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Secondary Trauma is an Occupational Hazard of Teaching.

There is a great deal of conversation in schools these days regarding trauma-sensitive (informed?) schooling. The laudable goal is to help educators understand the enormous impact of out of school trauma on student learning and behavior and to enable educators to reframe their teaching “moves/approach” to better support students and avoid re-traumatizing them. The trauma-sensitive lens allows educators to reinterpret a wide range of disruptive and disturbing behaviors as indirect communication about student needs, rather than as willful non-compliance with established classroom norms. This is incredibly important and helpful work that creates more caring and effective teaching and schools. But what about the toll that student trauma takes on the educators themselves?

According to our colleagues at the CU Center for Resilience and Well Being in Schools, “any educator who works directly with traumatized children and adolescents is themselves vulnerable to the effects of trauma.” This trauma contagion, often referred to as compassion fatigue or secondary traumatic stress, involves “being physically, mentally or emotionally worn out or overwhelmed by students’ trauma. Symptoms include:

  • Increased irritability or impatience with students
  • Difficulty planning classroom activities and lessons
  • Decreased concentration
  • Denying that traumatic events impact students or feeling numb or detached
  • Intense feelings and intrusive thoughts, that don’t decrease over time, about a student’s trauma
  • Dreams about students’ traumas

Given the prevalence of student trauma, it is no surprise that compassion fatigue among teachers is also widespread. A recent article in Education Week (Sept 17, 2019), “How Caring for Students in Distress Can Take a Steep Toll”, cites an Education Week Research Center survey which found that 43 percent of teachers polled said they had difficulty “finding ways to help students who appear to be struggling with problems outside of school,” and nearly 1 in 4 teachers considered “finding ways to help students who appear to be experiencing emotional or psychological distress” the most challenging task in their work.

With this data, it is not an exaggeration to say that secondary trauma/compassion fatigue is an occupational hazard of teaching. In other words, it is a risk that is intrinsic to the work itself. We are used to the language of “occupational hazards” in fields of work that are physically dangerous – construction, mining, manufacturing, etc. and federal laws require that employers protect the health and safety of workers by providing such items of protective clothing as hard hats and steel-toed shoes as well as take steps that create a safer work environment.

Not surprisingly, given how new the trauma-sensitive approach is in education, there are no laws to protect educators in equivalent ways, nor have many schools addressed the issue through training or mental health supports for educators because even educators themselves are often unaware of the dangers. The Education Week article cited above argued that “both administrators and educators often underestimate the support teachers themselves need to cope with the emotional weight of helping students in distress.”

So the question is, what can be done to protect educators from the occupational hazards of compassion fatigue? The most common response is to recommend that individual teachers who experience symptoms should engage in self-care strategies. See the box below for strategies that have a research base.

Individual self-care recommendations include:

  • set boundaries to provide time to resource yourself,
  • reconnect with your sense of purpose to help reframe the daily challenges,
  • practice cultivating positive emotions such as gratitude and self-compassion
  • develop some form of regular contemplative practice such as mindfulness, yoga, tai chi, qigong, centering prayer, labyrinth walking etc.

But individual self-care is not a sufficient response to a systemic problem. If compassion fatigue is an occupational hazard, then it is incumbent on educational systems to engage in prevention and amelioration as well as to support educators in being able to implement these personal strategies of self-care.

Systemic responses require deeper training in trauma-sensitive schooling with a strong emphasis on preventing compassion fatigue, better student staffing ratios (including more mental health specialists for students and staff) so that the intensity of exposure is reduced, as well as the creation of school cultures that embed educator self-care into the school day and year.

The trauma crisis among students is enormous, deeply disturbing and requires a systemic response. The trauma crisis among teachers is equally so and it is likely playing a significant role in educator turnover and falling enrollment in teacher education programs. It’s time to take better care of the caregivers.

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