Squad Goals: Combatting Secondary Traumatic Stress in Teachers

I remember vividly the first time I put my head on my desk and cried during my lunch period.  The bell to end fourth period and move to lunch had just rung and a student was lingering behind asking me questions that had nothing to do with that day’s lessons.  I was a first-year teacher and I very much needed the next 30 minutes to catch my breath and prepare for the marathon of my afternoon classes; I looked at the student and quipped something akin to, “Well, you better get out of here or you won’t have time to eat!”  I remember exactly what she said: “Oh, I don’t need to go to lunch. We didn’t have any food in the house for me to pack lunch this week.” I don’t remember exactly what occurred next, but I know that student left with my lunch and I sat down and cried. I cried because I knew that she wasn’t the only student in my classes who didn’t have a lunch that day.  I cried because she said it so matter-of-factly, as if it was no big deal. I cried because I knew that next time, I would likely hear something worse than simply not having anything for lunch. I cried because my students were hurting, and I couldn’t fix it. That wasn’t the last time I cried, but it was the first.

Most teachers are by nature caring and giving individuals.  We don’t enter this profession because we hate children or wish them ill-will.  Research shows that roughly half of the children in American public schools have experienced trauma: neglect, abuse, violence, etc.  This statistic has pushed American teachers into the role of counselor and forced a greater responsibility for the social-emotional well-being of our students.  Schools have taken a major leap in the direction of supporting students by embracing the notion of trauma-informed learning, but the truth is that schools with traumatized students likely have traumatized teachers.

Who is at Risk for Secondary Traumatic Stress?

It is not uncommon for teachers to develop secondary traumatic stress (sometimes called vicarious trauma or caregiver fatigue).  When teachers hear the stories of their students’ trauma and try to support their recovery, they put themselves at risk for secondary traumatic stress.  Teachers who enter into direct contact with first-hand traumatic stories are especially at risk. It is important that schools and teachers know the risk factors for secondary traumatic stress and provide support for those who suffer.

What Are the Warnings Signs of Secondary Traumatic Stress?

Teachers who are suffering from secondary traumatic stress can exhibit any number of signs and symptoms, ranging from physical to emotional.  

Emotional Feelings of numbness or detachment
Physical Low energy or chronic fatigue
Behavioral Engaging in self-destructive coping mechanisms
Professional Low morale; inability to perform professional tasks
Cognitive Confusion; lacking concentration; difficulty with decision-making; and/or experiencing trauma imagery (seeing traumatic images over and over in one’s imagination)
Spiritual Questioning one’s purpose or lacking self-satisfaction
Interpersonal Physical withdrawal from co-workers or loved ones; becoming emotionally unavailable

Knowing the signs and symptoms can help teachers self-identify secondary traumatic stress and look for sign and symptoms in co-workers.  

What Can Schools Do to Support Teachers with Secondary Traumatic Stress?

Schools can work to build a culture of awareness around trauma for students and teachers.  A culture of awareness lends naturally to identifying need and providing support through:

  • Professional development around signs and symptoms of trauma and primary and secondary traumatic stress
  • Creating peer groups as support systems for teachers
  • Holding small group check-ins following a traumatic event
  • Introducing notions of self-care to teachers

Perhaps one of the most powerful ways a school can support teachers suffering from secondary traumatic stress is for the administration to acknowledge and recognize the existence of stressful situations and provide individualized support.

Why Should Teachers Practice Self-Care?


During the safety check on an airplane, flight attendants always state the importance of placing your oxygen mask on before helping someone else.  This seems counter-intuitive to those of us who are natural caregivers.  How can I watch someone suffer while I am taking care of myself? The reality of the situation, though, is that if I am suffering from a lack of oxygen, I am not going to be unable to help anyone else.  Taking care of myself first is the only way to help others.

The same concept exists when thinking of secondary traumatic stress.  I want my classroom to be a safe-haven for students in need; I want to be their rock when the rest of their world may appear to them to be crumbling.  Engaging in a hobby, exercising, or simply taking a little time away from a stressful situation is sometimes all it takes to provide clarity and return of strength. Teachers can’t be strong enough to take care of their students if they don’t first take care of themselves.

So, teacher friends, as we return from our winter breaks make an effort to reconnect with your teacher “squad.”  Find your people.  Put on your oxygen mask.

WVCTE wonders how you practice self-care in order to help yourself and your students.


The 12 Days of Poetry

BY: Jessica Salfia

The month before holiday break can be tough.  Kids are tired. Teachers are tired. I’ve heard it called the “lame duck” days of teaching.  Sometimes it can feel like we’re all just holding on until exams or break, not really wanting to jump into something brand new, but also not wanting to succumb to the sweet temptations of sliding a movie into our DVD players and checking out until break.

