Recently, I read a fascinating article on Edutopia about something called ‘vicarious trauma’ that really touched on a time in my career I try not to dwell on too much. A few years ago, I taught at a school where there was a high level of students dealing with trauma – whether from neglect, abuse, hunger, violence or some other event – the reality was, I was treading into territory I wasn’t prepared or ready to deal with.
What struck me in the article was in the example given, the student was older and able to, eventually, verbalize the root of her behavior. I was dealing with five-year-olds who had no way of processing the trauma they had, or in many cases, were continuing to, be privy to. Sadly, this wasn’t one or two students, but year after year, it seemed more and more of my class were dealing with events that no child should have to know about. During my third year at the school, I knew I was in over my head.
My health started becoming affected. I was getting sick more often than I should have been and after one of many visits to my doctor for a myriad of issues, she finally said to me, “You’re too stressed out. All these issues are because your body is overstressed.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was experiencing, what the article calls ‘vicarious trauma’ – basically all the symptoms of actual trauma can be felt by a teacher (or other caregivers). What I realize now is that with so many students dealing with trauma, this was compounded for me. It was overbearing and I had no tools to deal with it.
Of course, the real frustration is how do we stop the trauma from occurring in the first place. My deepest wish would be a wand I could wave to make all my students’ lives happy, innocent, filled with love and more than anything carefree.
The article offers some tips on dealing with vicarious trauma and I wish I had known some of them then (hindsight really is 20/20), but I hope that moving forward, others who experience this type of stress can find ways to be kind – not only to the children who need us most but to yourself. Remember, we need to be not only present but well and grounded, so we can take care of others.
(Please take a few minutes to read the linked article, it might actually help you or someone you know.)