This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
In recent months, teacher Hanako Franz’s students have suffered multiple blows: two lost brothers to gun violence; another lost his best friend; other students were coping with sexual assaults or were kicked out of the house after arguments.
“So many of my students are coming in with all these other things on their minds, it’s really hard for them to focus. You can’t teach the lesson in a vacuum; you have to think about how to support your students,” said Franz, a teacher at Paul Robeson High School for Human Services in the University City neighborhood.
She has learned that she has to think about how to care for herself, as well.
Franz’s students trust her, she said, and she’s gratified by that. But, responding to their needs leaves her exhausted and takes a toll on her own well-being.
She exercises and does drumming with a group; she has joined workshops and professional groups. And she makes sure she makes “time for the people I love.”
Still, she said, “it’s hard to turn off the emotional response when I know my students are having such a hard time.”
Teachers in urban schools are essential in efforts to support children suffering trauma due to poverty, family turmoil, and violence in their neighborhoods. They are akin to first responders in the realm of education and, as such, may be susceptible to vicarious traumatic stress, if not full-fledged psychic trauma, in the course of their work.
In that regard, they have much in common with professionals in victim services, emergency medical services, fire services and law enforcement.
“Compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma – however you want to say it – seems to be pretty universal, and it’s not something that is commonly discussed,” said Juliet LeBlanc, assistant director of the Institute for Trauma Sensitivity at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass.
New teachers in particular need to “learn what we can control and what we can’t,” LeBlanc said.
“We’re not the social worker, the guidance counselor, the psychologist, but we can create an environment and a culture of resiliency and peace in the classroom. We can create that culture.”
She said, however, that the causes, symptoms and remedies are not commonly taught at the undergraduate level, though more attention is being paid in some graduate programs.
Said one teacher, a Temple University graduate who recently earned a master’s degree and teaches English in the Bronx, “They teach us what to do with a student who is drumming his pencil, who’s fidgety, but not how to handle the student who wants to throw a chair at you. Traumatic stress, yeah, it’s real.”
Kerri McGinley agrees. She’s a former teacher, principal and mentor for new teachers in the District. She witnessed burnout among teachers relatively new to the job, and too many confided they were taking medication for anxiety and stress.
“I was taken aback,” said McGinley, now assistant superintendent of the Atlantic County (N.J.) Special Services District. (Her brother, Chris, is a member of Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission.)
“Teachers are on the front lines. They’re dealing with poverty, violence, addictions, children in difficult environments. We have to ask, how do we promote healthy, long-term careers without burnout, without teachers needing medication, without physical consequences?”
The manifestations of severe stress are varied and can include physical and/ or emotional exhaustion, impatience and irritability with students and colleagues, frequent absences, and lack of organization.
Teachers tend to talk about “burning out” or, as one teacher described it, “icing out” – becoming drained of emotion.
The term of art in helping teachers tamp down traumatic stress is “self-care.” Exercise and a healthy diet, meditation and building relationships are recommended by experts and teachers alike.
Franz finds satisfaction in the exhilaration and physicality of drumming.
Angela Crawford, a longtime teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. High School, relies on strengthening and cardio exercises, aromatherapy and healing circles – routines she calls “nonnegotiables.”
“People deal with stress in various ways, sometimes with negativity. Some overeat, some drink too much. For me, exercise is my stress reliever,” said Crawford. “I can’t bring my stress into my house because then it wouldn’t affect just me; it would affect everyone I live with.”
She cited a “data-driven, document-driven, punitive kind of environment” as a significant stressor, besides the needs of students. “The well-being of your staff is important in making sure students are achieving,” she said.
Leslie Fanning, a counselor and teacher at Science Leadership Academy- Beeber, offers this suggestion to teachers needing to calm themselves: Make a list of five things to calm yourself in the short term and five things to do long-term.
Short-term methods might be taking a walk, listening to music, “whatever it is that helps you slow down and come back to yourself,” Fanning said. Long-term suggestions might include regular exercise, therapy, and meditation.
“Sometimes, a problem is too big for me,” she said. “That’s what I tell students and staff. I’m not a clinician, I don’t diagnose, I don’t medicate, but I will help you find the resources you need.”
Heather Marcus, a counselor at Julia R. Masterman School, and Brendon Jobs, who taught in the District for eight years, said they benefited from learning to practice mindfulness through workshops sponsored by the Inner Strength Foundation of Philadelphia.
That group, founded by Amy Edelstein, runs programs for students and teachers with a focus on meditation, self-care, and active listening.
“You need to feel like you’ve been heard, that you’ve been able to articulate that issue that’s on your mind so that you’re not carrying it on your own,” Edelstein said.
In professional development sessions, she encourages teachers to pair up “to offload some things on their mind.” She cautioned, though, that commiserating can take a negative turn: “In a lot of office cultures, unstructured time together can be more of a complaint-fest, where everyone offloads their complaints and nobody feels better afterwards.”
Her group has published an online “tool kit” of ways to deal with stress. The institute at Lesley has published a similar guide: lesley.edu/article/six-ways-for-educators-to-avoid-compassion-fatigue.
Jobs, who now teaches history at the Haverford School, extolled the benefits of practicing mindfulness – of learning to focus on the present, to be in the moment.
“Teachers always talk about how there’s not enough time, how there’s always one more thing to do,” Jobs said. This approach helps him “engage with students in a way that is meaningful to them, that makes them feel like they’re seen, they’re heard, they’re known.”
And in a city school, where he was seeing upward of 130 students a day, that presence of mind can make a big difference, he said, for his students and for his own peace of mind.
Marcus said she has found meditation to be very effective in responding to stressful situations, along with self-care. “We have to make sure we take some time for ourselves.”
Students share so much with teachers and counselors, Marcus said. “You hear about everything under the sun, and certainly, some of it is extremely upsetting. You’re walking a fine line. You are there as a professional, and yet you’re also a human being.”
Shooting raises anxiety
The mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and calls in the aftermath for teachers to be armed have raised teacher anxiety levels to new heights.
“I’m in online forums in Philadelphia and across the United States. We’re all a bit scared because we never know when something could happen,” Marcus said.
She took one proactive, low-tech step that is now something of a trend: She purchased two rubber doorstops – the type shaped like a wedge. “I read about it and thought I might as well buy it, and I might as well keep it in my office.”
And she’s frustrated that there may be funding for security, but not for staffing.
“Everybody that’s part of the education team – the psychologists and counselors and paraprofessionals and people we used to have more of, the non-teaching assistants and the noontime cafeteria aides – all these people would form relationships with kids, and these positions have been cut,” Marcus said.
“It’s another adult you can form a relationship with, an adult you can talk to and count on. Those are the people who aren’t there any longer.”
The responsibilities of instructing 100-plus students and tending to the emotional needs of many of them, plus the longstanding salary freeze, ultimately were too much for Jobs.
“People don’t leave because they don’t care; they leave because they’re exhausted, and that’s in part because they absorb their students’ traumas,” he said.
“By the time I left the District, I was thinking about leaving education altogether. I’m just grateful I didn’t.”