A High School Teacher's Views on Trauma and Trigger Warnings

The American Historian invited Rob Good, a social studies teacher at Ladue Horton Watkins High School, in St. Louis, Missouri, to answer some questions about teaching violent and troubling events in the history classroom and the use of trigger warnings.

Good teaches U.S. history and U.S. government at Ladue Horton Watkins High, and he is also an adjunct instructor at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, where he teaches pre-service social studies teachers in the class "Teaching U.S. History in the Secondary Classroom." His doctoral dissertation was on secondary social studies teachers who teach towards social justice.

1. Do you believe it is possible for a student to be traumatized by a lecture, a discussion, or audiovisual material in a classroom? 

While I think it would be extraordinarily rare for a lecture, discussion or audiovisual presentation to actually cause trauma, I do think that any discussion could prompt memories of traumatic experiences. Given the reality of contemporary life, almost anything discussed in a classroom could remind a student of a previous traumatic event. For instance, a discussion about gendered expectations for parenting in the 1950s might remind a student of the loss of a parent or difficulty in their own family life. So, anything we teach can "trigger" a memory.

2. Do you believe it is part of your job as a historian and teacher to make students appreciate, understand, or experience traumatic historic events? If so, how do you do that in the classroom?

I think that we have a responsibility to confront traumatic events in the classroom with empathy. In their book, Teaching History for the Common Good (2004), Linda S. Levstik and Keith C. Barton discuss two different concepts of empathy. The first is perspective-taking, to try to understand the perspectives of those involved. A second form of empathy is moral response. Both are important, and it can be tricky to explore both in the classroom. For instance, in Holocaust studies students need to explore why average individuals might have become bystanders or support an oppressive regime if they are to apply such knowledge to an understanding of contemporary genocide. At the same time they need to fully recognize the traumatic impact of such atrocities if they are to be motivated to act in the world in ways that promote humanity, care, and respect.

3. Do historians and teachers have a responsibility to protect students from potentially traumatic events?

Given the complexity of human experience I think it is virtually impossible to protect students from all potentially triggering events. Furthermore, the idea that we need to protect students implies a paternalistic view of the teacher that needlessly treats students as helpless children. That being said, it is the responsibility of the teacher to create a caring classroom community where individuals demonstrate responsibility to each other and compassion when difficult topics are discussed.

4. Is there a danger in not addressing traumatic events in the classroom?

Yes, if we take trauma out of history students will not be equipped to respond to traumatic events in history.

5. Do you use trigger warnings in your classroom? If yes, why and how do you do it? If no, why not?

Yes I do, particularly if I am showing a video that can be disturbing. I will let students know that there might be disturbing images or topics. I do this so that students can moderate their own behavior. If something is too intense, they can put their head down or close their eyes. I also have had students that had physical reaction to films (one student passed out after viewing the forced-feeding scene in Iron Jawed Angels, 2014), so it also is an issue of student safety.