Guest article by summer 2021 fellow Chelsea McGraw
It’s pretty difficult not to think about a pink elephant when you’re told not to, right? This is how secondary traumatic stress impacts the brain, as well, and recent post-pandemic data reflects that many teachers are experiencing it.
Each time the traumatic reminder appears, the brain goes into flight, fight or freeze response, switching off practical decision-making. While there is evidence that educators can experience secondary trauma, not all are offered appropriate and personalized social and emotional support to guide them in reestablishing a feeling of safety, a foundation needed to reflect upon and develop their practice further.
For example, according to the Trauma Sensitive Pedagogy project, a classroom-level model that provides educators with knowledge and skills to address learning needs of children who have experienced complex trauma, every single educator participant reported signs of secondary traumatic stress as a result of added burdens due to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially as they consider returning to their school buildings.
Although some teachers were able to express signs and feelings of secondary trauma, it is unclear whether or not they understood that what they were experiencing was actually traumatic. The ability for an individual to recognize their own trauma is the first step in healing from it, which requires professional support within their work environments. (Support can range from trauma-informed mentorships, to collaborative professional development or even on-site therapists.) Educators, however, have not been equipped to recognize their own triggers, as only 29 percent of teachers reported receiving on-going training in social-emotional learning (SEL) and one fifth of teachers never received the opportunity in their job to reflect upon or improve their SEL skills, according to EdWeek Research Center data.
According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), social-emotional learning (SEL) is a process where young people and adults acquire and apply knowledge, skills and attitudes to manage emotions and develop the self-awareness to grow through their trauma.
Learn more about SEL >
Unfortunately, the uneven distribution of access to support for teachers to recognize and overcome adult secondary post-traumatic stress creates an inequitable dynamic for all learners.
Educator standards across states charge teachers with a responsibility to ensure safe, supportive learning environments for all learners, regardless of whether they understand SEL. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) sets national educator standards across state lines for what makes a good teacher. One of these standards requires that teachers engage in reflective practice to be effective. The pandemic has not only increased trauma, it has also created impediments to that necessary reflective practice. How can teachers possibly uphold this standard considering the psychological barriers that their pandemic-related trauma and the trauma of their students presents?
Thankfully, some school districts have added to their policies to support teacher well-being, or successfully partnered with SEL-based organizations to foster a system that supports teacher well-being:
- Andover Public Schools in Massachusetts has put together a spring team incorporating “responsive classroom” training, and the district sent educators and administrators to William James college for a 1-year SEL certification program
- Districts in Texas have been assigning SEL coaches to work directly with teachers to support them as traumatic signs arise in the classroom due to COVID-19
- The organization Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has developed teacher toolkits for districts to follow that support a systematic approach to combating secondary trauma
- Compass, an organization that takes a holistic approach to human development, offers a framework for which schools’ students, teachers and administrators can earn badges through experiential learning of mind, heart and spirit
- Resilient Futures, another organization with a strong evidence-informed framework, takes an equity-focused whole child/community approach rooted in resilience building, providing trauma-informed services for K-12 and higher education
- Resilience in Schools and Educators (RISE), a school-wide social-emotional learning program adopted by many universities, builds a trauma-responsive school community that integrates academic achievement and SEL to help educators design environments where all participants can thrive
At the end of the day, for teachers to do their best work to support students, they need support, too.
Chelsea McGraw, a Teach for America Alumni (2018, ENC), and U.S. Fulbright Alumni (2015, Malaysia), has invested 10 years in education and mental health to improve the quality of learning for youth in at-risk regions. She received her master’s degree in Counseling Psychology from Chatham University, and now she is pursuing Healthcare Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon with a focus on the intersection between mental health and education within policy work.