It had been a long time since I taught a new course, so I was feeling anxious. Then, for the whole semester, my high school students had unnervingly flat expressions. They answered discussion questions with as few words as possible—even with partners or small groups. My magic trick of connecting with students through journal entries worked with only a few. I devoted countless hours to the course, with seemingly little results. I concluded that the students were having a miserable experience, and as a result, I was miserable—and exhausted.
At the end of the semester, I almost cried with relief when my anonymous course evaluations were overwhelmingly positive. (I could have done some midterm evaluations and saved myself some suffering!) As a seasoned teacher, how had I so badly misread my students’ experience, especially when I see myself as someone who generally has an accurate read on the classroom vibe?
Previous Trauma Can Present Challenges to Teachers
I posed this question to my therapist, who explained that people who’ve experienced trauma in their childhood are often hypervigilant, always alert for signs of potential danger, so we tend to read neutral faces as displeased—especially when we’re in an unfamiliar situation. Ironically, I had known about those studies as they applied to students in the classroom but never imagined that they applied to me. This conversation led me to think again about the ways that childhood trauma can shape teachers—particularly those who took on the caretaker role in a chaotic family.
In my many years teaching and working as a mentor for new teachers, I’ve noticed that those of us who were caretakers as children, like me, often have extraordinary strengths and some common challenges in our work.
1. We are calm, proactive leaders in emergencies. Our unpredictable childhoods trained us to be focused and effective in a crisis. But we can also have a pervasive sense of nervousness when our lives are calm, as if we are on high alert for the next danger. This hypervigilance tires our minds and bodies.
2. We value structure and predictability. Because we grew up in chaos, calm usually makes us feel safe. Generally, our appreciation for order serves students, but sometimes, in our desire to maintain a sense of control, we can be overly rigid with rules and routines and waste energy fighting small battles. Sometimes our rules don’t give our students enough room for creativity and spontaneity—or to make mistakes and learn from natural consequences.
3. We are highly attuned to other people’s emotions. As children, to keep ourselves safe, we learned to quickly register other people’s mental states and to manage the feelings of the adults in our lives. These skills can be a superpower in the classroom: We tend to value students’ emotional lives, understand how emotions influence learning, and create a classroom in which students feel seen, safe, and valued.
At the same time, we can take too much responsibility for our students’ emotions and spend a lot of energy attending to their sadness and anger. In the process, we might unintentionally communicate that certain feelings are dangerous, intolerable, or effective tools to get attention. We might even set our standards too low because we are afraid of students’ frustration as they stretch toward an achievement that feels just out of reach.
4. We feel valuable when we are of use to others. We like to help! Sometimes, however, we do too much for students (or colleagues). This doesn’t give others the space to struggle through obstacles and earn the growth that the challenge will give them. We tire ourselves and create dependence in others.
5. We are mission-driven. We believe teaching is valuable work and are highly committed. At the same time, we may ask our work to give us a sense of worth that we didn’t get in our childhood. We may long for our students and their families to love us, admire us, and affirm our value—a job that isn’t theirs to fill.
As a result, we may also develop unhealthy perfectionism and workaholism. We believe we should be perfectly organized and timely, have the most dynamic lessons in the universe, and never hurt anyone’s feelings or make a mistake. These standards are impossible and exhausting.
3 Strategies That Help Break Negative Habits
The first step in outgrowing our problematic beliefs and habits is awareness. Everyone’s path is different, but here are some strategies that helped me.
1. Try journaling. Early in my career, I started keeping a journal. Writing helped me to see my past and present more objectively and to set and monitor goals. I also regularly read books that supported my personal growth.
2. Try therapy. Mid-career, I began working with a skilled therapist, who helped me see patterns I hadn’t been able to recognize through my writing and reading. For example, I learned early in life to rely only on myself, but I began to recognize the power of asking for support from others: A school has a team of experts devoted to helping students.
I began having more honest conversations with my colleagues about teaching challenges and learned that I am not alone in my struggles. I developed a more realistic sense of my limits: We need communities and healthy systems in order to help students.
3. Explore mindfulness. More recently, I have been developing a mindfulness practice, which has improved my ability to pause and pay attention to what is happening in the present moment. Those of us who have had trauma in childhood are often disconnected from our bodies, so learning to recognize simple needs—such as when I am tired, hungry, or thirsty—has been more important than I ever imagined for becoming the person I want to be in the classroom.
As a result, I’ve also become more attuned to my emotions—more able to name them, accept them, treat them with kindness, and listen to the messages they are trying to give me. When I can pause in the midst of a busy day or challenging conflict, I am less reactive and more able to make wise choices.
Be Patient With and Kind to Yourself
As someone who likes to be proactive and capable, I’ve had to be patient with my slow speed of change. (Even after all these years of devoted personal growth, when faced with those students with expressionless faces, I still spun all kinds of stories!)
I’m also in the process of changing my methods: I used to try to improve myself through self-criticism and willpower, which led to tension, discouragement, and weariness. Now, I am learning that, just like students, I thrive when I treat myself with gentle kindness, curiosity, and respect; when I forgive myself; when I have a sense of humor; and when I claim my strengths and see my challenges, not as failures, but as opportunities for growth.
Doing this can help us create more space in the classroom: more room for us all to be human; more room for laughter, spontaneity, mutual appreciation; more ability to be present with the learning opportunities that the moment presents—and more energy for the work.