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Leaders and futurists contend that we are currently living in a BANI world: brittle, anxious, nonlinear, and incomprehensible.
With ongoing systemic oppression, worsening wealth inequality, pandemics, and climate change, it is no wonder that students—and faculty—feel overwhelmed and anxious about the future. Educators need resources on how to respond to students with sensitivity and care while maintaining a rich learning environment.
In my over 20 years of teaching women’s and gender studies, I have witnessed the emotional impact on students of studying traumatic and unjust situations—while navigating their own.
How do we respond?
Fortunately, I have been involved in contemplative and healing practices for as long as I have been teaching. In addition to bolstering my own capacity to deal with a complex world, such practices have allowed me to develop an integral feminist pedagogy, which includes strategies that weave holistic and mindful approaches into social justice education.
One such strategy is the CARE approach, which can be used when students are distressed by the latest news cycle or when classroom content is emotionally difficult.
Cultivate connection. Acknowledge emotions. Respect boundaries. Encourage meaning-making.
❤️ Appreciate the link between students’ emotional wellbeing and intellectual learning.
🫂 Develop ideas for fostering community, resilience, and engagement in their classrooms.
🧠 Strengthen their capacity for mindful and trauma-sensitive teaching.
What is the CARE approach?
The CARE approach is designed to help faculty better respond to students’ affective needs as they learn about oppression and injustice, or as they contend with challenging world events.
By cultivating connection, acknowledging difficult emotions, respecting boundaries, and encouraging meaning-making, educators can help bolster student resilience and their capacity to stay engaged in the learning process.
Teaching with CARE
Cultivate connection. Students who feel connected to you and their peers will be more resilient and engaged learners. Whether in-person or online, provide space for students to connect with each other as whole people in all their diversity and complexity. Begin with informal activities on the first day of class so that students can practice their relational skills.
Activities to Try
- In groups of three, have students engage in conversation to find two commonalities among them.
- In pairs, have students discuss the origins and meanings of their names.
- Have each student name one of their character strengths, such as compassion, open-mindedness, or persistence.
Acknowledge emotions. It is essential that we “acknowledge, normalize, and discuss” students’ affective responses to classroom content and world events. Make room for students to share their grief, anger, despair, and other emotions. Dyadic and small group discussions can be especially useful here. Model authentic sharing and bring your full presence to the classroom.
Respect boundaries. While holding space for the personal responses that organically arise to difficult material, do not probe for or pressure students to share trauma narratives. Doing so can risk re-activating trauma and interrupt the learning environment. Assure students that their privacy will be respected. Another important boundary involves containing how much personal processing occurs in the classroom. Have several appropriate referrals on hand, from campus counseling centers to community-based support groups for students who desire more support.
Encourage meaning-making. When people are able to make meaning from difficult experiences, they are better able to make positive changes in their own lives and the lives of others. Reflective journaling and/or arts-based activities can support meaning-making. Encourage students to explore practical actions they can take to effect change on the issues that matter most to them.
Considering your course content and student demographics. List three activities that you can use to demonstrate the CARE approach in your courses.
Assess with Essays
Assign low-stakes writing activities, such as reflective essays, throughout the term. Assess student writing for keywords or phrases that indicate if and how they are feeling connected, resilient, and engaged.
Watch for these words in your students’ essays:
- able to
- make choices
- new perspective
- learned about myself
- effect change
Here are essay prompts I used in a course on feminist leadership:
- What leadership challenges have you faced in your life?
- How have our class dialogues affected your views on gender and leadership?
- How have you grown as a leader through this course?
Take a Pulse
Keep an open line of communication between yourself and your students. Encourage students to reach out to you if they are overwhelmed and need referrals to outside sources of support.
Regularly take the emotional pulse of the classroom. Assess whether students’ body language and facial expressions suggest openness, engagement, or “tuning out.”
In larger classes, use a poll that asks students to rate their stress level on a scale of 1 to 10, and enlist teaching assistants in helping to gauge the emotional atmosphere.
Getting Student Feedback
❓Ask students what gives them purpose, resiliency, and/or hope. Elicit their ideas rather than imposing your own.
🧑🏫 Invite students to share skills and ideas with their peers. For instance, some students might be able to lead an arts-based or mindful movement activity, such as yoga. Others might choose to share music or poetry with the class
📝 Offer opportunities for anonymous feedback at least once during the term.
In addition to eliciting their feedback on course content, you can ask “what aspects of this class do you find most meaningful?” and “to what extent do you feel part of the classroom community?”
Caring for Yourself
As faculty, we need support, too—whether dealing with the stressors in the news or of never attaining the elusive “work-life balance.” Fortunately, we can apply a similar CARE approach to ourselves:
🔵 Cultivate connections with other faculty and staff with whom you can openly discuss your teaching joys and challenges. Reach out to instructional support services at your institution, if available, for tailored support for your classroom needs.
🔵 Acknowledge your own human emotions. In our quest to be ever-productive, it is easy to suppress our own grief, anger, or despair. Take time to tend to your own emotional needs, and consider working with therapists or other healers as well.
🔵 Respect your own boundaries. Creating supportive learning environments does not mean being on-call for students at all times. Set limits on office hours and email, and refer students to other campus services for further support.
🔵 Encourage meaning-making in all parts of your life. Stress and overwork can make us forget the deeply meaningful reasons we entered our fields. Pause and remember what drew you to your subject matter and to teaching. Cultivate meaning outside of work as well, through family, community, and personal interests.
Which of the above areas might need more attention in your own life? What are some doable steps you can take toward meeting these needs in the coming term?
Download the Ebook
Download a PDF version of this ebook below to share with your learning community.
- A deep-dive into the CARE approach.
- Strategies for teaching with CARE.
- CARE-aligned activities to try in class.
 Janice Carello and Lisa D. Butler. “Practicing What We Teach: TraumaInformed Educational Practice.” Journal of Teaching in Social Work. 35(3). (2015: 270)
 Janice Carello and Lisa D. Butler. “Potentially Perilous Pedagogies:
Teaching Trauma is Not the Same as Trauma-Informed Teaching.” Journal of
Trauma and Dissociation 15(2). (2014: 153-168)