You Cannot Teach Someone Who Feels Unsafe

You Cannot Teach Someone Who Feels Unsafe January 7, 2021

I have a lot of thoughts on what happened yesterday, but I’m responding first in my capacity as an educator, to remind us that even when people’s positions are at best misinformed, we don’t stand much of a chance of correcting them when they feel unsafe.

An apple balanced atop books; pencils and blocks with the alphabet letters.
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash. In public domain.

A fellow educator, Karen Costa, shared this trauma-aware checklist on Twitter, and the very first item on it is safety, introduced as such:

A sense of safety is a baseline for learning. If we are poised for an incoming threat (whether real or perceived), our systems are built to scan for and prepare for said threat

While the checklist (permalink here) goes on to provide concrete tips for educators to implement a feeling of safety in the classroom, and describes other factors of being trauma-aware in the classroom, I couldn’t help but notice the explicit connection to the political events of January 6, 2021. Feeling unsafe is enough to physiologically derail the body and brain, such that learning is much less likely to occur. This is one reason why providing food at schools is so important; hungry students aren’t simply distracted, their bodies know that they are under threat and hence are unable to learn.

I try to implement trauma-aware teaching strategies in my own classroom, but I’m also aware that it’s a systemic issue. This is part of why I’m so happy that Dolores-Umbridge-wanna-be DeVos is on the way out; her weakening of Title IX rules for how universities should handle sexual assault cases (discussed here at Inside Higher Ed) puts survivors in retraumatizing positions, when it deems them necessary to pay attention to in the first place. I cannot imagine trying to make it through a college class knowing that your rapist or attacker is right there in it, but that’s precisely what happens for a lot of college students whose cases are mishandled. That’s the kind of thing we’re talking about when we acknowledge that a sense of safety is a baseline for learning.

In addition to the ways in which campus regulations on how to handle sexual assault cases perpetuate rape culture (normalizing sexual assault; minimizing its consequences; silencing survivors), I can think of other ways that students are literally unsafe on campus, in ways that would impact their ability to learn. Obviously coming to the physical classroom during a global pandemic would be one of those ways, along with how the frequency of school shootings in the U.S. is bad for a lot of reasons, but one of those reasons is that students who don’t feel safe won’t learn as much or as well. And the pervasiveness of white supremacist policies and beliefs among the police force, given that we have campus police too, would also impact feelings of safety for students of color (I’ve heard from Black students on my campus, for instance, that the police are more likely to stop them and give them a harder time than their white peers).

My point is that there are both individual and systemic elements at play here…but to address the individual elements of feeling unsafe that compromise learning, we cannot neglect the systemic elements. And the same is true in the nation.

I’m caught between not wanting to pander to the feelings of white supremacists, the kinds of people who rose up in insurrection at the capitol yesterday, because that would validate their outlandish beliefs and actions…and also acknowledging that until some attempt is made to figure out where their feelings of unsafety are coming from we can’t find some way to move forward. However, based on what I’ve read from fellow scholars, their feelings are rooted in an aggrieved entitlement (to borrow a phrase from gender studies scholar Michael Kimmel; yes, I’ve heard he’s problematic), the belief that they are SO entitled to their former White Man on Top of the World greatness that they are angered enough to do anything it takes to get it back. Which is obviously gross as well as historically inaccurate, because things obviously weren’t all that great “back then” (whenever the imagined gloried past was) unless you were super rich.

So, I don’t know what to do with this; one of my colleagues in social psychology might. Or someone who works on deprogramming people from cults (because I don’t know what else you call it when people have so utterly lost touch with reality).

But the fact remains, and we educators know this: if someone feels unsafe, regardless of how much those feelings are rooted in reality, they won’t be open to learning. It might be a physiological trauma or chronic stress or threat response (the body goes into fight/flight mode, so it’s impossible to focus on anything beyond immediate survival), or it might be a response to beliefs of being under siege that have become so pervasive that they become that person’s reality.

It is, obviously, a bullshit reason to feel unsafe because you fear you are losing the top spot on the hierarchy as more and more people attack white supremacy and try to dismantle it from a variety of social justice perspectives. The same people invested in white supremacy are also often invested in patriarchy and misogyny, homophobia and transphobia; many oppressive beliefs are interlocking and uphold one another, and we know that if we paid more attention to domestic abusers we’d see their domestic terrorist sides too.

Clearly I’m not cut out for the intervention side of this activist work, because these people are so transparently and willfully mired in harmful ideologies that don’t stand up to serious scrutiny and I don’t have the patience for it. But from my vantage point as scholar and educator, I can hopefully add to the conversation: people won’t learn if they feel unsafe (even if their reasons for feeling that way are largely indefensible in my view) and we must address both the systemic and individual aspects of the issue. Having a bunch of one-on-one conversations with these folks would only get us to the individual point and wouldn’t solve the systemic facets of why these white men feel so much rage and so much entitlement. Here I’m referring to the effects of late capitalism and neoliberalism: corporations and rich folks moving jobs overseas while blaming the scarcity of jobs on immigrants, for example, and the obsequious adoration for the rich that obscures the folks being fleeced from taking a critical perspective on the whole thing.

Well. Back to alternating between doom-scrolling and trying to work on my new syllabus for the spring.

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