Gadfly on the Wall: Teachers Absorb Student Trauma But Don’t Know How to Get Rid of the Pain
Today a middle school student said he hated me.
He told me to go F- myself.
He wrote all over his desk.
He shouted insults at the other students.
He asked to be sent home.
He said he wished he was dead.
He asked to see the school counselor.
I let him.
And this was all in one 42 minute period.
By the time the bell rang for the next class, I was exhausted.
I was worried about my student. I wondered how I could help.
But I could barely stand up.
I wiped at my eyes. They were unaccountably filled with tears. My hands were shaking.
I didn’t have time for this now. I had to put on a smile and welcome in the next class.
Perhaps there would be time to feel all this later.
Incidents like this take a tremendous toll on educators.
We’re highly trained adults, but people forget – we’re human, too.
When someone unexpectedly yells at you or gets in your face, you feel it.
This is especially true when it’s a child.
When a student is crying out in pain and that pain manifests itself as negative and violent behavior, it impacts you.
We end up absorbing it all like a sponge.
But what do we do with all that poison once it’s over?
Psychologists call this experience vicarious trauma.
According to the American Counseling Association, this is sometimes called the “cost of caring” and can result from “hearing [people’s] trauma stories and becom[ing] witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured.”
Vicarious trauma affects teachers the same way it does students.
The brain emits a fear response releasing cortisol and adrenaline which, in turn, increases heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, followed by a rush of emotions.
The biological response can display itself in mental symptoms such as anger, headaches, or even physical ones like missing staff meetings, lateness to work or avoiding certain students or situations.
You want to know why classroom teachers are taking an increasing number of sick days lately? Dealing with vicarious trauma is a big part of it.
“Being a teacher is a stressful enough job, but teachers are now responsible for a lot more things than just providing education,” says LeAnn Keck, a manager at Trauma Smart, an organization that helps children and adults navigate trauma.
“It seems like teachers have in some ways become case workers. They get to know about their students’ lives and the needs of their families, and with that can come secondary trauma.”
This is an aspect of the job for which most teachers are unprepared.
According to a 2020 survey by the New York Life Foundation and American Federation of Teachers, only 15% of teachers felt comfortable addressing grief or trauma.
When I first entered the field two decades ago, I was taught how to design lessons, sequence curriculum, manage classes, calculate grades, etc. Never once did anyone mention that I would be standing between a hurting child and a world he is desperately trying to lash out against.
Most teachers aren’t taught how to help students who have experienced trauma. Nor are we taught how to handle the toll it takes on our own health and personal lives.
And unfortunately things are getting much worse.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than half of all U.S. children have experienced some kind of trauma. This includes abuse, neglect, violence, or challenging household circumstances. And 35 percent of kids have experienced more than one type of traumatic event.
In class, these traumas can manifest in many ways such as acting out. However, they can also be more subtle such as failure to make eye contact, repeated foot tapping, etc.
Childhood trauma was not unknown before the pandemic, but it was much less frequent.
Since returning to the physical classroom after months or more of on-line learning, many students are having a difficult time readjusting. And some show signs of compounded emotional trauma.
The student who exploded today is a prime example.
Clearly something may have happened to him.
A few years ago he had been an A student. He was academically gifted. But when we went to on-line classes to protect against Covid-19, he disappeared.
Only to come back like this.
As a classroom teacher with two decades of experience, I know that when a student acts this way, punishing him won’t help. He needs support coping, but that’s easier said than done.
I need help coping with HIM!
These adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can impact kids well into adulthood with higher risks for alcoholism, liver disease, suicide, and other health problems.
And it affects their teachers, too.
Since schools have reopened, many kids don’t seem to know how to interact without teasing, goading or tormenting each other. We’re seeing children scream at each other in class over things as simple as finding a pencil. There are more frequent fights, vandalism, bullying, cyber bullying and even attacks against teachers.
