How We Interact with Students Matters

It’s hard for me to distinguish among the many traumatic events that I experienced in grad school, which was the most traumatic. But thus far, it was probably the interaction I had with the professor in my seminar class. In the middle of one particular class, I had an emotional meltdown so overwhelming that I left the room and didn’t return until class was over. I didn’t feel safe returning, and I felt deeply ashamed of being so emotional in front of my classmates. On my way out of the building, I saw my professor and knew he wasn’t going to allow me to simply go on my way, which I desperately wanted to do. He walked up to me and started demanding answers about what happened to me, answers he wasn’t prepared to receive. My response was this, “I can’t talk about this right now. I just calmed down.” He totally ignored my request and continued questioning me, pushing his agenda which had nothing to do with my well-being. When he was done talking, he instructed me to thank my classmate for collecting my belongings and turned on his heel and walked away.

I never expected to be retraumatized in grad school in this way. This was naïve, of course. I did expect to interact with more enlightened educators. However, several of the men teaching in my program pushed me when I should have not been pushed. They pushed me when I explicitly told them not to. When you hold the seat of power, it doesn’t serve you to respect the dignity and humanity of those with lesser power under your influence. These men could have made better choices. Choices that didn’t diminish me. Choices that wouldn’t have left an internal mark that will stay with me indefinitely.

As educators, we are responsible for not causing harm to our students. If we are, then we’re doing it wrong. As much as wish it weren’t true, I’m sure I have hurt students. As a more experienced teacher, a researcher in trauma and someone who lives with the effects of trauma, I know more now than I did. In the future, I hope never to retraumatize someone the way trauma is so freely handed out without thought for how the consequences are received.

I don’t remember what the initiating event was with that seminar professor. But I remember how he treated me afterward and how I felt when he left me standing there alone in the middle of the courtyard. At the very least, when someone sets a boundary, hold on to your agenda and do your best to respect their request. Choose to be kind.

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