Teachers and Trauma 

By Melvin Hayden

In a conversation with another colleague of mine, she asked, "What are the characteristics of an effective trauma teacher?" I speak quite a few times a year on the subject of trauma, trauma training and trauma counseling. I could not help but think about some of my best teachers and how the heart of what they did spoke to the spirit within.

I have had amazing instruction by my account from some of the best instructors in my life. The ones that really influenced my life were the ones on fire every class period - the enthusiasm was contagious. However, the thing I remember most was feeling like we were in a psychological experiment. We did not volunteer to participate. Nevertheless, I remember every detail and the supporting theories because I experienced it.

My English teacher was an effective teacher because he provided experiences that created long-term memories. My history teacher taught history in such a traumatic way, I understood the content because he made it relate. In response to LinkedIn comments, I penned the following:

"My experience is that trauma teacher’s care about students. Trauma teachers know the content and know how to explain it. Trauma teachers expect and demand high levels of performance of students. Trauma teachers are great performers and storytellers that rivet their students' attention."

All of this is trauma and great teachers engineer learning experiences that maneuver the students into the driver's seat and then the teachers get out of the way. Students learn best by personally experiencing learning that is physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. John Dewey had it right in 1935 when he espoused his theories on experiential learning. Today we call this constructivism.

School Teacher
Young Teacher


Long past are the times when we teach content just in case a student might need it. A great teacher will devise a way to give the students an urgent reason to learn skills or knowledge and then let them show they have learned it by what they can do, called project-based learning.

A great teacher will keep the students wanting to come to school just to see what interesting things they will explore and discover each day. We call this inquiry.

The philosophy that supports such a great teacher is simple. Students learn best when they are in control of their learning. Students must do the heavy lifting of learning and nothing the teacher can say or do will change that. Real learning requires doing, not listening, or observing only. Yet what do we find in every public school and university? Teachers talking, talking and talking while students listen, daydream and doze. We call this lecture.

The word "teacher" implies the flow of knowledge and skills from one person to another. Whether it be a lecture or a power point, it involves talking at the students. While that is commonly viewed as the quickest and easiest way to impart knowledge and skills, we all realize that it is not the most effective. Socrates had it right when he only answered a question with more questions and look what he produced -- some of the greatest minds that ever lived. We call this the Socratic method.

Yes, there are times when direct instruction is necessary, but only to be able to do something with that knowledge or skill, but a great teacher devises learning experiences that force all the students to be engaged much like being in the deep end of the swimming pool. Then the lesson on arm and leg strokes becomes relevant. To learn, the students must do something. We call this performance-based learning.


Returning to my original premise: trauma teachers do not teach. They stack the deck so that students have a reason to learn and in the process cannot help but learn mainly by teaching themselves. This knowledge then becomes permanent and cherished rather than illusory and irrelevant.


Johnson, Ben. (2013) Great Teacher’s Don’t Teach. Edutopia

Hartmut, J. (1978). Supportive dimensions of teacher behavior in relationship to pupil emotional cognitive processes. Psychologie in Erziehung und Unterricht, 25, 69-74.

Osborne, E.;. Salzberger, I.; Wittenberg, G. W. 1999. The Emotional Experience of Learning and Teaching. Karnac Books, London.

Baker, J. A. Teacher-Student Interaction in Urban At-Risk Classrooms: Differential Behavior, Relationship Quality, and Student Satisfaction with School. The Elementary School Journal Volume 100, Number 1, 1999 by The University of Chicago.

Moos, R. H. (1979). Evaluating Educational Environments: Measures, procedures, findings, and policy implications. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.