Secondary Trauma in Educators: Finding The Air We Need To Breathe

By Heather Garrett

"Good teachers are to education what education is to all other professions - the indispensable element, the sunlight and oxygen, the foundation on which everything else is built." - Lowell Milken

In September 2007, Randy Pausch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, gave a lecture entitled Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams. A month before, Pausch learned that his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer was terminal, and he had only months to live. Famously known as The Last Lecture, Pausch imparted wisdom from lessons that he learned through his own experiences. One particular lesson he noted is advice many of us could take to heart: “Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.”

As educators, we spend our days reinforcing routines, creating learning experiences, forging growth mindsets, and building confidence in our students. We often give so much to our students, our schools, and our communities that we forget to take care of ourselves. In a fundamentally life-giving profession, the question must be asked: Who gives us life when we feel depleted? What sustains us when we feel empty? Where does our oxygen come from when we can’t breathe?

Running On Empty 

Early in my teaching career, I posed a journal prompt: What is the scariest thing that has ever happened to you? How did it make you feel? Some of my students gave expected responses: When I got lost at the mall or When I was in a car accident. But most were snapshots of lives I couldn't imagine: When my dad went to jail on Christmas morning and When I was shot at in my front yard in a drive-by and When I found out I was pregnant in the 6th grade

It was on this day that I realized that this job is more than just a job.  My students needed more than encouraging words and pats on the back. They needed more than engaging lessons and meaningful feedback.  And they needed way more than I was giving them - even on my best day.

As a teacher in a high-need, high-trauma school, I work with students who come from traumatic backgrounds that many cannot even fathom. Many of my students are in foster care, have incarcerated parents, or are homeless. Too many have been exposed to gun violence. Most live in poverty.  I see, hear, and feel the effects of trauma in my students’ lives every day. I absorb it. I try to fix it. I cry. I neglect my own family, my friends, and all the things I enjoy. Sometimes, I have nothing left to give. Sometimes, I am completely and totally empty.

Our Oxygen Deficiency Has A Name

As teachers, it’s so important to recognize that the responsibility of supporting students entrenched in trauma is a heavy burden. We are counselors, surrogate parents, and social workers. We make countless decisions daily that can affect the trajectory of our students' learning, their confidence in themselves, and their belief in others. These stressors can lead to disabling emotions, thoughts, and feelings that so many of us accept as just part of the job. However, these side effects of teaching are not just part of the job. They are real and debilitating - and they have a name: Secondary Traumatic Stress.

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) is an important consideration for educators: “For...professionals involved in the care of traumatized children and their families, the essential act of listening to trauma stories may take an emotional toll that compromises professional functioning and diminishes quality of life.”  STS, also known as Vicarious Trauma or Compassion Fatigue, should also be a high-priority consideration for those who support teachers: “Individual and supervisory awareness of the impact of this indirect trauma a basic part of protecting the health of the worker and ensuring that children consistently receive the best possible care from those who are committed to helping them."

Awareness, prevention, and support for educators is essential to the well-being of teachers, the health of our school climates, and, ultimately, the success of our students. The question remains, though, how do we do this? How do we incorporate these vital components of teacher support into the fibers of our school infrastructure? How do we ensure that our students get the best of us each and every day?

Supplemental Oxygen, STAT

In recent years, professionals, experts, and researchers have suggested various practical and helpful ways to prevent Secondary Trauma and support those who are at risk:
These guidelines are helpful in learning more about Secondary Trauma in educators, why it happens, how it affects us, and how to prevent it. It is important work and we should all educate ourselves to increase awareness, assess our own levels of trauma, and devise a plan of prevention and treatment within our schools.

However, too often teachers - and those who support us - view these types of guidelines as another tool in our toolbox...another bullet point in a list of best practices. If we have access to these tools, why are our teachers leaving the profession? Why do we feel like we are drowning? Why can we still not breathe?

We Still Can't Breathe

A few years ago, a student was going through a challenging time in his life due to the recent incarceration of a parent.  He had shut down and was completely disengaged from the learning process. I called home. I spoke to his counselor. I nagged him. I gave him space. I got upset. I tried everything to reach him and nothing worked. One day, out of sheer frustration, I asked HIM what he needed from me. He responded, “I need something to eat.” I handed him a granola bar and he looked me in the eyes for the first time in a week. He ate the granola bar and proceeded to complete his work.  Is that really all he needed? Just a granola bar?  Not exactly; I realized that what he really needed was someone to care enough to ask him what he needed.  He needed me - as his support - to understand that he couldn’t breathe. And the fact that I finally understood that his need to breathe was more important than anything else? That was enough for him.

As teachers, we need our support system to understand that sometimes we simply cannot breathe. Don’t get me wrong - there are well-meaning efforts to support educators. We send out emails of thankfulness during Teacher Appreciation Week. We remind our teachers to practice self-care. We offer professional development sessions that teach breathing exercises, classroom management strategies, and student engagement ideas. So, why are our bulleted lists of implemented strategies for teacher support not working? Why are our teachers leaving the profession? Why are they reporting low job satisfaction? Why are they not designing and implementing high-quality, engaging, differentiated instruction every minute of every day?

Is it because we view teacher support in high-trauma schools as a bullet point? Are we attempting to support our teachers by handing out nutritional supplements while our most valuable resources  are running out of oxygen? Our teachers are drowning and our profession is in a crisis. If all school leaders viewed teacher support as a primary core to affect student learning and provide student support, perhaps it would be a game changer for public education. Authentic teacher support should be a fundamental element of the structure and system that our schools are built upon.

Ultimately, stakeholders should view authentic, personalized teacher trauma support as life-giving, not life supplemental. This paradigm shift requires school leaders to place teacher supports alongside student supports as the highest of priorities. Before we can provide students what they need, we must put on our oxygen masks first.

Put On Your Oxygen Mask And Go Change The World

It’s a tall order, this teacher thing. The reality is there is a lot about teaching that has nothing to do with academic instruction. Our students need so much from us. To know how far to push them and when to back off. To make them feel safe, comfortable, confident, and motivated. To ensure they are not having an emotional breakdown because a family member was gunned down the night before. To make sure that they have a pencil, that they had breakfast, and that things are okay at home. That they have a home to go home to. And then we get to teach them.

In his last lecture, Randy Pausch chose the most important pieces of advice to impart before he left this world, and among his words of wisdom, he tells us to take care of us first. Ultimately, we do what we do because we care about kids. To provide students the oxygen they need to breathe, their teachers need support as well. If we view our teacher needs in this way, we will begin to see drastic improvements in teacher retention, satisfaction, and wellness. And as a result, our students' academic performance and emotional intelligence will benefit as well.

So take a deep breath, teachers. You are so not alone. Reach for that oxygen mask. And if you can’t find one, do something about it. Be a game-changer. Challenge the status quo. Our students will not get the best version of us until teacher trauma support is a non-negotiable, foundational element in our schools.  Breathing life into the life-givers should be the rule, not the exception. You need it. Our schools need it. And our students deserve it.

For more information regarding Secondary Traumatic Stress and its impact, click here!

About The Author

Heather Garrett teaches high school English in Jefferson County Public Schools. She is passionate about doing what is best for students and challenges others to rethink how to make life (inside and outside of the classroom) better for students and for those who serve them.