Last week, we discussed how teachers can help traumatized students be successful in school. This week, we’re tackling the other side of the equation: how to support the teachers who serve these children.

Working in a highly stressful environment, such as an under-resourced school, can take its toll on our health and well-being. Indeed, chronic stress causes wear and tear on the body and brain, and is associated with weakened immune system systems and a number of serious illnesses that are leading causes of death. 

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In addition to being potentially vulnerable to the effects of chronic stress, many educators who work day-in and day-out with youth who have experienced trauma find that they begin exhibiting symptoms similar to those of their students—even when they haven’t had to endure trauma themselves. Scientists call this “vicarious trauma” (or “secondary trauma”).

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In her work with the UCSF Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools (HEARTS) program, one of us (Joyce) helps educators recognize the emotions that arise from vicarious trauma, along with the impact that these emotions can have on their work. For example, teachers might frequently find themselves on edge, hyper-alert for potential threats. Or they might feel numb and isolated—they may want to interact with people, but it just seems too exhausting or painful.

Joyce also helps school leaders understand the impact that chronic stress and trauma can have on their overall school environment. A school is like an organism—an integrated system that begins to break down when exposed to unhealthy conditions. For instance, the school’s sense of community may begin to disintegrate, fueled by finger pointing and a lack of cohesiveness. Similar to when the brain’s frontal lobe goes off-line under duress, overriding our more deliberate judgments, a culture inundated with trauma may derail a school’s decision-making process as choices are made without considering system-wide impact.

Recognizing the signs of chronic stress and vicarious trauma helps both teachers and school leaders understand the inner and outer chaos they may be experiencing: It doesn’t arise because they’re mean and lazy, or bad at their jobs; rather, it’s a sign that everyone is stressed to the max and trying to cope, with few resources at hand.

The solution is for everyone to work together to create a safe, warm, caring school environment, which will mitigate the impact of chronic stress and vicarious trauma. To do this, it’s absolutely essential that school leaders appreciate what everyone in the building—including themselves—needs in order to feel safe and supported. Here are some strategies that administrators can use for creating a trauma-sensitive school.

1) Cultivate positive connections between staff members. When we’re stressed, often the way we heal is in relationships with other people. So just like traumatized students need to feel safe and supported, teachers who work with them need to feel this way as well. Taking the time to build a strong staff community, and filling teachers’ cups with positive interactions and specific praise from both colleagues and administrators, will help them feel cared for. And this will in turn help them take better care of their students.

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For example, at one of the UCSF HEARTS schools, the HEARTS clinician regularly gathered anyone who was available to go for a short walk up a nearby hill and practice mindful breathing. Locomotion in nature—moving in a space that is green or peaceful—is one of the quickest ways to reset our nervous system after a stressful day. So taking a walk together helps teachers not only to stave off burnout but also fosters positive relationships with each other.

2) Create a wellness group for teachers—but keep it optional. Giving teachers a time and space to talk about what’s stressing them out—and, most importantly, to practice calming techniques such as mindfulness or progressive muscle relaxation—can mitigate their stress.

There’s a saying in neuroscience: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” That means the more we practice certain wellness techniques in a safe, non-stressful environment, the stronger our brain’s wiring becomes for states of equanimity and calm; ultimately, this makes it easier for us to access these mental states when we’re in the middle of a crisis. So instead of tensing up and turning red when something stressful occurs, we automatically think, “I’m going to take a deep and mindful belly breath,” which helps us remain calm, present, and connected.

An important caveat: Don’t require teachers to attend the wellness group. Toxic stress and trauma can render teachers helpless, making them feel like they’re victims of circumstances beyond their control. Offering them the option to join a wellness group will help empower them to start taking care of themselves. But don’t worry if only a few teachers show up the first time—Joyce found that word-of-mouth works wonders after just the first meeting.

3) Start each staff meeting with a wellness practice. If a wellness group or daily walk doesn’t seem feasible, you can use staff meetings to encourage teachers to de-stress and support one another. Some suggestions include:

Teachers do heroic work, and many of them are incredibly smart and motivated to make a difference in the world. But when we don’t attend to their stress and vicarious trauma, they can become worn-out and less effective, and in turn our students suffer. Teaching educators about the impact of chronic stress and trauma and how to deal with it can turn this situation around and help both our students and teachers succeed.

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