We never knew how he would enter the building each morning. This uncertainty didn’t just affect him, it affected anyone he came into contact with. He was a student who had experienced much trauma in his life. It was depressing. It was exhausting. It took a toll. And while it was tiring and stressful for myself and others that spent time with him, I do not know, nor will I ever know, what life was like for him.
For the past 23 years, I have worked with many students like him and it has been more physically and mentally exhausting than anything I have ever experienced. To be honest, there were days when I would resent going to work because I knew just how bad working with certain students was going to make me feel. Believe me, I realize how that admission sounds coming from an educator. But it is the truth. And I know I am not alone. Secondary stress is not a new term, in fact, we have known about it for quite a while.
Dozens of books and hundreds of scientific articles have been published documenting the nature and dynamics of traumatic stress (Wilson & Raphael, 1993). The majority of those reports, however, focus solely on those who were directly traumatized (Figley, 1999). It has become increasingly apparent that the effects of traumatic events extend beyond those directly affected. The term secondary traumatic stress has been used to refer to the observation that those who come into continued close contact with trauma survivors, including human service professionals, may experience considerable emotional disruption and may become indirect victims of the trauma themselves (Figley, 1995).
It is time to begin devoting more time and effort to finding strategies and techniques geared towards helping teachers who are exhausted, frustrated, and at risk of leaving the profession. Teachers are extremely vulnerable to secondary stress and something must be done to “help them cope more effectively with the cost of caring (Stramm,1999). During my career in education as a classroom teacher, math coach, and an assistant principal, I have experienced much secondary stress and have found that certain techniques and strategies helped me and the teachers I mentored, teach better, and more importantly, feel better.
It took me almost 20 years to recognize that I could not do it alone and that asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness but rather one of confidence and strength. It can be intoxicating as educators to feel as if we can do it all by ourselves. The popular narrative in movies and on social media is that of the superhero-teacher going it alone. The thing is that’s not how it works. We mustn’t be seduced into thinking that we can do it alone. Former governor, movie star, and bodybuilding champion, Arnold Schwarzenegger reiterated this point several years ago in his commencement speech at the University of Houston.
I always tell people that you can call me anything that you want,” he told the graduates. “You can call me Arnold. You can call me Schwarzenegger. You can call me ‘the Austrian Oak.’ You can call me Schwarzy. You can call me Arnie. But don’t ever, ever call me the self‑made man.
One way to help with secondary stress is to understand, acknowledge, and accept that you’re not in it alone. Students come to us with many complex needs. Incredibly enough, we are often able to help with many of them. But never all. Reaching out to others for help is not only what is best for you, but it is also what is best for the students who have experienced trauma and adverse childhood experiences. In his book, Big Potential Shawn Anchor explains:
The more we are interconnected, the more a single setback or negative event will be cushioned by other people. Similarly, the more people we have in our ecosystem to share stress, challenges, or burdens with, the lighter those burdens will be for each individual.
We are surrounded by caring and competent individuals who are more than willing to help us if we just ask. From fellow teachers to guidance counselors. From social workers to paraprofessionals. These are not only people that want to help, but these are also people that have skills and resources that we don’t, and we must be willing to acknowledge that fact. Just knowing that we are not going it alone will help reduce the effects of secondary stress and compassion fatigue.
Deep within educators’ makeup is the desire and willingness to serve. But more than that is the desire to help. That help can come in many forms. We help students become better readers. We help students become better mathematicians. We help students become better writers. And because we spend so much time helping, it is easy to confuse helping with fixing. I believe there is a big distinction that we must recognize.
We are accustomed to solving problems and getting results and when we can’t, we blame ourselves. Here’s the thing. We must stop seeing students as something to be fixed. Unlike a broken engine or a reading deficiency or incorrect hand spacing, students can’t be fixed with tools, guidance, and practice. It is much more complicated than that.
We mustn’t think we can fix students. To begin with, that assumes they are broken. Which they are not. And second, it assumes that what has been done can be undone. Which it can’t. In her hit song, Just Give Me a Reason, the pop artist Pink sang the lyrics we’re not broken just bent and I think that is a perfect way to think about students that have undergone adverse childhood experiences. Many of our students walk through our doors bent from the hardships and trauma they have experienced. It is our job to help them walk a little taller.
When we go in believing that it is our job to fix students, we not only unfairly characterize the student, we also place unrealistic expectations on ourselves. This often leads to disappointment when we are unable to change or fix the student. Furthermore, we must be careful taking on a savior complex.
Sometimes the best thing we can do is provide a place to sit and an ear to listen. Oftentimes our company alone can have more impact than we realize. Like the final exchange in The Giving Tree between the boy and the tree, just being present can mean everything.
“I don’t need very much now,” said the boy,
“just a quiet place to sit and rest. I am very tired.”
“Well,” said the tree, straightening herself up as much as she could,
“well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting.
Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest.”
And the boy did.
And the tree was happy.
We got this.
At least this is the narrative that we tell ourselves. No matter their age, once students are placed on our roster, we feel obligated and compelled to see to it that everything is okay. Everything. Always. Our goal is to teach and nurture them such that they learn all there is to learn and they feel no unnecessary pain.
We do everything we can to see that that happens. And yet, we often fall short. Students don’t learn the material and fall behind. Struggling to grasp concepts that we have taught numerous times. And we blame ourselves.
