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The Trauma of Teaching

As someone who assists schools in developing trauma-informed systems of support, I hear countless stories about the challenges educators face in their schools. The stories of trauma experienced by educators and students weigh heaviest on my heart. Thankfully, a growing number of schools are committed to addressing the harmful effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and trauma among their students.

However, I often find that little attention is paid to the forms of trauma that many educators experience. When these forms of trauma are ignored, educators suffer in silence, and may even leave the field of education. As a result, students lose out on the powerful impact these individuals could have made on their lives. A trauma-informed approach to education is critical for the well-being of both students and educators.

While it is impossible to list all the forms of trauma that can affect educators in their work, I propose four broad categories, or domains, to help us identify and distinguish various forms of trauma and their impact on educators. I also want to be clear about my use of the word trauma so that we can share a common understanding of the term. When I refer to trauma, I am referring to “an event, or series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being,” (SAMHSA, 2012). I have found that the forms of trauma experienced by educators often fall within the following domains:

Secondary Trauma: Secondary trauma refers to distress from hearing about, witnessing, or being affected by someone else’s experience of trauma. As educators, the more we care, the harder this job is. When we care deeply about our students and school community, the hardships they encounter can weigh heavily on our hearts. Secondary trauma can contribute to compassion fatigue and secondary traumatic stress among educators.

Work-Related Primary Trauma: Unlike secondary trauma, which occurs to someone else, primary trauma refers to forms of trauma that impact the individual directly. Sadly, some educators experience forms of primary trauma at work, including but not limited to school shootings, tragic accidents, physical assault by students, workplace bullying, harassment and/or discrimination, etc. Primary trauma can contribute to mental and physical health challenges, including post-traumatic stress.

Personal Primary Trauma: I use the phrase “personal primary trauma” to broadly refer to an educator’s experiences of primary trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that have occurred within the educator’s personal life and may affect their ability to work. When educators do not have access to care or do not seek care (e.g., therapy, social support, self-care practices, etc.) to recover and heal from their own experiences of trauma and ACEs, these experiences have the potential to hinder their ability to support students and work with colleagues.

Moral Trauma: Educators work in a highly demanding and often under-resourced field. Many educators encounter needs that surpass their capacity to respond. Moral trauma sets in when an educator is continually exposed to circumstances in which students, families, and colleagues do not receive the support and resources that they need, and the educator is forced to act in ways that fail to provide students with the care that they deserve. I have found that moral trauma can contribute to low morale, burnout, and staff turnover within schools.

As I mentioned, these four domains are by no means a complete list of all the forms of trauma that educators may experience in their work. However, they point to the fact that a trauma-informed approach to teaching and learning is needed, not only for students but for educators as well. To address the trauma that many educators experience, we must engage in self-care, collective care (e.g., schoolwide practices that support educator well-being and efficacy), and systemic change. A trauma-informed approach to education involves implementing practices and systems within schools to recognize and respond to trauma while also increasing access to protective factors, resources, and care that support the well-being of students, families, and staff.

To learn more about trauma-informed teaching, including self-care and collective care practices for educators as well as strategies to support students’ social-emotional and behavioral needs, you can visit: https://www.adlit.org/trauma-and-teaching. There you will find several free resources including: a trauma-informed teaching video series for educators; a podcast series featuring experts in trauma-informed care; and a learning guide to facilitate professional development.

References:

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Trauma and Justice            Strategic Initiative (2012). SAMHSA’s working definition of trauma and guidance for    trauma-informed approach. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services             Administration.

Written by

Ricky Robertson (he/him) has had the privilege to work with students from pre-K to 12th grade who have persevered in the face of adverse childhood experiences and trauma. He continues to be inspired by the strength of young people and the educators who teach them. Ricky is a consultant and coach who supports schools in developing trauma-informed systems of support. He is the co-author of the Corwin bestselling book, Building Resilience in Students Impacted by Adverse Childhood Experiences: A Whole Staff Approach.

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