Our students are carrying a lot with them as they enter our classrooms each day—always, but especially right now. As educators, we lead with love, and we often see ourselves as (and we often are) primary sources of support for students not only in academics, but in all areas of students’ lives.
Providing that holistic care and support is often what distinguishes a good educator from a transformational educator and what drives strong relationships with students, along with a sense of fulfillment and purpose to our work.
While this is all true, it is also all in tension with another truth: that providing holistic care and support to each individual student, to the extent that they need and deserve, is exhausting. It requires heavy emotional labor that’s never captured in an educator’s job description and is not covered in teaching certification courses.
When students are experiencing trauma and learning how to safely process challenging emotions, we often don’t know what to say or what to do to help. We want to fix the problem, but we are limited in our capacities to actually do so. This limitation causes us to feel powerless, to feel as though we aren’t doing enough and that we will never be able to do enough—even though we are already giving as much of ourselves as we can possibly give.
An Educator’s Influence
As an educator, you have more power than you think, but that power might look a little different from what you’re expecting of yourself. You don’t need an additional degree or to have all the answers to gain that power. You already have that power because you are human, and you have the opportunity to interact with your students every day.
By being intentional about the ways in which you show up in these interactions—even the smallest, routine ones—you can provide each of your students with tremendous support, despite never being able to take away any of the external stressors in their lives.
Traumatic experiences cause our students to feel powerless, unseen, and unheard. This powerlessness leads to the difficult emotions we see students experiencing in our classrooms, often communicated through what have traditionally been labeled as “challenging behaviors.”
While we cannot solve problems in a student’s life, we can give them back their power and ensure that they consistently feel seen and heard within the walls of our classroom in order to give them space to process and communicate their emotions in safer, more productive ways.
Consistently returning power to your students and ensuring that they know you are there to acknowledge and listen to them can be transformational: Research shows that the adverse effects of trauma can be mitigated by the presence of even just one empowering and empathetic presence in a student’s life.
But what does this actually look like in the classroom?
One of the easiest and most powerful tools that you have to make a student feel seen and heard is your language. By doing something as slight as changing the words that you use with students, both in times of stress and in small, everyday interactions, you can make a greater impact than you might expect.
When we know that a student is struggling, we often feel as though we don’t know the right thing to say, but what our students need to hear is often a lot more straightforward than we think.
The right words can help our students know they are seen, they are heard, and they are safe:
- “I hear you. I see you. I believe you.”
- “You are important. Your voice is important. I want to hear from you.”
- “I can’t change what happens outside of this classroom, but you are safe here.”
- “I am sorry for what you are experiencing. I see the pain that it’s causing you, and I can’t imagine how heavy it feels.”
- “I can’t change your experiences, but I am here to listen to you and help you in whatever ways I can. What would be helpful from me at this moment?”
- “As a teacher, I don’t have the training or time in my workday to give you the support that you deserve, but I know that our school counselor and social worker do. Our school has them for students who are experiencing challenges because we care about you and want to support you in all the ways that we can. How do you feel about us reaching out to them together?”
Those words might still not feel like they are enough. No words can take away the pain and hurt that many of our students carry. While that’s true, I encourage you to be curious the next time you find yourself in a situation in which you yourself feel powerless or at a loss for what to say. Pause, take a breath, and calmly try out one of these phrases or questions. Watch for how your student responds—how their emotions may shift, how their demeanor may change, how their walls might start to fall when they are given a greater sense of safety, power, and control.