Worse, we see our students come into school battered and bruised. Not physically, actually, sometimes that is the case. Our front-row seat allows us to witness the residual effects of the trauma they experience. And it is scary. When our students come to us hungry. When our students come to us beaten down. When our students come to us numb. Numb because that is the only way they can make it day to day.
We do everything we can to help them feel better. Because we know that when they feel better, they do better. And sometimes it works. For a while. And it feels good. As if we are making a difference in a child’s life. But then there are times when we either don’t make a difference or we watch them regress.
We blame ourselves since we are the ones with them for seven and a half hours each day. We are the professionals. The diploma on the wall proves it. But here is where we must remember one important fact.
It is not our fault.
This doesn’t mean we stop trying to help. Ever.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t make a difference. We can.
This doesn’t mean that they don’t see us. They do.
We often are our own harshest critics. In fact, we would never speak to a student or colleague as harshly as we speak to ourselves. We must become aware of and begin to change our inner dialogue. We are doing the best we can. And yes, sometimes our best isn’t good enough. And sometimes our best isn’t able to shield or protect our students from the pain that they are suffering. And it hurts, a lot. But if we want to be able to be there for our students tomorrow and the next day and the next, then we need must ease up on ourselves. We must begin to practice self-kindness. As Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion: The Power of Being Kind to Yourself puts it:
Self-kindness, by definition, means that we stop the constant self-judgment and disparaging internal commentary that most of us have come to see as normal…It entails clearly seeing the extent to which we harm ourselves through relentless self-criticism, and ending our internal war.
I don’t doubt that this will be difficult. And we are going to need reminders and a strong support team. But we can do it. We must do it if we want to continue to be there for our students.
How many of us replay our school days as we driving home? Depending on the length of our commute and whether or not we are alone, the trip home is often a time for self-reflection. Unfortunately, this has become a time to relive our day’s worst moments, difficult encounters, and failed connections. Every day is bound to have these moments, but must they be what we focus on the most?
I suggest we attempt to tip the balance. There is nothing wrong with self-reflection in an attempt to improve. But I believe that we have taken it too far. More often than not, the majority of our time recapping our days is spent dwelling on the negative while almost entirely forgetting about the positive.
In their groundbreaking book, The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact, Chip and Dan Heath discuss how it is possible to create memorable moments that stand out above the rest. They emphasize that these types of moments are not easy to create and that they require hard work. But I know that hard work is not something that teachers have ever been afraid of. What frustrates teachers and what is contributing to teachers’ secondary stress is the fact that teachers feel as if their hard work is for naught. They feel as if they are doing everything they can and still they are met with misbehavior, low achievement, and more than anything, an overwhelming feeling of ineffectiveness. As the Heath brothers shared in their book:
Research has shown that, again and again, that we tend to obsess about problems and negative information. Sports fans think more about the bad games their teams lost than those they won. In our diaries, we spend more time reflecting on the bad things that happened than the good. Negative feedback packs a heavier punch than positive; we obsess about 1 negative comment in a collection of 10 supportive ones. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania summarized dozens of studies that pitted negative information against positive. Their conclusion was right in the title of the paper: “Bad Is Stronger than Good.”
I’ve been working in schools for more than twenty years and I have witnessed much more positive goings-on than negative. But like many others, I too have spent my drive home ruminating on the few negative events that took place during the day. We must start reminding ourselves of the good as well as the bad so that because we are doing a lot better than we realize.
Secondary stress and compassion fatigue are real, and their effects are beginning to take a toll on teachers’ physical and mental well-being. If we are not careful, and we may end up like the teacher Eric Jensen mentioned in Teaching with Poverty in Mind, Eric Jensen.
He has learned that there’s far more behind the apathetic or aggressive behaviors, commonly attributed to a lack of politeness or dismissed as “lower-class” issues, than he had assumed. What he’s learned about his students has depressed and discouraged him. The mantra that gets him through the year is the thought that retirement is only six years away.
Together we can reduce the effects of secondary stress so that our focus can be where it belongs, on our students, on our teaching, and on ourselves.
Anchor, Shawn. (2018). Big potential: how transforming the pursuit of success raises our achievement, happiness, and well-being. New York: Crown Publishing Group.
Bride, B.E., Jones, J.L., MacMaster, S.A. (2008). Correlates of secondary traumatic stress in child protective services workers. Journal of Evidence-Based Social Work, 4(3-4), 69-80.
Figley, C.R. (Ed.) (1995). Compassion fatigue: Coping with secondary traumatic stress disorder in those who treat the traumatized. New York: Brunner/Mazel.
Figley, C.R. (1999). Compassion fatigue: Toward a new understanding of the costs of caring. In B.H. Stamm (Ed.), Secondary traumatic stress: Self-care issues for clinicians, researchers, & educators(2nd ed., pp. 3-28). Lutherville, MD: Sidran Press.
Heath, C., Heath, D. (2017). The power of moments: why certain experiences have extraordinary impact. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Kasperkevic, Jasper, Schwarzenegger: The self-made man is a myth, retrieved from https://www.marketplace.org/2017/05/12/schwarzenegger-self-made-man-myth/ on 4/30/20202.
Neff, Kristin. (2011). Self-Compassion: the proven power of being kind to yourself. New York: HarperCollins.
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