Put on Your Own Mask: Secondary Trauma for Educators

I wrote this blog post for Andy Milne for his blog slowchathealth.com. You can find the original article here. When fatigue and stress build up in our education profession, it’s a good idea to evaluate our risk for secondary trauma. Thank you Andy Milne for this great opportunity!

I have a long commute. On purpose. I crank up classic rock, or jazz, or Taylor Swift. I listen to books on tape, podcasts, and TED talks. Or I just drive in silence and watch the corn fields along the highway. It’s the most precious time of my day, especially my afternoon commute. It’s my time to disengage, process, leave work life behind me and welcome my home life.

Secondary Trauma

If you have answered the call to teach, you are in a physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding job day after day. It doesn’t matter where you teach, what you teach, or who you teach. This profession demands everything you have plus three more of everything you don’t have. In addition, as if teaching wasn’t demanding enough, many educators find themselves in roles previously reserved for mental health professionals. With our increasing population of students experiencing trauma, we become counselor, advocate, and social worker. When the cumulative emotional and psychological burden of carrying the weight of our student’s trauma gets too heavy, teachers are at risk to develop secondary trauma.

Secondary Traumatic Stress, also called Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Trauma, is a real thing.

Secondary trauma happens when “educators who deal with traumatized children. . . develop their own symptoms of traumatic stress.”

https://traumaawareschools.org/secondaryStress

Teachers can feel depressed, irritable, guilty, hopeless, isolated, or numb. We can withdraw from loved ones, develop unhealthy eating or sleeping habits, or loose the energy and interest in activities we used to love. 

If we’re not careful, we can burn out pretty quick. When that happens, not only are we unable to care for ourselves, we can’t care for those depending on us.

A Lesson From Flight Attendants

If you were to fly somewhere, and an emergency occurs, oxygen masks will, apparently, drop down in front of us. Flight attendants advise, 

“Put on your own mask before assisting others.” 

I was always skeptical about this. Wouldn’t my motherly instincts kick in to make me reach for my daughter’s mask before I secure my own? Wouldn’t that be the right thing to do?

Then I realized the truth of the situation. In a real emergency, were I to ensure my daughter’s safety before my own I might succeed in the short term only to fail in the long run. For, in the time it takes me to save my daughter, my own brain is being deprived of oxygen. I have put myself at risk for some serious consequences that will place my daughter in further danger.  

But let’s say that when emergency strikes, I take care of my own safety first. Then, by providing myself with adequate oxygen, I can quickly and efficiently attend to my daughters’ safety.

The National Child Traumatic Stress network says, “Parents and teachers who take care of themselves are able to take better care of their children and students.”

https://www.nctsn.org/

Put on your own mask first. 

In my work with traumatized children, I’ve discovered some little tricks you can start doing today to protect yourself from Secondary Traumatic Stress. It’s not a complete list, but it’s the things that have helped me.

1. QTIP – Quick Taking It So Personally.

 To quote Tom Hanks, “It’s not Personal. It’s Business.” 

This helpful phrase remind us that whatever happens in our students’ lives is not personal to us. The way they are acting in your classroom is not personal. The horrible home life they go to is not personal. And the fact that you haven’t been able to reach them is not personal. It just is. You’ll reach some kids and you won’t reach others. It has way more to do with where they are in their life than with you. I can’t say it enough. It’s not personal. So, let’s look at what it is. 

2. Recognize what it is.

Recognize secondary trauma for what it is. It’s real and it effects the mental health of thousands of professionals each year. If you are experiencing compassion fatigue, name it what it is. Evaluate which aspect of your work with children is at the root of your stress.  

For me, it was the pure sadness of so many children living such horrible lives. The fifth grade girl whose mother had been murdered. The boy who had been moved to his third foster home. The first grader who was told his mother didn’t want custody of him after she got out of jail. The weight of the trauma came home with me every day. I needed a way to live my own life without living their pain. 

3. Distance yourself.

It sounds harsh and callous, but to be mentally healthy enough to show up for our mentally unhealthy kids, we have to be able to separate our lives from theirs. Empathy is being able to climb into the pit with someone and sit there. But it doesn’t mean we stay there. We can climb out of the pit to address our own mental and emotional needs. In fact, it’s necessary that we climb out of the pit so that we are refreshed and can go back to sit in the muck with kids. 

My long commute gives me distance, physically and emotionally. I can be with my own life while I leave my students’ lives behind. When I drive to work in the morning, I can meet those lives again with what they need. I distanced myself in order to get closer.

4. Give yourself permission to say no. 

Teachers are people, generally, who say ‘yes’ to everything. We said yes to one of the most rewarding but difficult careers. Thus the importance of learning to say ‘no.’ Give yourself permission to say no to that committee, after school commitment, or student who someone else can help more than you. I promise, when you start saying no, the world will not fall apart. I used to think that if I didn’t take care of everything, no one would. That’s a lie. If you say no, someone else will say yes.

Last year, I ate lunch with a group of third grade boys every Tuesday. These boys all had difficult home circumstances, and during our lunch bunch we talked about how things were going in their day and their lives. One Tuesday, I was struggling. I wanted to lock my door, turn off my lights, and eat lunch in darkness and silence. 

When the boys came to my door, I told them that I was sorry, but couldn’t do lunch bunch today. No explanations. No excuses. They expressed their sadness and returned to the cafeteria. And everything was fine. The boys didn’t fall apart, the world kept spinning. I had my down time and even fit in a little yoga stretch before my afternoon classes. Everybody won, including the kids in my afternoon classes who got a replenished teacher instead of a repleted one. 

You’re Not Alone

Finally, and most importantly, remember you’re not alone. Reach out to teachers in your school, district, town, or social media circles. Find others who are struggling and help them. Find other people who have struggled and ask them what they did to make it through. Ask for help. Connect. You are not alone. 

Unselfish Selfishness

It may sound counter-intuitive and even a little selfish to put on your own mask before helping others. But caring for yourself is not selfish. On the contrary, it’s unselfish because you’re preparing yourself to meet the needs of others. When we don’t take care of ourselves, we wind up quitting before we wanted to, or bringing adversity home to our own families, or becoming alcoholics, or just bitter teachers at the end of their career who aren’t any help to anyone. 

Reach for your own mask. Breathe. Then go help others.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m late for my ride home with Bono. 

Resources for Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS)

The above tips are what I do to combat Secondary Trauma, but here are some resources from those more experienced and intelligent than myself (and one shameless self-promotion). 

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