Secondary Traumatic Stress: What Happens When Teachers Are Compassionate

Today’s blogger is Jessica N. Essary (Cazenovia College), who co-authored the article “Secondary Traumatic Stress Among Educators,” which appears in the July 2020 issue of the Kappa Delta Pi Record. Get free access to the article through the month of October.

Comments students have shared with their teachers:

  • My cousin died of a drug overdose.
  • The fire destroyed my house.
  • My pregnant aunt was murdered by her boyfriend.
  • My brother cries every night. He has Hand-Schüller Christian disease. So, I hit my cat.
  • I saw my Mommy dead. She killed herself.
  • Some guys took me to McDonald’s, but I did not know they were in a gang. They bought my lunch. Then they told me to kill the cop. They promised me daily lunch and a car. I did not do it. So, they beat me up and left me in the Everglades.
  • I broke my leg in a car accident.

Teachers are often among the first individuals who children confide in—especially if they like their teacher. Even if teachers were robotically focused on academics only (hypothetically ignoring social, emotional, and physical development), they could not ignore the impact of stress on a child, because it likely permeates the child’s academic experience. And when students experience ongoing episodes or a singular traumatic event, a teacher can experience secondary stress, also known as secondary traumatic stress disorder or compassion fatigue.

I firmly believe that children deserve compassionate teachers because compassion is also treatment for stress. Yet, the burnout that stems from secondary stress symptoms can cause us to lose our most compassionate educators. We simply cannot fail these children and their teachers because of societal ignorance of secondary traumatic stress.

Teachers in some communities are likely more at-risk of experiencing secondary stress, but the rate of trauma among children suggests that the majority of teachers will have exposure to traumatized children during their career. Based on my anecdotal evidence, I suspect that most teachers experience some form of secondary stress symptoms (many creating negative physical ailments/responses) approximately once every month, or more! Yet, there is a dearth of related literature, and we are just scratching the surface of this often hidden, ongoing, worldwide issue. Unfortunately, teachers may suffer from secondary stress disorder without metacognitively understanding the intricacies of their plight.

I have yet to speak with a teacher who could not relate to secondary traumatic stress symptoms due to their exposure to childhood trauma. However, many of these teachers were unaware of secondary traumatic stress disorder before our conversation. I can understand why the topic of secondary stress among educators has a dearth of related research. Have you ever heard some researchers refer to research as me-search? Sure, many research investigations begin with our practical exposure to the topic. Yet, with a topic like secondary stress, a personal investigation may be too psychologically daunting. For many years I believed that it would have been a lot easier, emotionally, to study something else. Yet, I always believed that solutions might exist for teachers, and that encouraged me to persist. Perhaps a lot of educational researchers have felt this way. After studying this issue for more than a decade, I can attest that it has brought me considerable awareness and compassion satisfaction. Why was I never taught about secondary stress in my teacher preparation program?

Yes, a crater of missing knowledge exists in our field of education. After experiencing secondary stress countless times throughout my teaching career, my conscience care for teachers and children could not ignore this enormous vicissitude. After conducting my own investigation, I was even more aware of the interdisciplinary relevance. Therefore, I found it vital to invite authorial colleagues to join me; so, I contacted two experts whom I highly respect, as they are likely among the most consummate readers in their fields of expertise. My professorial psychologist friend, Dr. Lydia Barza, has an extensive background on compassion fatigue, beginning with her preparatory work in counseling. My professorial cognitive scientist friend, Dr. Roy Thurston, has a multitude of brain-based impacts of stress readily available for discussion. Our article in the July issue of the Kappa Delta Pi Record is the product of our collaborative research.

The more I speak with teachers, the more I am convinced that secondary stress expertise is critical in our field. Before you read the details, I should note that this topic is not just doom-and-gloom. Fortunately, there is a silver lining here. There are plenty of practical steps that administrators and educators can take to transform secondary stress into compassion satisfaction. Teaching is interpersonal, and harnessing compassion satisfaction is a powerful skill for everyone involved with children.

In summary, this topic, arguably, should be presented in every teacher education program and popularized in the media for greater awareness. Also, we need to collaborate with, as well as provide professional development opportunities for, social workers, school administrators, policy makers, cognitive scientists, and school counselors to help educators attain compassion satisfaction as they work with ongoing secondary stress. In addition, now, more than ever, we need governments to empower teachers by providing them with access to resources to help their colleagues on the “front lines” and the children they serve as they experience Covid-related stress.  Finally, we must empower teachers by providing them access to recommended government agencies and nonprofit services for children. These agencies should be mandated to provide timely follow-up on the services they can offer teachers, students, and their families. Working together, we can ease the burden of trauma on our students and their teachers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s