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​Creating a Safe Space in Your Class During a Crisis

Creating a Safe Space in Your Class During a Crisis 

April 8, 2020 by Marina Hofman, Ph.D., Palm Beach Atlantic University 

These are traumatizing times. Discouragement, uncertainty, and loss are sweeping across our nation—and our students are navigating uncharted territory in their lives. How can we connect with our students and bring them hope during this unprecedented crisis? Many of our students are distracted and scared. Many of our faculty are, too. How do we create space in our classes for both faculty and students to speak their stress and fear and find hope in moving forward together amid uncertainty? 

Faculty connection to students is essential for student learning and engagement even at the best of times. During this current pandemic, it is more important than ever. 

Safe to Be Vulnerable 

I made the decision early in my career to share my own story of fear, loss, and uncertainty with students. I do this in recognition that my students also have their own stories of discouragement and fear. Even without COVID-19 being in the picture, some of our students have already overcome or are now facing life challenges—loss of a loved one, family breakdown, financial struggles, health scares, addictions, and issues of self-identity. Most of us who are faculty have faced and overcome life challenges in our own past; because we have overcome, we have stories of hope and survival that can encourage our students. 

By way of example, my story of hope and survival dates back to 2014, when my husband and I were involved in a head-on vehicle collision with a force of impact of nearly 125 mph. We survived what became a fatal crash for the driver who hit us; my husband sustained significant physical injuries; and I was diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, suffered a brain injury, and had life-threatening physical injuries. Thanks to an incredible medical team at the hospital, my life was saved that day. 

While I am grateful to be alive, the road to recovery from my invisible injuries was long and difficult. Over the months that followed, I was crippled by fear and anxiety both day and night. I suffered with major brain issues: I could not piece together two syllables without stuttering; amnesia left me with almost no memories of my life before the accident; my temporary memory was very limited; and my executive functioning ability was significantly damaged—even just thinking actually “hurt” my brain. Having just completed my doctorate, this inflicted a serious blow to my identity! 

In time, with quality therapy and unrelenting effort, I eventually overcame each of these limitations. But when I returned to teaching, I still had a noticeable stutter, struggled with executive functioning, and was markedly on edge. I faced a choice: should I hide my weaknesses as best possible or just embrace my reality? I opted for the latter. 

The first time I shared my story in a classroom, I couldn’t make eye contact and shook with nervousness. I was embarrassed with my weaknesses and fearful of how the students would respond to me. Though I had rehearsed my story, in front of the class, everything became jumbled. I felt incoherent—I wanted to run out of the room. At one point, I simply stopped talking. But when I looked up, almost every student in the class was in tears! Applause erupted. The class ended, and as the students walked out, many shook my hand and thanked me for sharing. In the days that followed, I received many messages from students who related to my story in profound ways. They, too, were suffering with anxiety, doubt, fear, and depression. They were experiencing debilitating effects of similar conditions that prevented them from succeeding in academics, life, and relationships. Many felt ashamed. 

As you read this, you may be thinking that your own life story is not as dramatic and may not be of interest to anyone; or you may be reticent to talk about your life experiences with your students—that painful divorce, personal health issue, infertility or loss of a child, addiction. These things are all hard to talk about. And you shouldn’t share things that are inappropriate to disclose or that you feel uncomfortable disclosing. But are there parts of your story you could share for the benefit of your students? 

Many of your students are struggling with the same issues that you’ve gone through. They are frightened and experiencing high anxiety. You have the power to give them hope when you share how you survived similar adversity! Stories of how our trials have made us stronger and built our character are stories that have the potential to deeply impact our students. Tell them what you learned that has helped you throughout your life. What unexpected good came out of your struggle? In the end, did your situation turn out better than you had feared? They need to hear that. 

And there is one story now that we all share, faculty and students alike—the fear and loss of living through a pandemic. Even as we remain in the midst of the pandemic, how can we create space in our classes to share that experience and encourage each other? 

Creating the Safe Space 

As instructors, we set the tone and model the mood and climate of the classroom—whether a physical classroom or an online space. Our willingness to be vulnerable generates an atmosphere that leads to students being more receptive to learn from us and through their own self-reflection. It paves the way for character formation and gives students an impetus to reflect on matters of great importance. And it only takes a small gesture of vulnerability—we don't need to overshare in order to create a safe space where students can be vulnerable with us and with each other, sharing their own struggles and encouraging one another. 