Last week at my school, a student in the hall pushed another student into a teacher’s back. The first student was trying to fulfill the infamous TikTok challenge of hitting a teacher, but he wanted to avoid punishment by being able to claim it was an accident.
This increase in negative behaviors can be directly attributed to the pandemic.
More than 750,000 Americans have died from COVID.
According to the CDC, more than 140,000 children in the U.S. have lost a primary or secondary caregiver such as a live-in grandparent or another family member to the virus.
No wonder kids are having trouble with self-control! Their support systems are in tatters!
With fewer role models at home and less time in the classroom over the last year and a half, kids are suffering. And that’s not just anecdotal. The facts back it up.
The CDC reports that children between the ages of 5 and 11 visiting an emergency department because of a mental health crisis increased 24 percent from April through October of 2020 compared to the previous year. Among 12- to 17-year-olds, the number increased by 31 percent.
Suicide attempts among 12- to 17-year-old girls increased by about 50 percent over winter 2019, according to the CDC.
And these numbers are probably under reported since these increases took place at the height of the pandemic when many people were hesitant to seek medical attention.
The increase in student trauma and the lack of additional supports is undoubtedly contributing to the speed at which teachers are leaving the profession.
We want to help our students but many of us feel ill-equipped to do so. And it’s negatively affecting our own health.
As we are constantly attacked in the media for everything from teaching an accurate history of America to failing to meet every need our students have, many educators are throwing up their hands and moving on.
It is vital that people stop hurling stones and understand the increased burden placed on teachers’ shoulders. Not only that, but it’s well past time for people to get off the side lines and actually support educators.
We can’t do it all alone.
For example, one of the most important things teachers need is time.
This is time untethered to students, time without classes to teach or papers to grade or paperwork to fill out or even duties to perform.
We need time to talk with our colleagues about what we’re experiencing.
That’s not just gossiping or socializing. It’s necessary to function.
Educators need the ability to talk through what they’re experiencing and what they’re feeling with other teachers coping with secondary trauma, according to Micere Keels, an associate professor at the University of Chicago and founder of the TREP Project, a trauma-informed curriculum for urban teachers.
“Reducing professional isolation is critical,” said Keels. “It allows educators to see that others are struggling with the same issues, prevents the feeling that one’s struggles are due to incompetence, and makes one aware of alternative strategies for working with students exhibiting challenging behavior.”
However, this can’t be something teaches do on their own. This is an essential part of the job.
Part of our profession has become being put in harm’s way. We need the time to cope with that on the job with our colleagues.
In addition, this allows teachers to work together to develop coping strategies.
For instance, it’s never good to meet a student’s anger with yelling or fury of your own. Educators need to find ways to de-escalate and bring the tension down in the classroom.
However, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, either. Investing in high quality professional development for trauma-informed practices and enacting them school-wide would also be incredibly helpful. As would an influx of professional counselors, social workers and psychologists who are actually trained to deal with these situations.
Finally, it is essential that teachers are allowed the latitude to go home from their jobs.
By that, I don’t mean that teachers are held hostage, that any district forces their staff to stay in the building 24/7. I mean that many teachers find it difficult to go home and stop being teachers. We’re always on. We need time to turn off and tune out.
Educators often take mountains of work home, grade papers, call parents, etc. All on their own time.
There needs to be a demarcating line between our professional and personal lives. And the district, administrators, school directors and parents need to respect that line.
Teachers cannot be there for children if they do not have time for themselves and their families.
And these are really just the tip of the iceberg.
Teachers need higher salaries, lower class sizes, and above all –RESPECT.
Accomplishing all of this will not be easy. But I’ll bet every district can accomplish SOME of it.
Every district can accomplish some of it TOMORROW.
If we want to continue having teachers – I mean flesh-and-blood teachers with college degrees and hard won experience, not just technology, apps or a rotating cast of minders and babysitters – we have to take care of them.
They take care of our children.
It’s time we gave back what they need to get the job done.
It’s time we gave back the respect they deserve.
It’s time we gave them the opportunity to heal from the trauma of coping with our children.
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