Secondary Trauma in Teachers

The Battle You Didn't Know You Were Fighting

By Heather Garrett

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As you pour yourself into others, you shouldn't lose yourself

Teachers spend their days reinforcing routines, creating learning experiences, forging growth mindsets, and building confidence in their students. They often give so much to their students, schools, and communities that they don't have the energy to take care of themselves.

That's just burnout, right? Sleep deprivation? The natural plight of the American dream? Spring Break will help teachers rejuvenate. And they get summers off, so they can sleep in July.

But it's not just burnout. It's more than fatigue. It's depletion. It's emptiness. It's helplessness.

And it's real.

The Administration For Children and Families describes Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) as "a natural but disruptive by-product of working with traumatized clients. It is a set of observable reactions to working with people who have been traumatized and mirrors the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder."

Who Is at risk for developing Secondary Traumatic Stress? (We all are)

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) can affect anyone who works with individuals entrenched in trauma, including teachers: “the essential act of listening to trauma stories may take an emotional toll that compromises professional functioning and diminishes quality of life.”

Teachers, particularly those who serve in high-need, high trauma schools, work with students who come from traumatic backgrounds that many cannot fathom. They interact daily with students who are in foster care, have incarcerated parents, or are experiencing homelessness. Too many have been exposed to gun violence. Most live in poverty.

Teachers absorb the effects of trauma in their students' lives. And, unfortunately, teachers do not come out unscathed.

Teachers are not OK.

In the following TedTalk, Amy Cunningham, the developer of a Compassion Fatigue training program for the Center for Health Care Services, explains how it feels to experience Secondary Traumatic Stress.

Symptoms of Secondary Traumatic Stress in Educators

Below is an abbreviated list of cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and physical effects teachers may experience as a result of Secondary Traumatic Stress:
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Preventing Secondary Traumatic Stress

Below are some practical suggestions to lessen the individual impact of secondary trauma:
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Treating Secondary Traumatic Stress

Awareness, prevention, and support for educators is essential to the well-being of teachers, the health of school climates, and, ultimately, the success of students. Some helpful guidelines on proactive and reactive measures regarding Secondary Traumatic Stress are below:
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Check Yourself: Professional Quality of Life Scale

The Center for Victims of Torture developed an assessment tool to measure individuals' level of satisfaction when working with others entrenched in trauma. A sample of the tool, scoring guide, and results analysis are below. You can access your own copies at

Problem Solved! Or is it?

So far, you have not encountered any information on this site that you can't find for yourself with a quick google search. This information is helpful in learning more about Secondary Trauma in educators, why it happens, how it affects teachers, and how to prevent it. It is important work necessary to increase awareness, self-assess levels of trauma, and devise a plan of prevention and treatment within schools. We all have access to these tools, so what's the problem?

Why are teachers leaving the profession?

Why are they reporting low job satisfaction?

Why, especially in high poverty, high trauma schools, are they not delivering rigorous instruction every minute of every day?

Secondary Traumatic Stress...Check.

Too often, teachers - and those who support them - view these types of guidelines as another tool in their toolbox. Another bullet point in a list of best practices.

Are we treating teacher support as though we are giving out nutritional supplements when our teachers are running out of oxygen?

How do we incorporate these vital components of teacher support into the fiber of our schools' infrastructures? How do we ensure that our students get the best of us each and every day?

The teaching profession is in a crisis. What if all school leaders viewed teacher support as a primary core to affecting student learning and providing student support, rather than an afterthought during Teacher Appreciation Week?

Authentic and Intentional Teacher Trauma Support:

The Key To Success

The founder of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, Lowell Milken, once wrote: "Good teachers are to education what education is to all other professions - the indispensable element, the sunlight and oxygen, the foundation on which everything else is built." Ultimately, our students will not get the best version of their teachers until teacher trauma support is a non-negotiable, fundamental element in our schools. Breathing life into the life-givers, the ones who provide the sunlight and oxygen, the ones on which everything else is built, should be the rule, not the exception.

In order for the problem of Secondary Traumatic Stress to be sufficiently addressed, school and district leaders must understand the systemic symptoms that may arise as a result. Below is a list of common symptoms of Secondary Traumatic Stress that adversely affect the health of schools, their employees, and their students.

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Resources for School/Organizational Readiness Evaluation

School and district implementation of teacher trauma support is critical to the success of students.

If you would like to assess your school's secondary trauma support needs, current level of support implementation, and suggested next steps for a healthier school, below are links to some valuable tools from

Vicarious Trauma–Organizational Readiness Guide

Vicarious Trauma - Organizational Readiness Score Sheet and Planning Guide

Teacher Traumatic Stress: The Problem School Leaders Cannot Afford To Ignore

Authentic teacher support should be a foundational element of the structure and system that our schools are built upon. STS should be a high-priority consideration for those who support teachers. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network notes: “Individual and supervisory awareness of the impact of this indirect trauma a basic part of protecting the health of the worker and ensuring that children consistently receive the best possible care from those who are committed to helping them."

In our schools, all of our stakeholders should view authentic, personalized teacher trauma support as life-giving, not life supplemental. This paradigm shift requires school leaders to place teacher supports alongside student supports as the highest of priorities. Before we can provide students what they need, we must provide our teachers what they need. Maslow, anyone?

About the Author

Heather Garrett teaches high school English in Jefferson County Public Schools. She is passionate about doing what is best for students, and wants to challenge others to rethink how to make life (inside and outside of the classroom) better for students and for those who serve them.

View Heather Garrett's blog!