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Bearing Witness: A Reflection on Mays Imad’s Approach to Trauma-Informed Pedagogy

This post was authored by Ben Wielechowski and is part of a series of posts from participants in the Hub’s Small Changes: Course Improvement Studio experience.


I’ve always been rather conflict averse. I think this has been an asset at times, but it can also be problematic, particularly when an issue needs to be addressed. In the classroom, this conflict aversion manifests in a variety of ways, but the biggest one is resistance to my place of authority as instructor. When I spent a semester substitute teaching in elementary schools around northern Michigan, this didn’t serve me well. The little ones knew they could push boundaries. Teaching in higher education, however, this resistance led to a rethinking and restructuring of my pedagogical approach and to my relationship with students. 

This interrogation of my pedagogy coincided with my participation in professional development workshops and programs focused on inclusive and equity-minded teaching. This occurred through the University of Michigan Ann Arbor Campus, and through the Hub at the University of Michigan Dearborn Campus. Prior to this professional development, I negotiated my resistance to a place of authority with a hands-off approach—what I thought I was supposed to do in the class (in terms of authority) took the form of rigid policies and little flexibility. Through my participation in the programs and workshops, however, I discovered approach that validated my emotional resistance to the teacher-centered classroom, and I was equipped with new principles that prioritized a student-centered classroom and founded on the principles of inclusive and equitable teaching. Principles like flexibility, transparency, belonging, and engagement of difference began to form the bedrock of my pedagogy, and all of this aligned more with my values and personality. One of the most important lessons I learned was that my rigid policies and the façade of authority was only creating distance between me and my students and thus distance between the students and the learning material. 

This summer I participated in another program put on by the Hub at the University of Michigan – Dearborn. It was called “Small Changes: A Course Improvement Studio,” and I was assigned to the Social Presence Track, where I could work on improving the social presence in my courses through small, concrete changes. When I discovered Mays Imad’s article, “Pedagogy of Healing: Bearing Witness to Trauma and Resilience,” during the program, things came full circle for me. The underlying philosophy behind trauma-informed teaching, according to Imad, is to bear witness, because “when we bear witness, we acknowledge and advocate for truth—our students’ struggles, pains, and griefs—and in doing so, we validate and empower them to heal.” Imad provides a list of 13 suggestions for “bearing witness,” beginning with course planning, and including what to do at the start of the semester and then throughout the semester, and all her suggestions are about shrinking that distance between the teacher and students. Because of the inclusive teaching programs I took part in, I had already been implementing a number of her suggestions but without understanding the connection to “trauma-informed pedagogy.” But the connection is obvious, I discovered—our students are unique and diverse, and they bring to the classroom a wide breadth of experiences and knowledge and personal and social identities. Trauma is implicit in all of that. 

What does that look like in the classroom for me? It begins with explicit communication about learning in community. (Suggestion #1. Focus on Student Assets, and #2. Emphasize the Intellectual and Emotional Aspects of Learning). Every syllabus I write includes a section on “Class Culture and Community” and states something like: 

Everyone is a valued member of the community, and the class demands that we be honest and open with one another, that we be respectful and inclusive, and that we contribute and participate within that class community. I want to dwell on this idea of class community for a moment: consider all your strengths and experiences and knowledge. Consider all your weaknesses and gaps in experience and knowledge. When we come together and share and teach and learn, our strengths and knowledge grow exponentially, and our weaknesses and gaps begin to shrink. This is the point of learning in community.

Example Syllabus Language

How else do I incorporate “trauma-informed” pedagogy? One recent adoption is called “Mindfulness Reflections,” an assignment that must be completed five times throughout the semester, where students earn points for prioritizing their mental health by doing something for themselves not associated with obligations (to school, to work, etc.). (Suggestion #3. Explicitly Prioritize Student Well-Being). This idea was shared by a colleague in the School of Social Work during one of the inclusive teaching programs, and while I’m not exactly sure how she incorporates the idea in her classes, a short reflection assignment complements my narrative writing class perfectly. That being said, I believe this activity can work for any discipline. And I get positive feedback every single semester about how important these assignments are to students. 

One other way I have been implementing Imad’s “trauma-informed” approach is through a generous revision policy on major projects (Suggestion #9: Focus on Learning as a Process). Students can submit and resubmit major projects for new grades throughout the semester, as long as they submit a one-page reflection with each revision. Along with the Mindfulness Reflections, this revision policy consistently receives positive feedback from students. 

As with any pedagogy or teaching endeavor, the work is never done, and one new suggestion from Imad has piqued my interest as I prepare for the next semester. Imad suggests that teachers remind students of the big picture throughout the semester (Suggestion #10: Center Meaningful Learning) because “Our brains seek and make meaning and assign value to those meanings and invest energy accordingly.” She describes an activity where students are asked at the beginning of a course to consider why they are taking the course and how it will help them, their family, and their community. Then, students are asked to return to their responses throughout the semester, and to share those responses with others in the class. I plan to implement this suggestion next semester, and if my prior experience with Imad’s approach is anything to go by, I expect to receive similarly positive feedback to this new activity. But don’t just take my word for it. I encourage any instructors who are interested in “trauma-informed” pedagogy to try out any one of Imad’s suggestions and see for yourself. 


“Ben Wielechowski is a Lecturer II for the Journalism and Media Production program at the University of Michigan – Dearborn. He has been teaching for the university since 2018 and specializes in narrative writing and storytelling across media. His professional development interests center on equity-minded pedagogy.”

Featured Image by DAMIAN NIOLET from Pixabay

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