By Michael Christian Escudie
Veterans who are just entering or returning to the classroom bring with them a wealth of experiences they may or may not feel free to share with their fellow classmates. These experiences affect classroom dynamics, especially as the presence of veterans in classrooms has grown since the expansion of GI Bill benefits. With the right ability for expression and support, faculty can help overcome the common stereotypes their classmates may have about them.
Veterans in the Classroom
There is recent literature stating that Post-9/11 veterans in the workplace or the classroom can be viewed as high-strung, rigid, anxious, depressed and even defensive when it comes to receiving constructive feedback. For students and instructors, a better appreciation of what world veterans came from can only improve their understanding of how best to interact, respond and do their part to ensure the success of student veterans. This type of appreciation will allow for a more nurturing, candid and constructive learning environment from which all involved can grow academically, professionally and personally.
One vein of understanding that should be better explored when striving to better understand issues affecting veterans’ well-being in the classroom is their susceptibility to triggering events based on their military experiences. You may recall during the July 4th holiday, posts on social media warned that veterans in the neighborhood could be sensitive to loud noises such as fireworks. This may not always be the case, and it may be the exception to the rule, but I do know that fireworks are getting louder every year and they can shake a house’s foundation if detonated nearby. This an example of what may be a triggering event for our Post-9/11 veterans; some of whom served multiple deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan or the Horn of Africa.
Beyond events such as July 4th celebrations, which are predictable, there can also be unpredictable triggers that may affect veterans’ mental well-being. We have seen this recently when the first anniversary of the pullout of the U.S. forces from Afghanistan was heavily noted by the media. Also, the 20th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was recently highlighted (and you may or may not agree, was second-guessed, even criticized). To be clear, these retrospectives have been reliably critical, but they have not been critical of the service, dedication and courage of those who served there.
Nevertheless, these retrospectives, while not being judgmental toward veterans, may still have every chance of ripping the scabs of any long-healed mental wounds or exposing suppressed memories they may have. The Veterans Administration has studied this issue and lists four reactions veterans may have in response to anniversaries of events they were involved in; reliving or re-experiencing traumatic events, avoiding events, places or people that are connected to that event, previous feelings of sadness, guilt or shame may resurface, and they may show feelings described as nervousness or being on edge.
What Can Instructors Do?
Instructors can react to these potential behaviors from veterans by taking steps to heighten their own understanding and awareness of triggering events. First, there is previous scholarly literature they may look into which suggests that student veterans are strongly affected by faculty members and peers in their classroom environments. Based on their pedagogical role as a coach and a cheerleader in the classroom, this would affirm that instructors are stakeholders who may play a crucial role in this issue. The same literature noted that antecedents affecting student veteran outcomes are the in-place administrative structures, out-of-classroom programs and classroom-based sources of social support.
Second, instructors should be cognizant of how their college or university’s student body or faculty have previously demonstrated what is termed an “institutional departure” when characterizing the meaning and efficacy of military actions such as Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Given this revelation, perhaps a classroom discussion may, tangentially or not, examine the current U.S. policy toward Russia’s aggressions against Ukraine. If in these types of discussions, civilian students make dismissive, simplified or critical comments about the military, instructors will have to serve as a referee of sorts. Instructors should not only consider how radioactive these discussions could become but also strive to ensure students (veterans and civilians) contextualize their inputs.
The third consideration for instructors may just be the most obvious. As recent literature suggests, veterans who do not find a welcoming learning environment will be more prone to leave their degree-earning program. To counter the chance of this occurring, instructors can do their best within their classrooms, but also appreciate that there are support services for veterans outside the classroom on campus. Many universities have an office of veteran affairs and there even may be an active chapter of a student veterans’ organization. There also may be in-place mentoring opportunities where veterans can meet with other student veterans to discuss their shared challenges and also discuss solutions.
Finally, what remains is that student veterans have placed a premium on their relationships with their instructors. Perhaps veterans expect from them what they expect from (and sought to provide to) those they served with while in uniform: honesty, integrity, candor, encouragement and responsive and constructive criticism.
Overwhelmingly, I found that my instructors in graduate school have reliably ensured a welcoming, encouraging, constructive and respectful learning environment. They knew when to shift from being a coach to being a cheerleader and back and forth. Yet, all instructors, no matter how amazing they are, should consider adding to their pedagogical toolbox by seeking to better understand the distinct challenges and potential frustrations our most recent generation of veterans may be facing.
Source: HigherEd Military