Is this Part of the Curriculum?

Alysia Ferguson Garcia remembers the day a couple of years ago on which she made a call to Child Protective Services. On that fateful day, one of her students came into drama class with what seemed to be a “bad attitude” refusing to participate in a script reading.

Garcia remembers saying in frustration, “I don’t care if you’ve had a bad day. You still have to do some work.”

Then out of nowhere in the middle of class, the student explained her behavior: Her mother’s boyfriend had been physically abusing her. After the other students recovered from the shock, the incident gave the class a chance to give the young girl and her teacher comfort and the opportunity to cry.

When Garcia began teaching, she had no idea that her students would share stories of physical abuse, hunger, violence, and suicide. Whenever she heard these stories she was haunted all the way home, she says. She recalls many nightmares and sleepless nights spent agitating about her beloved students. And their experiences also dredged up deeply-buried memories of her own experiences with abuse as well.

“When you’re learning to be a teacher, you think it’s just about lesson plans, curriculum, and seating charts,” said Garcia. “I was blindsided by the emotional aspect of teaching—I didn’t know how to handle it. I was hurt by my students’ pain, and it was hard for me to leave that behind when I went home.”

The Problem Finally Has a Name

It wasn’t so long ago that, when teachers complained of burnout, they were probably given a collective shrug from the school administration. Much of the time teacher exhaustion or stress has been attributed to the teacher’s weakness or inability to cope.

Because schools and districts have provided minimal support, the burden has been placed solely on the shoulders of the educators to deal with “their problem.”

But things have recently changed. While previously unnamed, this all too common experience that so many teachers complain about now has a name: Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS), defined by the National Child Trauma Stress Network (NCTSN) as “the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another.”

And it can create very real symptoms in caregivers, including teachers. STS has long been acknowledged as a condition that affects caring professions such as nurses, child welfare workers, first-responders, and counselors. Although it has taken a while STS is “beginning to be actualized as a real condition affecting teachers,” says Steve Hydon, clinical professor and director of the School Social Work Program at the University of Southern California.

“The condition is likely more prevalent than anyone may realize,” says Jessica Lander, a high school teacher in Lowell, Massachusetts. She put it this way, “Secondary traumatic stress is sort of the consequence of being a good teacher. If you care about students, you’re probably not going to avoid it.”

Like fatigue or burnout, STS quickly spills over into educators’ personal lives and likely hastens their exit from the profession. The condition has numerous names: secondary traumatic stress (STS), vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue. The symptoms in some ways mirror PTSD:

    • ● withdrawing from friends and family
    • ● feeling inexplicably irritable, angry or numb
    • ● inability to focus; blaming others
    • ● feeling hopeless, isolated, or guilty about not doing enough
    • ● struggling to concentrate
    • ● being unable to sleep
    • ● overeating or not eating enough
    • ● continually and persistently worrying about students, when they’re at home and even while asleep

Childhood Trauma: More Prevalent Than you Think

Data shows that more than half of all U.S. children have experienced some kind of trauma in the form of abuse, neglect, violence, or challenging household circumstances—and 35 percent of children have experienced more than one type of traumatic event, according to the CDC. And undoubtedly these numbers will continue to rise as a result of the current pandemic.

These adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can have impacts that extend far beyond childhood, including higher risks for alcoholism, liver disease, suicide, and other health problems later in life.

Whether trauma stems from a student’s home life or results from a community tragedy, teachers recognize that helping children cope with outside challenges is part and parcel of helping them learn. However, far less known—and even less supported—is the impact that student trauma has on educators.

Student Trauma Becomes the Teacher’s Headache

“Being a teacher is a stressful enough job, but teachers are now responsible for a lot more things than just providing education,” says LeAnn Keck, a manager at Trauma Smart, an organization that partners with schools and early childhood programs to help children and the adults in their lives navigate trauma.

“It seems like teachers have in some ways become caseworkers. They get to know about their students’ lives and the needs of their families, and with that can come secondary trauma.”

Vicarious trauma impacts teachers’ brains in a very similar way as it impacts their students: The amygdala in the brain emits a fear response that causes the release of excessive cortisol and adrenaline. This will result in an increased heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, and the release of a flood of emotions.

This biological response can become manifest in workplace behaviors as well such as missing meetings, lateness, or avoiding certain students, say experts.

And yet many teachers are never taught how to be of assistance to students who have experienced trauma, not to mention being clueless as to the toll it takes on their own health and personal lives.

