How Working as a Counsellor Impacts my Teaching

Categories: Life at Columbia

Elise Hartin is a member of Columbia’s Counselling & Human Services faculty and also works with clients in her private counselling practice. She graduated from Columbia’s BA in Caregiving & Counselling in 2006, and earned her MA in Counselling Psychology from Trinity Western University in 2011. Elise teaches Introduction to Psychology, Introduction to Counselling, and Research Methods. We asked her to share how her work as a trauma counsellor shapes her approach to teaching and the classroom culture she cultivates.

Eight years ago I was halfway through completing my master’s degree and beginning an internship.  Working with women who had experienced abuse was an interest area for me, so I sought out an internship placement that would provide me the opportunity to do just that.

When I began my internship I didn’t realize how quickly my perception of people would change.  Within the first few months I noticed that as I saw strangers on the street, I wondered what their stories were and what their home environments were like.  I also noticed that I wanted to smile as we passed on the street because I had a new understanding that anyone I saw could be experiencing abuse or have a history with trauma.

*Because I know that people have different definitions of trauma, I’d like to include a simple definition of trauma here.  A helpful definition I learned from one of my instructors in grad school is that trauma is anything negative and unexpected that leaves a person feeling confused, overwhelmed, or powerless.*

After completing my year-long internship, I continued to work in the same counselling program for an additional six years.  Working with these women affected me in many ways, but the specific way that I’d like to focus on now is the impact on my teaching.

“Trauma-informed” has become a buzz term in the last few years and has had waves in the health sector, social services, and, more recently, education.  In the classroom, the main idea is to create an environment that promotes learning for students who might have specific challenges because of trauma in their histories (or in the present).

Though I know that I can’t avoid everyone’s triggers, I want my classroom to be a place where people feel comfortable, so there are a few things I consider to help with that.


Starting the first class of the semester, I’m co-creating the classroom atmosphere with the students in the class.  We brainstorm the question “What makes a good learning environment for you?”  I want my students to think of times in their life they have learned best and make connections about what helped this to happen.  This doesn’t mean suggestions like reclining chairs in the classroom; it might mean considerations like a student knowing she won’t be called out for daydreaming (being trauma-informed means knowing that daydreaming is a form of dissociation and dissociation can be a result of trauma).


This is somethingthat is becoming increasingly important to me.  If you’re in my class, I want you to have a clear idea of what is expected of you, both inside the classroom and when you’re submitting assignments.  One way that I’ve implemented this is by including learning objectives in my lessons, so that students know what information they’re responsible for learning.


Because one dynamic of trauma is powerlessness, I am mindful to not recreate this in the classroom.  If we are having a class discussion, I want my students to know that if they don’t want to respond to a question, they don’t have to.


When I’m laughing, I’m often more engaged in conversations I’m having.  I think this relates to the classroom as well.  In a couple of my courses, I begin each lesson with a comic that relates to counselling or psychology.  Here’s an example:


Something else I try to encourage in the classroom is curiosity.  In the field of psychology there is no lack of concepts to be curious about.  You may notice that it’s difficult to be both curious and stressed at the same time.  That’s because there are different brain systems involved in these functions.  Curiosity encourages and strengthens learning.


One last quality that I’d like to mention is structure.  This may sound a bit boring to some, but to those with trauma in their histories, structure and predictability are quite important (remember that “unexpected” is one of the aspects of traumatic experience).  Structure promotes predictability as students get used to the flow of a class.

Students in my Intro to Counselling course quickly learn that the first block of class involves a self-care check-in, discussion questions, and learning at least one new skill.  The second block involves practicing the news skills that have been learned in groups of 2-3.  If something different is happening in class, they will be told ahead of time.


When I began my internship in the spring of 2010, I had no idea that just three years later I would begin my teaching journey by co-teaching the Introduction to Psychology courses at Columbia.  There is still a lot that I have to learn about teaching, but I’m thankful that my work as a counsellor can help me to create a more comfortable learning environment for my students.

Columbia offers a four-year degree – the BA in Practical Theology with a major in Counselling, and a two-year Diploma in Human Services. Graduates from the BA program have the prerequisites to pursue graduate-level training in counselling and counselling psychology at a range of universities.