By Lee McCall (she/her), behaviour support teacher, Courtenay
Have you ever had an experience where a student with whom you had a close relationship shared a traumatic personal story with you? If your heart raced or you had difficulty sleeping that night because of this disclosure, you may have experienced secondary traumatic stress (STS). STS is the immediate activation of your stress response system from these types of interactions combined with the desire to help. Other terms that are often used interchangeably are vicarious trauma, indirect trauma, and compassion fatigue.
I am a behaviour support teacher, and exposure to the trauma narratives of my students is a significant occupational hazard. Thus, when I considered a research topic for my master’s degree, I very easily decided to focus my efforts on combing the literature for strategies that would help special educators like myself minimize the “cost of caring,” a phrase first used by psychologist and professor Charles Figley to describe compassion fatigue.
I discovered there is no research specifically focused on STS in special educators. There is little research focused on educators in general; much more research is focused on other caring professions like medical personnel, therapists, and first responders. Most of the preventative recommendations for educators are based on research in these other areas where exposure to secondary trauma is more obvious.
Many teachers work with students affected by trauma; consequently, professional development related to trauma-informed practices to support students has received significant attention in recent years. An important next step is providing training and support for staff to manage their responses to trauma when working closely with students who have experienced trauma.
Training and awareness
Not surprisingly, as I conducted my research, I began to feel my resiliency increase in the face of STS. What I found particularly helpful was taking the Professional Quality of Life (ProQOL) self-score measure.1 This online assessment is free to use and allows the individual to gauge their levels of STS, burnout, and compassion satisfaction. The two former terms are the negative feelings of working with those who are suffering; together they are components of compassion fatigue. Compassion satisfaction, conversely, is the emotional benefit generated through working in a caring profession. If compassion satisfaction scores are higher compared to the other two scores, then one’s overall professional quality of life is more positive. Learning that the stress I was feeling could be measured helped me immensely, as it allowed me to acknowledge that my suffering was real, which activated feelings of self-compassion.
Furthermore, this knowledge led to increased mindfulness, which has been found to mitigate the effects of compassion fatigue.2 Specifically, my ability to monitor how my interactions affected my stress levels improved. I found more satisfaction in my job by actively focusing my attention on interactions that bolstered my positive feelings and releasing the negative interactions.
One daily strategy that has proved to be immensely helpful is a debrief at the end of the day with my team. By acknowledging the frustrations and intentionally reviewing and celebrating the successes, I have found work-related concerns can be more easily switched off at the end of the day.
Active attention to self-care is most often touted as the first line of defense against compassion fatigue. Self-care has many different definitions, but I understand it to be any activity that one finds restorative. Getting enough sleep, eating nutritious foods, exercising, time in nature, and doing other activities one finds enjoyable are essential self-care strategies. Some suggest that stress cycles remain trapped in your body until you actively release them through activities like deep breathing, sharing affection, connection with others, and laughter.3 This framework for thinking about stress has had a motivating effect on me. Now when I have a particularly stressful day, I automatically recognize the need to exercise, which is one of the most effective activities for release of stress.
In addition to these more traditional ideas of self-care, I have found a few other strategies to be protective. Most important was to reject the “work is my worth” mindset, to set boundaries and to say “no” more often to requests for my services. I have also hired a house cleaner and a meal preparation service periodically as an act of self-care. Furthermore, using my teacher benefits package and scheduling massage and acupuncture treatments throughout the school year helped me to combat the negative physical effects of stress. By prioritizing and by making self-care activities a habit, one is more able to neutralize stress responses as they occur, find joy, and shield oneself from compassion fatigue.
In our role as teachers, we care for others all day. We also need to care for ourselves. Therapy can be an important act of self-care if you find yourself struggling with elevated levels of compassion fatigue. Counselling support can easily be accessed through the Employee and Family Assistance Programs, which are part of our BCTF benefit packages.4
Symptoms of STS increase with exposure to student-trauma narratives, so special educators, administrators, counsellors, and other support staff like educational assistants and Indigenous support workers can be more at risk for com-passion fatigue compared to some other school staff. However, all teachers can be exposed to STS, so universal opportunities for learning about compassion fatigue and the value of self-care are important.
Literature specific to compassion fatigue in special educators repeatedly cites administrative and school support as being critical to educators’ personal experiences of compassion fatigue. One of the symptoms of compassion fatigue is a feeling of isolation. So, feeling seen, understood, and supported can be immensely beneficial. Book clubs and other supportive meetings can be an effective way to build connections within a school community. Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators by Elena Aguilar is a book structured around the school year and written from a coaching point of view. It provides a framework to start a supportive professional group with colleagues.
Teachers are called to the profession because they care for students. However, we must acknowledge that we cannot “fix” our traumatized students. Instead, students need us to model self-care, healthy relationships that observe boundaries, and emotional regulation. In this way we can successfully help those students who need our support the most, while shielding ourselves from the harmful effects of over-caring for those who are suffering.
2 Lori M. Sharp Donahoo, Beverly Siegrist, and Dawn Garrett-Wright, “Addressing Compassion Fatigue and Stress of Special Education Teachers and Professional Staff Using Mindfulness and Prayer,” The Journal of School Nursing, Vol. 34, No. 6, 2017, p. 442–448: www.doi.org/10.1177/1059840517725789
3 Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Ballantine Books, 2020.