Toni M. Poling

I remember vividly the first time I put my head on my desk and cried during my lunch period.  The bell to end fourth period and move to lunch had just rung and a student was lingering behind asking me questions that had nothing to do with that day’s lessons.  I was a first-year teacher and I very much needed the next 30 minutes to catch my breath and prepare for the marathon of my afternoon classes; I looked at the student and quipped something akin to, “Well, you better get out of here or you won’t have time to eat!”  I remember exactly what she said: “Oh, I don’t need to go to lunch.  We didn’t have any food in the house for me to pack lunch this week.”  I don’t remember exactly what occurred next, but I know that student left with my lunch and I sat down and cried.  I cried because I knew that she wasn’t the only student in my classes who didn’t have a lunch that day.  I cried because she said it so matter-of-factly, as if it was no big deal.  I cried because I knew that next time, I would likely hear something worse than simply not having anything for lunch.  I cried because my students were hurting, and I couldn’t fix it.  That wasn’t the last time I cried, but it was the first.

Most teachers are by nature caring and giving individuals.  We don’t enter this profession because we hate children or wish them ill-will.  Research shows that roughly half of the children in American public schools have experienced trauma: neglect, abuse, violence, etc.  This statistic has pushed American teachers into the role of counselor and forced a greater responsibility for the social-emotional well-being of our students. Schools have taken a major leap in the direction of supporting students by embracing the notion of trauma-informed learning, but the truth is that schools with traumatized students likely have traumatized teachers.

It is not uncommon for teachers to develop secondary traumatic stress (sometimes called vicarious trauma or caregiver fatigue).  When teachers hear the stories of their students’ trauma and try to support their recovery, they put themselves at risk for secondary traumatic stress.  Teachers who enter into direct contact with first-hand traumatic stories are especially at risk.  It is important that schools and teachers know the risk factors for secondary traumatic stress and provide support for those who suffer.

What Are the Warnings Signs of Secondary Traumatic Stress?

            Teachers who are suffering from secondary traumatic stress can exhibit any number of signs and symptoms, ranging from physical to emotional.

Emotional Feelings of numbness or detachment
Physical Low energy or chronic fatigue
Behavioral Engaging in self-destructive coping mechanisms
Professional Low morale; inability to perform professional tasks
Cognitive Confusion; lacking concentration; difficulty with decision-making; and/or experiencing trauma imagery (seeing traumatic images over and over in one’s imagination)
Spiritual Questioning one’s purpose or lacking self-satisfaction
Interpersonal Physical withdrawal from co-workers or loved ones; becoming emotionally unavailable

Knowing the signs and symptoms can help teachers self-identify secondary traumatic stress and look for sign and symptoms in co-workers.

What Can Schools Do to Support Teachers with Secondary Traumatic Stress?

Schools can work to build a culture of awareness around trauma for students and teachers.  A culture of awareness lends naturally to identifying need and providing support through:

  • Professional development around signs and symptoms of trauma and primary and secondary traumatic stress
  • Creating peer groups as support systems for teachers
  • Holding small group check-ins following a traumatic event
  • Introducing notions of self-care to teachers

Perhaps one of the most powerful ways a school can support teachers suffering from secondary traumatic stress is for the administration to acknowledge and recognize the existence of stressful situations and provide individualized support.

Why Should Teachers Practice Self-Care?

            During the safety check on an airplane, flight attendants always state the importance of placing your oxygen mask on before helping someone else.  This seems counter-intuitive to those of us who are natural caregivers.  How can I watch someone suffer while I am taking care of myself?  The reality of the situation, though, is that if I am suffering from a lack of oxygen, I am not going to be unable to help anyone else.  Taking care of myself first is the only way to help others.

The same concept exists when thinking of secondary traumatic stress.  I want my classroom to be a safe-haven for students in need; I want to be their rock when the rest of their world may appear to them to be crumbling.  Engaging in a hobby, exercising, or simply taking a little time away from a stressful situation is sometimes all it takes to provide clarity and return of strength. Teachers can’t be strong enough to take care of their students if they don’t first take care of themselves.

WVCTE is wondering how you care for yourself?




As first appeared in Education Post’s Better Conversations on June 14, 2019. Reprinted with permission from the author.

Categories: Blog

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