Why I left my job, Part 1: Trauma
I have several long, unpublished posts on why I left my full-time university teaching gig. I doubt publishing them would do me much good, but reflecting on what happened might be helpful to me and those of you in similar situations.
Teaching is Traumatic
College teachers are not trained in any way to deal with student trauma. We are also not encouraged to treat our own trauma. Getting a PhD is usually quite traumatic, and there is very little discussion in the industry. Academia is like a big extended family that keeps passing generational abuse down and rationalizing it as “grit.” This became crystal clear to me during the pandemic but was an overwhelming reality long before.
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In 2017, I went from teaching small classes of adult learners part-time at a private university to teaching much larger classes of traditional undergraduates in a high-pressure, high-status college at an R1 university in Texas. (R1 means it’s a top-rated research institution with all its baggage around research>teaching, and steep hierarchies of pay and status). My students were primarily women on pre-med tracks who were disenchanted with the biology department and wanted to focus on structural issues, kids, or a more holistic approach to medicine in their careers. They were, by and large, freaking amazing. They were intelligent, motivated, hard-working, focused, and kind. They were also young, and many were dealing with the effects of childhood trauma, social inequity, racial and gender-based violence, and family and cultural pressures.
By the end of my first semester, I’d had students disclose childhood abuse, cry in my office, cheat alarmingly, and seek help with finding psychological care. This cohort was also experiencing retraumatization from previous events on campus. The year before I started at the university, there had been a stabbing on campus. There were no established safety protocols, and the university did nothing to keep students or employees from the scene. Students found out about it on Twitter, and teachers sent them out of their classrooms to an ongoing violent crime scene. I soon learned that the event stayed with that generation of students throughout college.
In the first year or so, my city had a serial bomber kill several people (one bomb was in my neighborhood, so fun!), and a professor at my university was arrested for multiple counts of domestic violence (but not fired). And some cars were set on fire on campus. The university dealt with these situations very poorly. Whenever something traumatic happened, I would make space in the classroom to talk about it and direct them to mental health resources, and the conversation would always turn into a “where were you when” about the stabbing incident. This cohort did not trust the university to keep them safe and expected it to lie to them, which it did repeatedly.
Without fully realizing it, I fell into a triage role. I learned as much as I could about disability services and the Americans with Disabilities Act, initially for students with mental illness but eventually to help all students with disabilities access their rights under the ADA. I had the on-campus mental health center do presentations (until they started ignoring my emails). I would take classes on field trips to the museum for reflective, non-verbal work. I made additional office hours for informal conversation so students would feel comfortable chatting without a class-related agenda.
I worked hard with my therapist to determine the line between providing a sympathetic ear and taking on too much of the burden of secondary trauma. I developed (with the help of many students) a massive spreadsheet of mental health resources for different demographics at reasonable price points. I walked students through the process of getting disability accommodations and honored them even if they hadn’t completed it.
I encouraged discussions of trauma and mental health when students had something collective to process but followed Trauma-Informed Pedagogy guidelines. This meant students could opt out of triggering discussions, ask for alternative assignments, and were never asked to disclose anything they didn’t want to. I built discussions and activities on mental health into all my classes but was most gratified when students would advocate for mental health care to other students (much more effective than when it’s just the middle-aged white lady at the podium doing it).
Nonetheless, there was a huge gap between my students’ basic well-being and the university’s resources and culture. About 60% of my students were people of color, and they were often gaslit or disbelieved by professors when they talked about discrimination. One Black student had her hair felt by a white professor. Another was accused of bilking the system by a student loan officer for taking out modest student loans. A student with documented severe migraines and another who had just been in a high-impact car accident were denied alternative test times in a blatant violation of the ADA.
Many professors viewed students as entitled and lazy at best and were often judgemental, adversarial, and sometimes cruel. Many routinely denied students documented accommodations in violation of the ADA. I rarely encountered any of these qualities in my students. If they were struggling in my class, it was because something was going on that I didn’t know about. The more I encouraged them to talk to me, my TAs, or each other if they needed help, the less they fibbed and avoided responsibility. I can count on one hand the number of disingenuous, difficult students I had out of the several thousand I taught over six years at the university.
When the pandemic hit, I fell into full-time triage mode. I built an online student community where we shared resources and memes. I changed my policies to be more flexible on attendance and deadlines so students who needed to be asynchronous could do so. I prerecorded lectures to make them more accessible. I didn’t decrease the rigor of my courses; I just made them more accommodating to students fighting major mental health issues, family deaths, increased financial responsibility, being unhoused, racial violence, and more. And I saw all those things happen to my students and many more. Hate crimes. Assaults. Suicide. I did my best to gather them up and create a community in my classes where they felt comfortable with each other, coming to me and my TAs with their issues, and where my teaching team felt competent in helping them find the needed resources. I did a ton of additional training on disability, systemic racism, inclusivity, and trauma-informed practices so I was better prepared to help with situations I had never personally encountered (being a privileged middle-aged white lady) and tried to learn from every mistake and misstep.
I dove headfirst into trying to fill the knowledge, care, support, and safety gaps that many of my students faced. I also had a kid learning at home for a year (5th grade), an anxiety disorder, and several losses of people I loved. We were mostly all underwater during that time, but I threw myself into care work and ignored my own needs.
We also experienced “Snowvid” in February of 2021, when Austin froze for a week, and most residents lost power, water, gas, or all three. My family lost water for almost a week, while my quarantine family lost power. It was insanely stressful, but most of my TAs and students lived in apartments that got hit much, much harder. Austin was treacherously frozen, so it was almost impossible to drive anywhere (we have no infrastructure for frozen roads). Nonetheless, students braved frozen roads and holed up in friends' apartments with water or heat, sometimes for weeks before their apartments were safe to return to. It was awful. The compounded trauma just kept coming.
The Beginning of the End
During Covid, I taught exclusively online for two years. I had to get an ADA waiver for the second year (2021-2022) because my asthma made me high-risk. My university had hired a new president whose answer to Covid was to force students and professors back into crowded classrooms with no mask or vaccine requirements, throw super spreader parties with free food and music to boost his PR, and ignore not only the epidemiologists working frantically on a vaccine at his own freaking university but also national and world safety guidelines.
It was at that point I decided that I didn’t want to work for an organization that truly didn’t care if I lived or died. I was beyond burnt out and edging towards severe depression.
In November, my kid got the Delta variant and gave it to me and my husband. My husband was hospitalized with blood clots in both lungs and almost died. I just kept teaching while running back and forth to the hospital, reassuring my kid, and generally over-functioning while also having side effects from the high-dose medications I had to take to treat my asthma while I had Covid. I was an emotional wreck for several months after.
During those years, I published a chapter in a book on Trauma Informed Pedagogy during Covid, won an award for pandemic teaching, served on multiple committees, did volunteer work, and generally stretched myself beyond endurance to serve a population of students who had inadequate resources for dealing with the traumas of untenable cost of living and housing, climate change, social unrest, rising systemic racism, rising hate speech and violence, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, and misogyny. During the second year, I was also job hunting, interviewing, networking, and trying to change careers. It was insane. I was insane. I feel insane writing about this now. I was driven by the motherhood/feminine/service/education trope of “never enough,” and I never slowed down enough to notice I was drowning.
I will leave the systemic issues I experienced with universities and faculty for another post, but suffice it to say I was not compensated for the amount of intellectual, physical, and emotional labor I was pouring into my job, and it was utterly unsustainable. That’s why, after six years of teaching some of the coolest students on the planet and some of my favorite classes ever, I quit my job before finding another one. Stay tuned for part 2.
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