So what’s a teacher to do?

This year my answer to this problem was the 12 Days of Poetry!

This unit was inspired by two things.

In September I had the pleasure of listening to the brilliant and talented Clint Smith skype with Karla Hilliard’s AP Literature students. Smith is a poet and a teacher and during his talk with our students he described doing a 30 day poetry exchange with another poet. They tasked each other with writing and sending a poem a day to one another every day for 30 days.

Smith said that what this activity did was force him to generate a lot of poems, and at the end of the 30 days he had several poems that had some real merit. He also admitted that not all of them were gems, but that the act of being forced to write everyday helped him generate some truly great ideas.  (Interested in Clint Smith? Pick up this brilliant poetry collection.)

I couldn’t stop thinking about this activity, and how it would be a great assignment for my Creative Writing students.  I have often said to my students that there is no greater gift than the gift of words.

Then, I saw this video: (Caution: there is a bit of profanity.)

In this video, Buzzfeed writer, Erin Chack, tells the story of how she accidentally became famous in the Mediterranean country of Malta all because she was forced to write.  You see, at Buzzfeed writers are given the freedom to write about whatever they want, but they have to post an article by the end of the day. Erin had a terrible case of writer’s block and ended up “throwing up a post” about Malta, the country where her grandfather was originally from.  As a result of this post, Erin became an international Maltan celebrity, and had lunch with the Prime-Minister’s nephew. (I’m paraphrasing, of course. Erin tells it much better in her video. Just brace yourself for a few swear words.)

I loved the message in Chack’s video: she had this incredible experience and adventure because she was forced to write something, to produce something by the “end of the day.” I knew there was an assignment here too.

And then a single Christmas commercial featuring the song “The 12 Days of Christmas” gave me the idea to combine Smith’s poetry exchange and Buzzfeeds’s “you have to produce before you leave” notion with a festive, holiday vibe.  Words are gifts, so instead of “Five Golden Rings” my students would give each other poetry!

And the 12 Days of Poetry was born.

What is it?

Students must write a poem and give it to a fellow classmate before they leave class each day for 12 days.

(Our unit actually became “10 days” because I didn’t have enough school days before exams for 12 when I came up with my cool title… But the spirit of the holidays was upon me, sooo….)

I introduced the concept by showing the video of Buzzfeed’s Erin Chack talk about the Malta article.

Then, I passed out the handout and explained the task.

Students draw a popsicle stick with a classmate’s name on it to see who they are giving a poem to that day, and each day they must work with a different classmate.  If they pull a name they’ve already pulled, they simply draw again. The goal is to draw a different name each day.

Then, they must write a poem and give it to the person they drew with enough time left in the period for that person to complete a few short reflections.  They can write a poem about ANYTHING they want.  But it must be a poem, and it must be completed before they leave.

When students receive a poem from a classmate, they must jot down some noticings and write a short review/reflection of their classmate’s poem. In the spirit of giving, I asked them to keep their noticings and reflections positive.  I created a chart for them to record these notes on.  They also share these reflections with their classmates when they give the poems back to the authors.

12 Days of Poetry Handout

At the end of 12 days (or in my case–10), students will select from the poems they generated the poem that they feel has the most merit or potential.  They then will revise and polish it, and turn it in with a short reflective writing that expresses why this was their best work from the past 12 days and how reading their classmate’s poems affected their own writing.

Our final day of poetry exchange is tomorrow, and this has been by far one of my favorite assignments of the year.  Plus- there’s a chance you get to see some really hilarious poems like the ones below.


And some that are truly raw and powerful like this one…


In my class this final project is part of their Semester Exam Creative Writing Portfolio.  Below is the final task they will complete during their exam time next week:

“12 Days of Poetry Exam Task”

  1. Be prepared to turn in your poetry reflections from our “12 Days of Poetry.”
  2. Choose 1 of the poems you wrote during this project. Polish it, revise it and submit it with a 250-500 word explanation that addresses the following:
    • your reflection on being forced to write every day for the duration of the project
    • your reflections about reading your classmates’ work
    • why the poem you’re submitting is the best of the ones you wrote during the course of this project
  3. Turn in your final draft of your revised “best” poem and your explanation together.


This assignment can easily be adapted to fit your pre-winter break or post-winter break schedule in many ways.

If you’re going to give this assignment a try, I’d love to hear from you! Send us an email, a Facebook message, or a tweet and let us know how it goes!

Happy Writing!