by Cherie McNaulty Instructor/TCC
How to identify vicarious trauma and cope with emotional stresses of the teaching profession.
We are in a profession that concentrates on helping others. We are teachers, instructors, and facilitators that come in direct contact with students in custody and in community settings. We understand that we can be witnesses to information that is sad and distressing throughout our day and week. This comes with the profession.
Let me take you to a fantasy land for a minute: We are in school and have been appreciated and praised by many for our teaching and helping skills. We are pretty good in school, many A+ students, and so we believe we can be teachers. Or maybe we have great teacher and/or mentor that inspires us to become a teacher. We enter into this career believing one, I can make a difference, and two, I will be a super hero and change lives! (You know you have a cape somewhere). Well, sooner than later we understand that teaching is work. Yes, it’s grading papers, entering grades, doing reports (WPRs!), and understanding transcripts, teaching, and administering assessments, etc., etc., etc.
But we often miss, or are not taught in our teaching program, that teaching can be heart wrenching. I am not here to burst your bubble or dissolve those great intentions and hope for your students. By all means keep those! But what I would like to give you is more information. Teaching can be stressful and we need to be careful. This is especially true with the students we work with, but this information is for all teachers of any age. Life happens. It shows up in some very challenging ways and it can derail us if we are not prepared.
I am talking about compassion fatigue and vicarious or secondary trauma.
Vicarious trauma is the emotional residue of exposure that counselors [teachers] have from working with people as they are hearing their trauma stories and become witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured. It is important not to confuse vicarious trauma with “burnout”. American Counseling Association
I want to be very clear that I am not talking about burnout. Burnout happens in many person’s live and it has different symptoms: tiredness that is remedied through a break or sleep, disinterest in usual activities that returns in a week or two, lack of appetite that returns, physical lethargy and mental lethargy and or confusion that can be addressed with schedule changes or diet changes. These are important to look out for and by no means am I saying you shouldn’t pay attention to these, but usually one main difference is that with burnout the symptoms will go away with increased self-care and rest or a break. Compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, and secondary trauma are very different.
In this day and age we are already affected by many traumatic happenings in our world. One only needs to turn on the radio or TV or look at their social media to be swamped with horrific events. In our line of teaching and facilitating we are being exposed to multiple stories of trauma in the contact we have with our students. The stories of abuse, or neglect or loss from our students that they share with us, or is shared in a class setting, or even in their responses in their work they write is one way we are exposed. As teachers there is a relationship that exists and a true atmosphere of safety and caring will be present in a successful teacher’s classroom.
These are the more obvious ways we are exposed, but the less obvious ways can put teachers and facilitators at more of a risk than one might think. When we interact with someone who has experienced a traumatic event or is experiencing a traumatic event (i.e. homelessness, racism, incarceration, poverty, challenged parenthood, loss, domestic violence, immigration threat, sexual harassment, etc.). We are going to be affected by how they interact and speak with us. Furthermore, if we ourselves have experienced trauma we can be triggered and emotionally we are being transformed without even knowing what is happening.
Secondary traumatic stress (STS) and vicarious traumatization (VT) are also known as compassion fatigue […] the symptoms of secondary trauma are nearly identical to PTSD symptoms, the main difference is that the traumatized person may develop PTSD, whereas the one hearing about the trauma may develop STS disorder
Remember that fantasy story about the teacher all excited and happy and fitted with a cape? Well, fast forward to now - they are increasingly sad and irritable and without hope. They isolate themselves and stop participating in their normal life activities. They are possibly told by older educators who have no clue “to suck it up” or “this is what you signed up for”. They push through even though they are fatigued and sad often. They think they are doing the right thing by plowing through another year. Well, they are not. If you recognize any of these signs please seek help.
Five Keys has the EAP hotline you can call 1-800-96-HELPS (1-800-964-3577).and ask for three paid for visits for each triggering event. It does not use your healthcare. It is free and confidential. You can find more information on the Five Keys Intranet
You start to notice some of these signs, but you say to yourself, “It’s just that I am tired and I care more than most. It will be ok. I’ll rest on the weekend”. But the weekend comes and you are irritable. You can’t even enjoy your time at home with family and you believe you are the only one that can help your students. You don’t sleep well, exercise, or eat well and then Monday comes. You get up, get dressed, and go to school. Let’s say you are an in custody teacher. You get to the room and then you find out one of your students was hurt over the weekend in a fight and put into Ad Seg. You start to cry and are inconsolable. True story. But it might not be so radical. You might break a pencil and break down. You are already on the edge and you are not even noticing it. Like the story of the frog in the water that was heated a little bit each day and never noticed it, because it adapted slowly and without even noticing it, the frog was finally cooked to death.
Don’t be the frog. Pay attention and be in tune with your body and emotions. Make it a habit to check in with yourself each day. Make sure you are OK and process your feelings around stories you hear and events that take place. Practice self-care religiously. Everyday do something for you unrelated to teaching and your students. Talk to someone. Keep a journal. Work on your own trauma and issues. Know your triggers.
I want to add a section for the administration and/or front desk personnel. Don’t think because you are not in the classroom all the time you are immune. You interact with students also. You have to read the enrollment forms, you know their history, and have to ask questions. You are their first point of contact sometimes and they might have educational trauma. You can be affected by this. You can also be affected by the stories you hear from co-workers.
Remember you have to be whole and well to help others.
Review the resource sheet I have included below to see if they resonate and as always write a self-care program and practice it! Be well.
Mindfulness Daily for April 2018
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