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Edge: Teaching in a troubled time

Threading the needle of critical, trauma-informed teaching
Brian Gibbs feature image

The following article is from the Fall 2020 issue of Edge: Carolina Education Review.

Researcher: Brian Gibbs

Burning tear gas and swinging batons. “Black Lives Matter.” Marching for freedom. The life of John Lewis. The death of George Floyd.

The Edge
Teachers often avoid controversial and difficult topics. They fear alienating students which could threaten their jobs. Teachers also fear contributing to the trauma many students endure — racism, violence, over-policing. But today’s environment is bringing many of these topics into schools. Brian Gibbs has investigated how educators teach about tough topics, and suggests ways to guide students’ conversations.

Students come to school confronted and confronting: What does it all mean?

Teachers come to school confronted and confronting: What do I teach about what it all means?


We live in a traumatizing time. We’re faced with the images, the sounds, and the imperatives of turmoil as our society and our culture grapple with a widening recognition of a history and a present reality of racial and other inequities and how those inequities color our lives.

How do teachers teach about these things? How do teachers pursue a teaching practice that recognizes that racism, homophobia, classism, and misogyny are a persistent presence in our society, one that worms its way into the fabric of our schools and classrooms? How do teachers motivated by a social justice perspective thread the needle of teaching critically about our present realities without scarring their students with new harm?

How does a teacher teach “hard history” while living in a hard present?

Brian Gibbs, who teaches in the UNC School of Education’s Master of Arts in Teaching and educational leadership programs, has studied those questions. His research has been aimed at developing deeper understandings of how educators support and encourage students to wrestle with difficult subjects, how teachers may pursue critical pedagogy that acknowledges the harms embedded in our culture, and how to establish classroom environments of learning and healing where students feel safe to explore, struggle to understand, and learn how they might resist hard realities around them.

Gibbs taught social studies for 16 years in East Los Angeles before earning his Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction with a focus on social studies education and critical theory from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Gibbs regularly gives presentations based on his research to educators on how to engage students in learning around difficult subjects and doing so in ways that recognize and appreciate the trauma many students bring to school and with an intention to avoid adding to that trauma.

He has studied how teachers in the rural South teach about the history of slavery and lynchings. He has studied how teachers in military towns — teaching to children of soldiers — teach about war.


In his research, Gibbs has interviewed teachers about the teaching of difficult subjects. Many teachers avoid tackling troubling topics. Some are afraid of reactions and pushback from parents and school administrators and the possibility of losing their jobs. Some worry that they need to adhere to curriculum standards that don’t delve into what may be perceived as sensitive areas.

Some are afraid of hurting their students.

Many students — especially students of color and from lower-income settings — come to school having endured trauma in their lives — such as physical and emotional abuse, racism, homophobia, the opioid epidemic, gang violence, and personal or witnessed experience of police brutality. The realization that educators need to pursue their work with the understanding of the trauma some students bring to school has gained wider understanding and study in recent years.

However, there is a lack of research into specific strategies educators can use to teach difficult and “messy” subjects to students who have endured traumatic experiences (Thomas, Crosby, & Vanderhaar, 2019).

Trauma-informed instructional practice (TIIP) includes a set of practices aimed at creating schools and classrooms that are safe and empowering for students. Researchers have advocated trauma-informed practices that are intended to look beyond students’ behavior, build relationships, create safe environments, and meet students where they are.

But in too many cases, professional development around trauma-informed teaching practices offer definitions that are overly generalized and offer too little direction on how to implement trauma-informed pedagogy in classrooms (Gillen, 2014).

Gibbs has found that many teachers report feeling unprepared for teaching sensitive and difficult subjects (Gibbs, 2018, 2019a, 2019b, 2020).

In three studies, teachers reported various ways in which trauma-informed instruction practices were poorly implemented in their schools. In almost all cases, TIIP was presented in a one-day workshop as a set of checklists for planning and instruction, with some focus on the trauma and social-emotional damage students often endure. But the teachers reported that at the end of the workshops they remained unsure how to implement TIIP in a meaningful way.

Many teachers reported that because there was little effective professional development around TIIP, they felt it was being signaled that trauma-informed pedagogy was outside the norms of their schools.

In one of the studies, Gibbs analyzed data from interviews with teachers regarding the teaching about the history of lynching in schools that were near locations of historic lynching sites. Fear of causing trauma was particularly acute in racially mixed schools, with teachers afraid to exacerbate inherent racial tensions. As one teacher put it: “We teach about race and class and gender, but we have to have limits.”


But some teachers did tackle the subject of lynching, approaching it from a critical race theory perspective which acknowledges that racism exists and is common in the history of the United States, and by seeking to teach carefully toward a type of healing through empathy and understanding.

Teaching critically is difficult and possibly problematic. Gibbs found that due to fear of being punished, teachers who taught critically about lynching often did so surreptitiously, without seeking support and guidance from colleagues or community members.

Teaching critically, Gibbs says, can go wrong in many ways. A student could be triggered by discussions of race, gender, homophobia, poverty, or abuse, prompting an emotional response for which the teacher is not prepared. Such discussions could also be interpreted by students as an invitation to air views that harm other students.

Gibbs offers recommendations:
Offer more robust professional development around TIIP. Teachers in his studies were in favor of trauma-informed pedagogy, but they generally disagreed about what that meant. Teachers need more professional development that can help them implement TIIP.

Contextualize TIIP within lived experiences in the classroom, school, and community to address students’ reactions to hard history. Professional development can help teachers come to common understandings about trauma-informed instruction practices and make them relevant to their students’ experiences.

Be explicit and provide examples about how teaching critically works with TIIP. Some teachers are unfamiliar with teaching with a critical lens so they may need more time and explicit instruction on how to connect critical teaching with TIIP. Time can be spent on specific issues that might be considered controversial within specific schools. This provides teachers clear signals about what can be taught and how.

Take a long view. Trauma-informed instructional practices should be an embedded part of professional development for an entire year, if not longer. Teachers need to be able to take time to learn how to do this difficult work, practice implementing it, reflecting on the experiences, and receiving feedback from administration and colleagues.


Gibbs, B. C. (2018). Las Traviesas: Critical feminist educators in their struggle for critical teaching. In Curriculum and Pedagogy Collection 2018.

Gibbs, B. (2019a). Patriotism, pressure and place: Civic agency in base country. Peabody Journal of Education, 94:1, 97-113.

Gibbs, B. (2019b). “I guess I just never realized how tired I had become: In defense of insurgent pedagogy. In Critical Education, Vol. 10 No. 10.

Gibbs, B. (2020). Word capture, straight refusal, and other forms of resistance. Teacher Education Quarterly, Winter, 2020.

Gibbs, B & Hilburn, J. (forthcoming). “No one should see what they have to do”: Military children wrestle with media coverage of America at war. Journal of Social Studies Research.

Gillen, J. (2014). Educating for insurgency: The roles of young people in schools of poverty. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. (2020). The 1619 Project Curriculum. Downloaded from

Southern Poverty Law Center. (2018). Teaching hard history: American slavery. Downloaded from

Thomas, M. S., Crosby, S., & Vanderhaar, J. (2019). Trauma-informed practices in schools across two decades: An interdisciplinary review of research. Review of Research in Education, 43(1), 422–452.