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For Teachers, Lifestyle

How Personal Trauma Can Lead to Teacher Burnout

By Amy Anderson, MEd, LPC, LADC November 27, 2018

You may have seen it, been around it, or maybe you’re experiencing it right now: teacher burnout. It’s sadly very common and it can often be labeled as Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS).

Many of us struggle to find ways to set boundaries, recognize our own limitations, and prioritize our personal needs. It becomes even more difficult when you add working with students who have their own traumas going on. What is the key to never doubting your chosen profession? The answer is not to become even more involved or overly invested, especially if the issue hits close to home. Many of us have our own past traumas and, no matter how big or small they are, our personal history multiplies the stress we feel when our students experience similar traumas. This depletes us of our own emotional strength. So how do we combat Secondary Traumatic Stress? Let’s take a closer look.

Trauma terminology

Burnout, Secondary Traumatic Stress, Compassion Fatigue, and Vicarious Trauma are all terms that have recently been used. But what are the differences between them? I like the National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s explanation of them:

  • “Burnout is characterized by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a reduced feeling of personal accomplishment. While it is also work-related, burnout develops because of general occupational stress; the term is not used to describe the effects of indirect trauma exposure specifically.
  • Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) refers to the presence of PTSD symptoms caused by at least one indirect exposure to traumatic material. It is a negative feeling driven by fear and work-related trauma. Several other terms capture elements of this definition but are not all interchangeable with it.
  • Compassion fatigue (CF), a label proposed by Dr. Charles Figley, as a less-stigmatizing way to describe secondary traumatic stress, has been used interchangeably with that term. It breaks into two parts. The first part concerns things such as exhaustion, frustration, anger, and depression typical of burnout. The second part is STS.
  • Vicarious trauma (VT) refers to changes in the inner experience of the therapist resulting from empathic engagement with a traumatized client.  It is a theoretical term that focuses less on trauma symptoms and more on the covert cognitive changes that occur following cumulative exposure to another person’s traumatic material. The primary symptoms of vicarious trauma are disturbances in the professional’s cognitive frame of reference in the areas of trust, safety, control, esteem, and intimacy.”
  • Compare the differences in this chart.

STS trauma

There are some parallels to burnout, including symptoms such as exhaustion and feeling overwhelmed, isolated, and/or disconnected. Vicarious trauma is much more pervasive. It impacts all facets of life, including your body, mind, character, and belief system. The person suffering from vicarious trauma changes the way in which they relate to the world around them. 

Like burnout, vicarious trauma typically develops over a period of time, after many sessions of listening to painful experiences with an empathic listener. 

Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) is now a given for professionals who work with traumatized children. If you are in a position in which you hear children talk about their traumatic experiences, you are at risk for STS. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), risk appears to be greater in professionals who are:

  • Women
  • Individuals highly empathetic by nature or who have unresolved personal trauma
  • Carrying a heavy caseload of traumatized children
  • Socially or organizationally isolated
  • Feeling compromised due to inadequate training  

How to defend against STS

Find your balance and realize it may not look like what your peer’s balance looks like. Recognize that what people’s lives look like  — especially on social media — is often not an accurate or in-depth window into how they’re really doing. Understand that balance isn’t a straight and consistent path that you will always have to walk perfectly. Balance is more like a stream that ebbs and flows, weaving its way through a forest. Well, that’s how I like to see myself as balanced! We all must find our own calm while recognizing every important part of our lives: work, home, health, relationships, self-care, learning to say no, etc.

Educator Andrew Hawk points out that teachers need to be aware of the fact that there will be times when their lives are off balance. Plan accordingly, taking a proactive approach to identify times during the school year when you know you will need more time, help, or support. Maybe it is before or during state testing, which can be a stressful time for both teachers and students. My school had a great “helping hand” resource where volunteers came into the school to help teachers with different tasks like making copies and changing bulletin boards.

Don’t be shy about asking for help. You’re utilizing the resources around you so that you can be a more effective educator and a more balanced individual. Many people also seek counseling to deal with their own past trauma(s) that may be triggered by a student’s, or as a way of getting an outside perspective that’s unbiased and full of resources. 

It’s also important to stay trauma-informed:

  • “Recognize the impact of secondary trauma on the workforce.
  • Recognize that exposure to trauma is a risk of the job of serving traumatized children and families.
  • Understand that trauma can shape the culture of organizations in the same way that trauma shapes the worldview of individuals.
  • Understand that a traumatized organization is less likely to effectively identify its clients’ past trauma or mitigate or prevent future trauma.
  • Develop the capacity to translate trauma-related knowledge into meaningful action, policy, and improvements in practices.
  • Be integrated into direct services, programs, policies and procedures, staff development and training, and other activities directed at Secondary Traumatic Stress.”

One of the first things I was taught as a new teacher was not to expect a high return or fast results when working with students who experienced trauma. We may not see any type of positive outcome during our short time with them, but we have to recognize the importance of planting a seed that may take root later in their lives. Managing our expectations while taking care of ourselves is crucial to long-term success and wellness. 

You are not alone

Not all teachers have one-on-one support. If you are going through Secondary Traumatic Stress, I hope you recognize that you are not alone. There is help and support for you.

Learn to put yourself first

We are always giving and our emotional resources are usually depleted. You are your best advocate. To be able or available to help our students, we first need to make sure our own trauma is being taken care of and that we are mentally and emotionally healthy. Just like first responders, we have to make sure we are safe before we can try to help anyone else. 

Amy Anderson is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor in Oklahoma. She’s currently an instructor for Concordia University-Portland’s MEd in Curriculum & Instruction: Trauma and Resilience in Educational Settings. She also teaches for the psychology and counseling department for a Christian university in Oklahoma. Amy has a small private practice where she sees couples and individuals of all ages for mental health and substance abuse issues. She is a certified EMDR counselor with an emphasis in trauma and attachment disorders. Her background includes teaching in public education and counseling and clinical mental health and substance abuse intake, assessment, and treatment.

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