3 teacher self-care tips for stressful, traumatic times

Educators, I know that you are being called, once again, to work through extraordinary uncertainties and daunting expectations. We’re all facing our own difficulties due to COVID-19, and many students will return to school changed by the hardships they’ve faced this year. Their experiences can take their toll on you, adding stress to already overwhelming circumstances.

While there is not a quick or easy solution for removing the challenges you currently face, I can offer three strategies I’ve learned to lean on during times of stress or even trauma: name the impact, use your Steel Magnolias voice, and find strength in resiliency narratives. I hope they help you as you navigate this uncertain school year.

1. Name the impact

I am a sociologist’s kid. Growing up, when sociolog-ized by my mother, of course I rolled my eyes. What I can now appreciate as an adult is this: My mom gave me language to name what was impacting me, and language is power.

Even during “normal” conditions and contexts, because of the intense service nature of the profession, educators can be deeply affected by the lives of their students. And we may not always know how to put words to what we’re feeling. Trauma Informed Oregon offers four primary terms to describe what teachers often experience. In our current chaotic times, it’s even more likely that you may be suffering from one of these.

  • Burnout: The emotional strain of multiple sources of stress adding up over time.
  • Vicarious trauma: The accumulated emotional strain of working closely with survivors of trauma.
  • Secondary traumatic stress: PTSD experienced by an individual that mirrors the PTSD experienced by their client, friend, family member—or student.
  • Compassion stress: The emotional strain that accompanies helping or wanting to help a trauma survivor.

Without knowing the names of these very real impacts, you may feel like you aren’t strong enough, there’s something wrong with you, or you aren’t working hard enough. Nothing could be further from the truth! Caring for children who are in distress takes a very real toll on the adults around them, including you, their teacher.

The good news is that when we can name the impact of what we’re experiencing—that is, when we can say what is causing us distress and what our distress looks like—we can be more empowered to care for ourselves and recharge our low battery. This small act of voicing our reality can help us lessen feelings of being paralyzed by the difficulty we’re living. By using stress and trauma terminology—like “vicarious trauma”—or simply by finding vocabulary of your own, it will also get easier to name what you’re experiencing to loved ones as well as to care providers, like a primary care physician or therapist. And when others understand what you’re going through, it can be easier to get the support you need.

To learn more about the signs and symptoms you may be experiencing and how to get help, I encourage you to read “The impact of secondary trauma on educators.”

2. Use your Steel Magnolias voice

I met my best friend, Beth, in seventh-grade orchestra, and we bonded over our love of ’80s movies. One of our favorites: Steel Magnolias. To this day, the most inspirational scene for me is when Louisa, played by Shirley MacLaine, pounds her fists on the nurses’ station at the hospital, relentlessly hollering until the past-due pain medication is given to her beloved daughter. During the intense and passionate scene, Louisa is not disrespectful; she is insistent and refuses to be ignored because her daughter is needlessly suffering. I think educators can relate. We see first-hand how students, colleagues, and communities are affected by unreasonable barriers, a lack of essential resources, broken promises, and pressures of forces beyond our control.

[Y]ou may feel like you aren’t strong enough, there’s something wrong with you, or you aren’t working hard enough. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Although it’s not advisable to pound fists or holler in an educational setting (we don’t want to add to the toxic stress or trauma our students and colleagues may also be experiencing), there are constructive ways to channel our inner Shirley MacLaine and insist that learners, communities, and educators Get. Help. Now! Speak up at meetings. Amplify your Steel Magnolias voice through letters, social media, and community forums. If you haven’t done so already, consider joining an advocacy organization so your voice can join a chorus. I encourage you to consider Educators for Excellence and NEA.

3. Find strength in resiliency narratives

Even in “normal” times, educators can feel overwhelmed by the enormous obstacles impacting schools, learners, and neighborhoods. One way to acknowledge the challenging realities while not being consumed by them is to find solace and strength in resiliency narratives that come from our elders, ancestors, or community leaders—or even by sharing our own stories.

Licensed clinical social worker Jude Treder-Wolff explains that “Telling stories about our pain, problems, and hard-won perspective can be a cathartic release, a testament to overcoming adversity, and a gift to the listener, all at once.” Stories—both listening to them and telling them ourselves—can help us develop what she calls our resiliency muscle. “Through story,” she adds, “we can come to terms with, and make meaning of what happened and must be faced.”

As Karah Frank wrote on the Trauma Informed Oregon blog, “Far from a foolish refusal to face reality, resiliency stories don’t lie to us about the severity, nature, or history of a problem. […] [R]esiliency narratives carry in them ideas for the way forward. […] [M]odels for community resiliency can help us articulate creative and comprehensive solutions.” She goes on to give an example of a model of resiliency that can lead to creating more stories of resilience.

I also encourage you to explore the Making Ourselves Resilient Everyday (I Am M.O.R.E.) website. The organization’s vision comes from S. Renee Mitchell, a co-learner I met in the educational leadership doctoral program at the University of Oregon. She builds resiliency with youth and educators through trauma-sensitive learning experiences that honor funds of knowledge, repair relationships, raise self-awareness, and recharge optimism. And finally: What went well last spring? What’s gone well during your first few days of school? Focusing on successes can help you give yourself the overdue credit you very much deserve.

I see you

I know how much you care and hurt for your learners, your school, and your community. I know you may be experiencing significant personal stress and perhaps even trauma right now. While I, unfortunately, cannot remove the challenges you face, I hope at least one of the strategies, tools, or resources in this post can bring you a little bit of reassurance, validation, or support. Here is some additional reading you might find useful:

I leave you with a few words of encouragement from Mitchell: “When life hands you a broken heart, use the fragments of your deepest pain to create beautiful art.”

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