now — including reestablishing our own sense of safety and security, and healing in the way that we need to.”
The Faculty Center will continue to compile resources in the Teaching After Trauma resource shell throughout the semester.