Besides modeling the way as the instructor, the other key is simply to set aside class time for student responses. Initially, due to my insecurities, I planned the class time so that I ended my story a minute after class ended—but this means that students who related to my story left the class reflecting on their own pain experiences and perhaps emotional. Much better is to plan to spend limited time on sharing your personal story and leave time for class response. Also, prepare the students. At the end of the previous class, I ask students if they would like to set aside time in our next class for me to share a bit about my life story with them. In my experience, students always and immediately express enthusiasm to do so—they want to know about their professors’ lives. This prepares them emotional for a more personal element to class discussion. 

To encourage student engagement, before beginning to share, I let the students know that I’m happy to take any questions. As I tell my story, I am purposefully not too detailed—and I include phrases such as “let me know if you want me to talk a bit more about my struggle with anxiety or some ways I dealt with it.” When I am finished, I ask for questions. Once in a while, there are none. So, I ask, “Can anyone relate to my story at all?” Or, “Have any of you had a loved one go through a similar experience and make it through?” (If the class is still silent, I might say, “A question I often get asked is….”) 

Typically, we do like to talk about ourselves and tend to relate what we hear to our own experiences. Trust that your students want to share. Once a couple of the more outgoing students comment, discussion will follow. If a student begins to overshare, a gentle interruption might be required—“Thank you so much for sharing such a personal story with us—we only have a short time and I want to make sure everyone gets a chance to respond—let’s hear from a couple more students.” 

Doing This Online 

You can still foster an authentic sense of we’re all in this together in an online environment. All of us—faculty and students—have had to make a lot of transitions quickly. We can start online sessions by sharing our own difficulties in adjusting to challenges that our students also face—relocating off campus, restructuring our schedule, scrambling for supplies, and perhaps even the stress of a loved one testing positive for the virus. Addressing these topics will immediately connect us with our students (and provide opportunity for our students to connect with each other). We can ask how they are doing and allow for some discussion. 

If students express major issues, assure them that you and the class are supporting them—and note their concerns. If you begin the following class by asking if the students would like to give an update on their situation (make it clear that this is optional), you will demonstrate that you truly do care. 

Although these topics are heavy, we can also add a bit of humor in sharing our experiences. (Maybe you also had a family "crisis" discussion about what you will do if you run out of toilet paper?) A little humor goes a long way; consider this video posted to Facebook by Michael Bruening, associate professor of history and political science at Missouri University of Science and Technology. He set new, humorous lyrics to Gloria Gainor's "I Will Survive" that may ring true for many of us among the faculty and that may help a few students laugh, too. Humor in the fact of extraordinary circumstances, when paired with the acknowledgment that we're all struggling and having to adapt quickly, creates a bond. 

My online courses require several live video conferences, and I use the first one to share my story, after all the students have introduced themselves. I find students are more reticent to comment in an online setting, so I am more direct—when there is no response, I say, “Let’s have at least two or three responses so I know you are with me!” with a smile, and then I wait in silence. (Awkward? Yes. But there is always a student with something to say, so it works.) In large classes where discussion is not possible, I ask students to put their comments in the chat box. If you do not have conferences, perhaps you can at least post your story and opt “allow students to reply.” You can post a discussion thread or provide an optional reflective writing and response assignment. 

I think the practice of sharing our experience is also important for the instructor, not only the students. Sharing my story gives enhanced meaning to my work, adds purpose to the pain I’ve suffered, and inspires me when I see the potential I have to impact student lives with a message of recovery, hope, and inspiration. Disclosing our weaknesses and struggles also breeds humility, which is especially important for us as academics. 

In short, sharing our story with simple humility positions us and our institutions to be able to respond to our students in times of crisis. When students connect with a professor who understands their personal struggles and who has gone through the same difficulties they face, they are more likely to have confidence in our words of encouragement to them. In this time of crisis that we are living through, our words can bring hope to help students overcome anxiety—your words of hope may literally save the lives of your students. 

Too many of my students say they lack positive role models and confidence; too often, they feel that they are navigating the course of life all on their own. Be encouraged that you can make a profound impact on their lives. Will you consider being vulnerable before your students during this current world crisis and help hear their fears, bring comfort, and combat hopelessness? There is such opportunity just in communicating the message: “We’re all in this together, and that’s okay, because we’ll get through this together.” Simply share the ways you or your loved ones have been impacted by COVID-19, and create a forum where you can hear them, too. That shared experience will decrease their (and your) sense of isolation, build confidence, and help create an environment where your students can continue to grow and thrive in their studies. 

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I am a survivor of a life-threatening trauma, and I have witnessed how sharing my story of recovery and struggle has significantly impacted the lives of thousands of students. I am a ministry professor of biblical and theological studies at Palm Beach Atlantic University, FL.—Marina Hofman.