Teachers Can’t Take Care of Their Students If They Don’t Take Care of Themselves First

I remember vividly the first time I put my head on my desk and cried during my lunch period. The bell to end the 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 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 to pack 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.

Research shows that roughly half of the children in American public schools have experienced trauma. As a result, teachers have been pushed into the role of counselor and responsible 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.

Teachers Are at Risk for Secondary Traumatic Stress

It is not uncommon for teachers to develop secondary traumatic stress, sometimes called vicarious trauma or compassion 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.

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.

  • Behavioral: Engaging in self-destructive coping mechanisms.
  • Cognitive: Confusion; lack of concentration; difficulty with decisionmaking; and/or experiencing trauma imagery.
  • Emotional: Feelings of numbness or detachment.
  • Interpersonal: Physical withdrawal from co-workers or loved ones; becoming emotionally unavailable.
  • Physical: Low energy or chronic fatigue.
  • Professional: Low morale; inability to perform professional tasks.
  • Spiritual: Questioning one's purpose; lack of self-satisfaction.

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

Schools Can Build a Culture of Awareness Around Trauma for Students and Teachers

A culture of awareness lends naturally to identifying the 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.

Teachers Must Prioritize 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 able 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 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.

A 1999 graduate of Doddridge County High School, Toni Poling attended the West Virginia University(WVU) five-year teacher education program, earning a bachelor of arts degree in English and a master of arts degree in secondary education. After graduating cum laude from WVU, Toni taught for one-year each at both Doddridge County High School and Ritchie County High School before joining Fairmont ...

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