How Schools Can Ameliorate Secondary Trauma

1. Fostering a Culture of Awareness

“It’s critical that these efforts are school or district-wide, says Jessica Lander, because an inordinate emphasis on self-care or ‘resilience’ without adequate support places too much of the burden on the individual educator.”

School leaders simply acknowledging that teachers might be suffering from STS is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, it is all too often that teachers feel they are forced to face these challenges alone. And for teachers experiencing STS, this can be especially dangerous, as it often exacerbates feelings of being overwhelmed, isolated, and hopeless.

Administrators should find ways to recognize and appreciate their staff both publicly and privately — not just by acknowledging great work, but also by acknowledging the difficulty of the work itself.

Schools should see it as their obligation to connect school staff who might be experiencing STS with helpful resources, and convey the message that symptoms are not a sign of the teacher being weak, but rather an indicator that the teacher may need support due to the difficulty and challenge of the profession.

“What was fascinating to me when I wrote the article last year,” Lander recalls, “was the number of teachers who responded by saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I have been feeling these things for years, and I didn’t know it had a name.’”

Not knowing what to call these feelings can create a sense of isolation for teachers, increasing the likelihood that they see this as their problem that they alone need to address.

“If the teacher doesn’t know what he or she is going through,” Lander says, “the school or district has an obligation to tell them, ‘We are going to name it and we are going to help you.’”

She adds that “no teacher will do their best work if they are suffering from STS. The bottom line is strategies to support educators are always going to help students.”

2. Creating Peer Groups

It is well known that when teachers are able to work together — to build curriculum, share lesson ideas, and strategize about how best to support individual students — the results are often improved student academic success. Using this model to create peer groups to address the mental health of teachers can be equally effective.

Other professions have seen that peer support groups are an effective strategy to combat STS. Schools need to replicate this practice by scheduling time (either monthly or even weekly) when teachers can spend time together to check in on each other and provide emotional support.

Ideally, these meetings should include a mental health professional who can teach strategies for understanding stress responses, and impart skills to cope with STS.

3. Talking About It

“Connecting with colleagues to talk through and process experiences can be invaluable for teachers coping with secondary trauma,” said Micere Keels, an Associate Professor at the University of Chicago and founder of the TREP Project, a trauma-informed curriculum for urban teachers.

“Reducing professional isolation is critical,” said Keels. “It allows educators to see that others are struggling with the same issues, prevents the feeling that one’s struggles are due to incompetence, and makes one aware of alternative strategies for working with students exhibiting challenging behavior.”

“Finding a wellness-accountability buddy—a peer who agrees to support and keep you accountable to your wellness goals—or using a professional learning community as a space to check in with other teachers are also ways to get that support,” offers Alex Shevrin, a former school leader and teacher at Centerpoint School, a trauma-informed high school in Vermont that institutes school-wide practices aimed at addressing students’ underlying emotional needs.

“If I had one wish for every school in the country, it would be that they made time for teachers to really sit down and talk about how they’re feeling in the work,” said Shevrin. “It doesn’t serve anybody to pretend that we’re teacher-bots with no emotions, which I think sometimes teachers feel like they have to be.”

4. Building Coping Strategies

Keck suggests: “Develop proactive coping strategies to address stressful situations in advance. A strategy may be counting to five, visualizing a calming place, or responding with an opposite action—like talking to a student quietly when you want to yell. Waiting until you’re actually in a stressful situation means you’re likely to overreact or to say or do something unhelpful.”

She also recommends that teachers map out their school day and take note of the times of day that they feel most stressed, and then integrate scheduled coping strategies into the daily routine. For example, if the teacher feels stressed when students start to lose focus midday, the teacher would be advised to guide the students (and herself) in a quick group stretch and some deep breathing to shift energy before returning to work.

“Look at your schedule. If you see a stressful pattern, don’t wait for it to happen. Don’t wait to feel overwhelmed and stressed,” urges Keck. “The important part is customizing the strategy to meet your needs.”

While many teachers claim that they have no time for self-care, the experts insist that it’s essential to develop long-term self-care practices—and make them part of the regiment—to enhance your overall well-being and build resilience.

These self-care activities could be going for a walk, reading, watching a movie, practicing mindfulness, or talking with a friend—whatever invigorates you. Remember that teacher self-care is anything but selfish; the students are the real beneficiaries.