George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teacher Wellness

A Teacher’s Experience With Vicarious Trauma

Suggestions for getting the support you need when navigating vicarious trauma, from a peer who’s been there.

March 21, 2018

When you teach students who have had adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), you feel a double-edged sword: You care deeply about your students, so it’s easy for their pain to become your own.

Teachers are already challenged by multiple accountabilities that draw down our inner strength; we need even deeper reserves of resilience if we are to hold hope for our trauma-affected students. The only way through is to talk openly about the dark places we can go when we’re deep in relationship with these students. Speaking honestly about our emotional well-being is still taboo in most school environments, but we must decrease the stigma so we can get the support we need.  

I taught at an alternative therapeutic school where many of the students had experienced trauma and other adversity in their lives. We were fortunate—school leaders prioritized conversations among staff about wellness and vicarious trauma. Yet even with such conversations normalized, I still felt a deep sense of failure when I realized that I was carrying vicarious trauma myself.

The symptoms of vicarious trauma vary across individuals, but most center around a preoccupation with and stress over students’ traumatic experiences. This stress can manifest as anger, conflict with others, or excessive worry.

For me, it showed up in sleep patterns: I would fall asleep exhausted, but then wake up in the middle of the night and instantly think about a particular student or group of students. I would endlessly ruminate over how I was going to approach them the following day. At school, I started to feel crushed by the weight of the circumstances piling up against my students, not believing that anything I could do would make a difference.

Because I wasn’t well-rested, I became increasingly irritable throughout the day. My lack of confidence disempowered me in my conversations with students. And to top it off, I felt bad about feeling bad.

Trusted Supervisor Relationships

Fortunately, my school setting was designed with strong supports for teachers, including weekly or biweekly one-on-one check-ins with our supervisors. Everyone in all roles had supervision: teachers with their supervisors, those supervisors with the school director, school social workers with their director, and so on.

During supervision we would check in, not just on the minutiae of the day but on our overall wellness and groundedness in the work. I knew I could share my feelings, get ideas for strategies, and vent any frustrations in a safe, confidential space. Supervision also meant that no teacher went under the radar. We were seen, heard, and respected in supervision. It was the perfect place to regain perspective.

I am forever grateful to my supervisor Katie, who helped me persist through vicarious trauma. I remember calling her after school one day and saying, “I don’t think I can keep working with my student tomorrow. I don’t want to come in to work.” I know many teachers may not feel safe being vulnerable to their administrator, but it’s amazing what’s possible when that trust is there.

Katie talked me through my challenge and offered me empathy and understanding. She reminded me about the support systems that were available, like calling a peer so I could take a break when things got overwhelming. She helped me realize that, however I was feeling, my student was probably feeling some version of the same thing: worried that she had damaged our relationship, wanting to give up on school, feeling that things could not change.

Once I realized that I could see my own emotional turbulence as a key to understanding my student’s experience, I was able to refocus on using that understanding to help my student. Just as essential, I felt validated and valued by my supervisor, and reassured that what I was going through was a normal part of working with trauma-affected kids. I felt hope.

Wellness Groups for Peer Support

My school also created monthly peer groups where we shared ongoing wellness goals and kept each other accountable for self-care. In addition, the administration supported informal peer check-ins after students went home for the day by delaying the start time of after-school staff meetings.

Vulnerability was supported. Just as we focus on building strong and trusting relationships with students, it’s important for a staff to build strong and trusting relationships with one another. If the answer to “How was your day?” was “Terrible, I feel like a bad teacher,” we could unpack the negativity with trusted colleagues and come up with solutions.

Creating Your Own Community Supports

For those in schools without built-in support, you need to take a more proactive approach. Currently I teach at a community college where there aren’t many mandatory meetings or trainings for faculty. It’s up to each individual to find community and reach out if vicarious trauma begins to weigh heavily.

While I can do many wellness and self-care activities on my own, I still need other people to help me process and make meaning out of my experiences. These days, I find my community by staying connected to like-minded teacher friends, seeking out extra time to chat about challenging students with other faculty at the college, and being in community with other teachers locally (in a book club) and online (through Twitter and Facebook educator communities).

The Power of Self-Compassion

Above all, I try to practice self-compassion. I’m not great at this—I need to practice continually. As teachers, we spend so much time thinking about the needs of others that it’s easy to put ourselves last.

But self-care isn’t selfish. We need to commit to our own wellness as whole humans if we’re going to be available for lasting, meaningful relationships with students. And maintaining lasting, meaningful relationships is one of the proven strategies to help trauma-affected students heal. When we invest in ourselves, we’re investing in the growth and health of our students.

Modeling Healthy Skills

There’s another benefit to asking others for support in managing stress: We model for our students that it’s OK to ask for help. While I might not share the details of my situation, I will say, “I’m so grateful that Katie took time to talk to me when I was feeling stressed,” or “I was having a hard day yesterday, and one of the other teachers took the time to ask me how I was doing.”

If I model what it means to be part of a caring community, my students can learn from my example and in turn feel empowered to ask for help themselves.

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