Witnessing others' trauma is a stressor in many professions. Acute trauma hits hard - and chronic exposure digs deep - for every dedicated educator supporting youth and families beyond the school day. This is often an unspoken part of the job description, and a holistic part of relationships.
While poverty in public schools continues to rise, educators are often faced with myriad other factors of adverse childhood experiences - hunger, homelessness, immigration/migration, language barriers, community violence, racism, sex/gender-related harm and more. It never was a single factor, and more systemic awareness has also meant more labor for educators committed to equity.
These fluctuate and combine to the point educators feel isolated, hopeless, and broken. While teacher turnover remains a steady 5-years-or-less in high poverty public school districts, the science of sustaining gives a clue to one aspect that we can control ourselves - awareness of our own and students wholeness in the face of adversities.
Effective, long-haul educators must grapple with our purpose, identity, and history in relation to our work with youth in order to not respond in ways that maintain patterns of inequity. Facing the odds can be daunting - we need solidarity with others to truly make a shift.
When youth and families look to educators for guidance, learning, and support, it can be tempting to just stay strong, to "tough it out" without talking about the challenges, or play small about our role. We can begin to turn our culture toward true nurturing by starting to practice vulnerability, joyful presence, boundaries, and care with each other.
We seek to make the connection between the well-trod territory of educators preparation for adverse childhood experiences, and the acknowledged-yet-unsupported need for healing practices for educators themselves. Our own lived experiences back this up as educators continue to ask loudly - or through silent struggle - for recognition of their unseen work. If this is you, we invite you to take in what resonates below.
We all have stories more complex - and usually positive - than any one written piece about healing or trauma can capture.
“Secondary traumatic stress (STS) is a term used to describe the phenomenon whereby individuals become traumatized not by directly experiencing a traumatic event, but by hearing about a traumatic event experienced by someone else. Such indirect exposure to trauma may occur in the context of a familial, social, or professional relationship. The negative effects of secondary exposure to traumatic events are the same as those of primary exposure including intrusive imagery, avoidance of reminders and cues, hyper-arousal, distressing emotions, and functional impairment… Vicarious traumatization is a negative transformation in the self of a trauma worker or helper that results from empathic engagement with traumatized clients and their reports of traumatic experiences. Its hallmark is disrupted spirituality, or meaning and hope... Shared trauma is defined as the affective, behavioral, cognitive, spiritual, and multi-modal responses that mental health professionals experience as a result of primary and secondary exposure to the same collective trauma as their clients. ” - Compassion Fatigue Educator Certificate Curriculum
On average, teachers are more likely to leave a school when they’re dissatisfied with the school leadership and staff cohesion. “In high-poverty schools... average teacher turnover is especially high — almost twice as high as in low-poverty schools…" But that pattern evens out as teachers become more satisfied with their workplace culture, "they’re almost as likely to stay at a high-poverty school as in a low-poverty school."
“Anonymous self-reports from a series of compassion fatigue awareness classes [in an urban U.S. school district] revealed that the syndrome affects majorities of staff, including teachers (64 percent), school principals (80 percent). Secondary traumatic stress... was also a concern for teachers (45 percent), school principals (64 percent).” Teaching on Empty, Kenneth W. Elliott, Judith K. Elliott, and Stephanie G. Spears. Principal, November/December 2018, Vol 81, No. 2.
Teacher representation affects student outcomes: In a longitudinal study in North Carolina, “having at least one Black teacher in grades 3 to 5 cut the high school dropout rate in half for Black boys. Black boys from low-income families who had at least one Black teacher in grades 3 to 5 were 39% less likely to drop out of high school than those who had never had a Black teacher. For students identified as “persistently low-income,” who received free or reduced-price lunch every year of grades 3 through 8, having a Black teacher increased their intentions of going to college by 19%, and by 29% for Black boys specifically.”
Diversifying the Teaching Profession: How to Recruit and Retain Teachers of Color. Desiree Carver-Thomas. April, 2018 The Learning Policy Institute. Accessed at https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/sites/default/files/product-files/Diversifying_Teaching_Profession_REPORT_0.pdf
Healing can move educators from the “achievement” of social-emotional learning outcomes toward a “relational pedagogy” for all staff surrounding and supporting youth. “Collective hope and commensurate action challenges much of the current focus on social emotional learning. Scholars and educators sometimes mistakenly attribute educational success entirely to character traits such as grit, meaning, and self restraint.” In order to build relational strategies that “are not so much a set of skills and knowledge as much as they are about human qualities that make a difference in solid relationships... humility, courage, tolerance, and lovingness are virtues that help teachers dignify the educational process.” The process of building this strategy “focuses on the psycho-social needs of adults… [which] requires that we commit to examining, grappling, and illuminating those aspects of our lives that get in the way of forming genuine connections.”
Hope and Healing in Urban Education: How Urban Activists and Teachers are Reclaiming Matters of the Heart. 2016. Shawn Ginwright. Taylor and Francis, New York, NY.
Old practices confirmed by new research show where white, heterosexual, patriarchal points of view missed and continues to miss ways to heal. We stand on the shoulders of those who wrote it down, and just as much on those who didn't but passed it on in their ways and walk of life.
“The prevailing brain-disease model overlooks four fundamental truths: (1) our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring well-being; (2) language gives us the power to change ourselves and others by communicating our experiences, helping us to define what we know, and finding a common sense of meaning; (3) we have the ability to regulate our own physiology, including some of the so-called involuntary functions of the body and brain, through such basic activities as breathing, moving, and touching; and (4) we can change social conditions to create environments in which children and adults can feel safe and where they can thrive.” - The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk