“We need to talk about the trauma of teaching through a pandemic,” urges Christopher Bowen, a STEM curriculum specialist for Johnson City Schools in Tennessee. Through his current role, his experience teaching middle school science for over a decade and his work teaching future educators as an adjunct professor at East Tennessee State University, Bowen sees this as a glaring need across the educational landscape.
“If you don’t focus on the educators, then what is that classroom environment like for a teacher who’s undergoing a traumatic experience? And then how will that affect their students?”
Los Angeles-based sixth grade teacher Antonieta Avila put it another way: “Students come to us regularly and share the trauma that they have gone through this past year and a half. And so, what do I do with that trauma that I’m literally taking or trying to carry and absorb from the kids?…Where do I go to share it? Where do I go to leave it?”
Across the board, teachers, administrators and school staff are suffering under the relentless weight of a pressurized societal spotlight, where polarizing frustrations about the pandemic—including school and business closures, shifting social distancing and quarantine protocols, and vaccine and mask mandates—are projected onto school systems and the adults working in them. For the past two years, educators have been operating in crisis mode, running on fumes as they address and adapt to each new escalating round of pandemic-related demands, trying to keep everyone healthy while teaching with limited resources under drastically shifting circumstances.
Educators and school-based staff are often so focused on student and family needs that it comes at the expense of neglecting their own, and schools are not set up to prioritize the health and well-being of teachers and staff while students and families are struggling.
“There’s absolutely no support system in our school right now for us [educators]…But I have colleagues that are going through cancer treatment right now. I have colleagues who lost family members and they were sick two or three times last year with COVID,” Avila explains. “We’re not able to process and grieve together and to be able to help each other go through these life-changing experiences. We’re still very much isolated…there’s literally no time for us to come together and support each other.”
Before the pandemic, educators in the U.S. already had their plates full, juggling the myriad demands that come with helping students learn and make sense of a complex and oftentimes tumultuous social context. With the added layer of an ongoing global pandemic, figuring out how to support students and families in processing these complex issues can be a deeply traumatic and isolating experience for educators.
For over a year, EdSurge has been exploring how school communities are adapting to meet the needs of all learners as they face the 2021-22 school year through our Voices of Change project. To deepen our understanding of educator experiences, our researchers engaged over 90 educators from diverse school communities across the country through focus groups, surveys and interviews. We also convened a series of eight virtual learning circles, structured small group discussions where educators had the chance to connect and learn from each other about topics relevant to their practice, including four virtual learning circles and 10 in-depth follow-up interviews focused specifically on reducing educator trauma.
Two important themes emerged from our year-long conversations with these educators. First, in caring for students and families, educator health and well-being was often overlooked and urgently needed tending to and prioritization; and second, before schools and communities can act to address educator mental health and well-being, they must acknowledge and understand the challenges many educators are facing during these unprecedented times. In other words, we cannot address a problem without first being able to name and describe it.
Having the Language
The extended and devastating consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have reached nearly every person around the world. In trying to make sense of and cope with the effects—the persistent and heightened stress, grief, fatigue, insomnia, irritability and brain fog, to name a few—having the language to communicate these emotions and experiences helps.
In our virtual learning circles and interviews that focused on reducing teacher trauma, for example, participants read and discussed an article about the latest research demonstrating how common types of stress such as “burnout,” “compassion fatigue” and ‘“secondary trauma” interlock and can show up in their own lives as educators. These conversations revealed the value of exploring the distinction between these terms and their implications for student and educator well-being.
Across the four focus groups, four learning circles, and 10 interviews in which we discussed these manifestations of stress, most educators knew of and identified heavily with burnout, but the concept is more than just a casual phrase describing feeling tired from work. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as a workplace-specific hazard that comes with persistent emotional, mental and physical exhaustion from relentless and overwhelming workplace stress. The WHO and a growing body of academic research links burnout to a whole host of cumulatively building mental and physical health issues, including anxiety and depression and a debilitating lack of energy, productivity and motivation, among many others.
As Bronx middle school teacher Roxanne Leak put it during an interview, “It’s unfortunate. Teachers are leaving. It breaks my heart and it’s like all [my fellow educators] are leaving and I’m trying to figure out why. But there’s no straight answer, because it’s obviously not one big cause. It’s the pandemic, it’s the workload. People are exhausted, and just trying to navigate.”
The devaluation and inadequate compensation for educators’ work, along with the staffing shortage, exacerbates the situation. During a virtual learning circle, Daria Hall, a high school teacher from North Carolina, shared about how she usually focuses on teaching history and social studies, but recently finds herself having to step in to fill many additional administrative roles as one after another, teachers at her school burn out and leave.
“Literally, this past school year, every month something changed…it was just a lot of change and a lot of staff turnover…It’s definitely led to new staff being burned out because you don’t know who to reach out to [to figure out] how our school functions and works, and then for the staff that have been there, you’re constantly distracted from doing what you need to do because you’re trying to help someone else and make sure that they don’t become burned out,” Hall explained. “And then they leave, or they just quit, and you’re just stuck with doing their job and your job anyway, which happened a few times this year.”
This story of teachers taking on two, three, or more additional roles and working themselves into the ground to fill in the gaps was a familiar one across the educators we talked to. So was the recognition that this level of overwork and stress was not sustainable, especially from the perspective of school counselors, who are already painfully aware of the detrimental effects of attempting to function normally under these extreme and unrelenting levels of stress.
“Every teacher was just pushed to the limit; even the little things, like maybe logging onto a computer doesn’t go quite right and they’re just almost in tears,” reflected northern Indiana school counselor Tim Francis during a virtual learning circle. Francis visits over 30 elementary classrooms at least twice a month, and says teachers and school staff are completely maxed out, further emphasizing why it’s vitally important to build awareness and work to mitigate the far reaching consequences of this issue.
The far majority of educators we spoke with described these past years as the hardest they’ve ever faced in sometimes decades of teaching and administration. In our group discussions, several also tearfully or reluctantly confessed they were considering leaving the profession, not because they didn’t love teaching and working with students and families, but because the overwhelming demands with inadequate structural support were literally no longer able to be endured.
While symptoms of burnout were unfortunately all too familiar to educators we talked with, many said they were hearing about compassion fatigue and secondary trauma for the first time.
Compassion fatigue describes the physical, emotional and psychological toll of those caring for others through experiences of stress or trauma. While this phenomenon was historically more pronounced in healthcare and emergency service workers, over the past two years, it has become prevalent among educators. This extreme exhaustion and depletion is exacerbated by traumatizing and under-resourced workplaces and is often an alarming experience of deep fatigue and detachment. It is often also compounded by immobilizing guilt, shame or frustration from wanting to help others, but being unable to due to physical or mental stressors.
Linda Lindeman, a longtime high school special education teacher in Minnesota, shared in a virtual learning circle that she had unfortunately been exposed to compassion fatigue four years prior, when a student suicide and three unsuccessful copycat attempts devastated her small high school. With graduating classes of about 50-60 students, the entire school community was deeply affected by this tragedy, including about 20 students she worked with regularly who had a particularly difficult time coping. To make matters worse, she was also grieving the passing of a dear friend at the time.
“I had not experienced that level of hopelessness before,” she shared. Lindeman says she wasn’t sure she wanted to continue teaching. During that impossible time, the school brought in crisis counselors to meet with the staff and students, and one of them introduced the concept of compassion fatigue to help them process the vast pain, grief and survivor’s guilt they were living through.
Even recounting that harrowing time, Lindeman still describes this past school year as the most difficult she has faced in over 30 years of teaching. With the extent to which COVID-19 massively disrupted everyone’s lives, she could see that so many of her students were struggling and in need of additional support, especially the ones she didn’t hear from and couldn’t seem to reach. By the end of the school year, she described feeling depleted and “emptied out.”
“This past year brought back that same feeling of, ‘do I, can I go back’? But, kind of on steroids,” she said.
Teachers and school staff are already in a caring profession, but many reported that during the pandemic, they were suddenly thrust into additional therapeutic, grief counseling and social work roles for not just students, but also school families and fellow educators who were dealing with ongoing upheaval in their lives. Supporting themselves and each other throughout the pandemic, and rapidly adapting to shifting online, in-person and hybrid models, it is unsurprising that this took a toll.
Secondary (or Vicarious) Trauma
Often discussed together, but distinct from compassion fatigue, secondary trauma —sometimes referred to as vicarious trauma—includes, but goes beyond feelings of depletion. Secondary trauma describes the impact of intense stress experiences that fundamentally alter people’s personalities and outlook on life, particularly those in helping or service professions, such as social workers, oncology nurses, humanitarian workers and journalists or therapists who are repeatedly exposed to victims of abuse, suffering or other traumas.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) describes secondary trauma as the serious emotional and psychological stress experienced when one person hears about the firsthand traumatic experiences of another. According to NCTSN, people living through secondary trauma are at risk of experiencing symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress, such as increased feelings of hopelessness, fear, anger, or cynicism; insomnia and restlessness; changes in memory and perception; difficulty concentrating; intrusive thoughts; withdrawing from friends and family; and the inability to cope with everyday stressors.
Secondary trauma is particularly salient if the person trying to help is either untrained to professionally deal with children or other adults facing trauma, or emotionally drained themselves. Needless to say, the educators we spoke with identified with this too, some even reflecting that they’d known that trauma could manifest in their classrooms with students, but didn’t understand that their seemingly disparate struggles coping with the weight of the challenges facing their students and families was a common reaction to working with traumatized populations.
Many educators shared that putting a name to their experiences was validating. In an interview a few months after participating in a summer virtual learning circle, Bowen described what that aha moment was like for him, explaining that he knew secondary trauma existed but hadn’t thought of it in relation to his role as a teacher. “That really made me take a step back and say, ‘I’m talking to others about taking time for themselves and their families and their health and their well-being. I need to do the same.'”
Similarly, Leak, the middle school teacher who watched her colleagues leave their positions, reflected on the importance of being able to articulate the distinction between these commonly-used terms.
“I didn’t realize I was dealing with trauma. Because not to sound ignorant, but I just really thought trauma [was] post-traumatic stress disorder. I didn’t realize…what I was going through was called trauma. Because as an educator, they just say, “Oh, you’re just tired. Oh, it’s just burnout.”
Having the language to talk about complex experiences is the first step in being able to face them. Educators need the language and space to process their emotions and communicate about their experiences in order to care for themselves, their students and each other during these tumultuous times. By helping educators develop a shared language to describe what they’ve gone through and providing opportunities for honest, open dialogue about the collective trauma we have all experienced, schools can begin to provide the adequate institutional supports that educators and students need.