Creating Inclusive Classrooms Through “Trauma-Informed Teaching”

For the past year, UC Law SF’s Center for Advocacy, Resources and Education (CARE) and the Disability Resource Program (DRP) have led workshops on how to cover sensitive topics in the classroom. “Each semester, students would come to us because they were triggered in their classes,” says DRP Director Lisa Noshay Petro. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, it was particularly critical for professors to consider the ways their students’ traumatic experiences – as members of marginalized groups, survivors of violence, etc. – might affect their ability to learn.

“How do you help people learn difficult topics when those topics are personally triggering to them?” asks Annie Rosenthal, the associate director of CARE. Law school courses necessarily include cases focused on discrimination, sexual assault, personal injury, abortion, or other potentially retraumatizing topics. Noshay Petro and Rosenthal saw an opportunity to help professors improve the nature of conversations around challenging subject matter.

Shazia, a 3L who is involved in Title IX advocacy on campus, and who is using a pseudonym for privacy reasons, credits Noshay Petro and Rosenthal with the shift she’s observed in classroom climates over the past several years. She also credits fellow students, particularly students of color, for guiding their professors toward trauma-informed classroom approaches. She remembers a conversation about trans rights, for example, in which a student suggested more thoughtful framing and the professor made an immediate course correction.

“As a queer woman of color and an individual who’s lived through a lot of trauma, I’m acutely aware of not only how people perceive me, but of how I perceive situations,” Shazia says. When she first started studying at UC Law SF, Shazia noticed that some of her professors would “talk about sexual violence and racial injustice like they were just issues to be pulled apart in an intellectual debate,” she says. “There hasn’t always been that recognition that we literally have students in the classroom who have survived poverty, who are carrying generations of historical trauma, who have experiences that directly impact the way that they engage with these conversations.”

For instance, one professor occasionally leads her students in a stadium wave after a tough case discussion. While that’s a playful way to break up a long class, it also gets the body moving, which can help disrupt some of the sensory flooding trauma survivors may experience and help them feel grounded in their bodies.

Shazia notes that three of her professors – Radhika Rao, Jonathan Abel, and Lois Schwartz – have each addressed potentially retraumatizing information in thoughtful ways. For instance, Rao told students that if they were survivors of violence, they didn’t need to read a particular case for class, as she didn’t want them to be harmed. And Abel “created a lot of space in Criminal Procedure to discuss the traumatic impact of police brutality and the disparate treatment of people of color and white people when it comes to police violence.”

Schwartz acknowledges that while the case law in her Wills & Trusts and Community Property courses consistently refers to heterosexual marriage, there are many other valid relationship structures. “She always reminds and comforts us that those terms do not reflect her value system,” Shazia says.

Schwartz says that sensitivity has been part of her pedagogy for nearly 25 years. While teaching a class at Berkeley Law, she divided the class into groups: Green Rangers, Blue Rangers, White Rangers, and so on. The students pointed out that “White Rangers” could be construed to mean a group of armed white men, with negative associations for some people. She was happy to rename the groups—and impressed by how much that simple adjustment meant to the students in her class. “They said they had never had a professor who’d listened before when they expressed reservations,” she says. “That’s the part that really stuck with me.”

Before her classes, Schwartz circulates an agenda so students know what they’ll be covering. She provides content warnings, both in writing and at the top of class. She works with students whose experiences are connected closely to the subject matter to discover learning techniques that work for them. And she doesn’t use the Socratic method when covering potentially retraumatizing cases. Instead, students are assigned cases at the beginning of the semester and can swap with each other if they prefer different material.

Each one of these pedagogical tools is subtle but, taken in sum, they help Schwartz cultivate a classroom environment that feels comfortable to everyone. “Some people consider the case assignment technique to be a soft sell compared to the cold call method that puts people on the spot,” she says, “but students deserve our respect.”

“One of the principles of trauma-informed care is choice,” says Noshay Petro. “When you’ve been traumatized, you’ve lost your agency. You didn’t have a choice.” If professors guide students through a moment of mindful meditation, for instance, they might offer choices like closing their eyes or lowering their gaze and softening their focus. She cites the example of a combat vet student for whom being in a room full of people with their eyes closed felt terrifying. Lowering their gaze enabled them to get centered before a challenging conversation in a way that worked for them.

Over the past year, Noshay Petro and Rosenthal have trained UC Law SF staff, students as well as higher ed colleagues across the country, giving presentations to the National Association of Law Student Affairs Professionals and the Association of Higher Education and Disability. In January 2022, they will serve as panelists at the Association of American Law Schools’ annual conference and share their experiences cultivating welcoming and inclusive classroom environments. That’s a testament to their success in establishing UC Law SF as a leader in this critical arena, says Dean of Students Grace Hum.

“The work that Lisa and Annie do to train faculty to teach and staff to provide services from a trauma-informed lens makes Hastings a better place for all because it helps us to be a more thoughtful and empathetic community. And I am so glad that they are training others to create these communities at their home institutions,” Hum says. “But what is most remarkable about their good work is that our students are getting the support they need and deserve because of their expertise and deep commitment to caring for students.”