Helping Teachers Manage the Weight of Trauma

Understanding and mitigating the effects of secondary traumatic stress for educators

September 26, 2018
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Roughly half of American school children have experienced at least some form of trauma — from neglect, to abuse, to violence.  In response, educators often find themselves having to take on the role of counselors, supporting the emotional healing of their students, not just their academic growth.

With this evolving role comes an increasing need to understand and address the ways in which student trauma affects our education professionals.

In a growing number of professions, including firefighters, law enforcement, trauma doctors and nurses, child welfare workers, and therapists and case managers, it is now understood that working with people in trauma — hearing their stories of hardship and supporting their recovery — has far-reaching emotional effect on the provider.

The condition has numerous names: secondary traumatic stress (STS), vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue. The symptoms are similar in some ways to post-traumatic stress disorder: withdrawing from friends and family; feeling unexplainably irritable or angry or numb; inability to focus; blaming others; feeling hopeless or isolated or guilty about not doing enough; struggling to concentrate; being unable to sleep; overeating or not eating enough; and continually and persistently worrying about students, at when they’re at home and even in their sleep.

But while STS is now well understood in many helping professions, there is a dearth of research, understanding, or acknowledgement of how it affects educators, according to Stephen P. Hydon, a clinical professor at the University of Southern California. One of the handful of studies of STS in schools found that more than 200 staff surveyed from across six schools reported very high levels of STS.

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Teachers, counselors, and administrators may recognize the cumulative stressors that they face, but they don't always realize that their symptoms are a common reaction to working with traumatized children — and that these symptoms have a name.

STS can affect teachers’ happiness, health, and professional practice. But Betsy McAlister Groves, a clinical social worker and former faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says that she has often been surprised by the number of teachers, school counselors, and administrators who recognized the cumulative stressors that they faced in their schools but did not realize that their symptoms were a common reaction to working with traumatized children — and that these symptoms had a name. 

For the success of their students and the health and success of their educators, it is essential for schools to acknowledge, appreciate, and address the reality and impact of STS head on.

How Schools Can Acknowledge Secondary Trauma

Building a Culture of Awareness

The very acknowledgement by school leaders that teachers might be experiencing STS is a step in the right direction. Too often, teachers feel that they are working alone. For teachers experiencing STS, this can be particularly dangerous, as it can easily exacerbate feelings of being overwhelmed, isolated, and hopeless.

School leadership should consider ways to appreciate staff both publicly and privately — not just by recognizing great work, but also by acknowledging that the work is difficult. Schools should connect school staff who might be experiencing STS with resources and make clear that symptoms are not a sign of weakness, but an indicator that they might need support because they work in an challenging profession.

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School leaders should consider ways to appreciate staff both publicly and privately — not just by recognizing great work, but also by acknowledging that the work is difficult. 

Create Peer Groups
We know that ensuring that teachers have dedicated time to work together — to build curriculum, share lesson ideas, and strategize about how best to support individual students — often results in improved academic success of students. Peer groups can be equally effective when trying to address the mental health of educators.

Peer support groups are an effective strategy to combat STS in other helping professions. Schools should replicate this practice, creating a regular space (maybe once a month, or even once a week) where teachers can come together to check in with each other about how they are doing emotionally. If possible, these meetings should be supported by a mental health professional, and teachers should get to share their experiences, learn strategies for understanding their stress responses, and gain skills to cope with STS.

Trauma-Informed Schools
School leaders should take a school-wide approach. There is a growing movement around creating trauma-informed schools — schools that recognize and are prepared to support community members affected by trauma and traumatic stress. Such schools deeply integrate social-emotional learning into their teaching, culture, and approach, understanding that the holistic health and wellbeing of their charges is essential for achieving academic success. To do this, trauma-informed schools focus on fostering a supportive caring culture, training their entire staff to recognize and support students suffering trauma.

While centered on supporting the emotional care and wellbeing of students, trauma-informed schools, by their nature, foster communities where educators have the understanding and tools to recognize and address STS in themselves and each other.

Resource for teachers and schools

  • Assess how your work as an educator might be affecting you (both positively and negatively) by using the Professional Quality of Life (ProQOL) self-assessment tool and exploring the toolkit created by Teaching Tolerance to learn self-care strategies.
  • Learn how, as an educator, you can begin to identify secondary traumatic stress and learn strategies for self care through the tip sheet created by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. 
  • Explore the resources created by the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative, a collaboration between the Massachusetts Advocates for Children and the Harvard Law School.
  • How strong are your school’s trauma-responsive programs and policies? Take the 20-minute evidence-informed Trauma Responsive Schools Implementation Assessment to find out — and learn ways to grow your school’s work.
  • Learn about additional individual and organization strategies for addressing secondary traumatic stress, compiled by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Stay tuned for a new online curriculum for preK–12 teachers, named STAT (Support for Teachers Affected by Trauma), being created by experts in the fields of secondary traumatic stress, education, and technology. The curriculum, due for a 2019 launch, will feature five modules on risk factors, the impact of STS, and self-assessment, among related topics.
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About the Author

Jessica Lander
Jessica Lander, a high school teacher and a 2015 graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes about education for Usable Knowledge, the Boston Globe, and other outlets. For two years, she wrote a regular series of blogs for Usable Knowledge about her experiences as a new teacher. With Karen Mapp and Ilene Carver, she is a co-author of Powerful Partnerships: A Teacher’s Guide to Engaging Families for Student Success.  Follow her on Twitter at @jessica_lander
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