We Have to Stop Telling Teachers to "Buck Up" and Start Talking About Provider Trauma Instead
Updated: Nov 27, 2019
I used to think that crying was a normal part of teaching. I actually didn’t know of any teaching colleagues who hadn’t cried over their job at some point. It was so common in fact that I joked that you weren’t a real teacher if you didn’t cry over your students now and then. I look back on that mindset now and want to cry just for thinking that. Look, teaching is hard. It is one of the most stressful jobs out there. The statistics around teacher turnover and retention, stress levels and burnout are outright horrifying. But crying is not, I repeat, not a normal part of the job. It is actually a warning sign that you are experiencing high levels of stress and/or trauma and it's important to give this the attention it deserves.
When I was still in the classroom, I was told that high levels of stress and trauma were par for the course and that I needed to "buck up" and stay strong for my students. This was a common narrative. I once had an administrator visit me after a long, tough week and when I broke down in tears in front of her, she sneered at me and told me to figure out how to deal with my issues. She added that she didn’t feel like I was actually cut out to teach in the city. She said, "Maybe you should think about finding a job out in the suburbs." Yikes. Not only is this attitude misguided (teachers in the suburbs deal with work-related trauma and stress just as urban teachers do) it was outright dangerous. My mental well-being was disregarded and my trauma was minimized in a way that made me feel guilty for even feeling this way.
But I thought this “buck up” approach was normal. I blamed myself for not being strong enough for the work. I dealt with it by running away (calling in) now and then, self-medicating (beers--lots of beers after work), commiserating with colleagues (read: bitch sessions that gave us space for venting but never resulted in problem-solving) and by trying my best to just get stronger.
Recently, a dear friend of mine, Tonya Wilhelm, helped shift my entire perspective on what was going on with all the crying. Tonya is a therapist who has 25 years of experience working with folks who have experienced trauma. Lately, she has shifted the focus of her practice onto something that she calls Provider Trauma. You may have heard of things like compassion fatigue, secondary trauma, vicarious trauma, or burnout. Each of those terms has its own nuanced definition. Tonya uses “Provider Trauma” as a collective term for the consequent symptoms a professional may have from helping others who have experienced trauma. The idea is that those of us who work with people in trauma will invariably experience some level of our own trauma. And even beyond that, teaching as a profession exposes us to a lot of events and situations that result in primary trauma.
I’ve known Tonya for years. She has been my confidant and sounding board all through my teaching career. When I was still in the classroom, I used to talk to Tonya a lot about my stress levels and the overwhelming feelings of burnout. But back then, I did this thing called “minimizing” where I rationalized that my own stress and trauma was nothing compared to the trauma many of my students were dealing with. I had students who were homeless and highly mobile, students who had experienced great loss, and who had been victims of abuse, students who lived in poverty and who came to school tired and hungry. My own “issues” seemed like nothing in comparison. Tonya always reminded me that my own stress and trauma was as valid as anyone else’s, but I didn’t listen. I was still running the “buck up” narrative through my own head.
It wasn’t until Tonya shifted the focus of her own work around Provider Trauma, and I started digging in and asking her a million questions, that a lightbulb finally went on. I realized I hadn’t been crying because I was weak. I was crying because I was experiencing my own work-related trauma and it was manifesting itself physically, as trauma does.
Just having the language around this concept has opened my eyes to all of the ways we are doing a disservice to our educators by asking them to simply “get stronger.” It is absolutely crucial that we start talking about work-related trauma in education. This isn’t optional. This is the work that needs to be done in order to start changing those horrifying statistics around teacher retention and burnout. And so to that end, I’d like to offer some ideas for how to start talking about Provider Trauma in your own schools and how to focus on your own mental health.
Before that though, I want to put out this disclaimer: I am not a mental health provider. I am an educator who has personally experienced work-related trauma and who now supports and coaches other educators who are currently experiencing differing levels and types of work-related trauma. My goal is to provide some information and ideas for addressing work-related trauma but you should seek the expertise of a professional mental health provider for further information and support.
So how do we start doing the work around Provider Trauma?
Start using the terms at work. We need to start talking about Provider Trauma regularly. We have to acknowledge that this is a legitimate concern and we need to work to destigmatize Provider Trauma and other work-related trauma. When I was in the classroom, the concept of Provider Trauma wasn’t even on the radar. I was told to stay strong for my students and leave my own issues at home. I never even realized that some of my “own issues” were directly related to my job. If I even simply had the terminology and the awareness that this kind of trauma is real, it would have reframed everything. Simply introducing the terms and raising awareness is the first step.
Talk to your administration about work-related trauma and Provider Trauma and ask them to allocate support for this as part of your ongoing Professional Development. Introduce the concept by sharing this blog, sharing Tonya Wilhelm’s work, or sharing some of the other resources linked throughout (all of them are linked again below). Ask them to make a commitment to allocating time and resources to this topic. There is an amazing FREE resource for teachers that introduces Provider Trauma and is organized into an online module. This would be a fantastic starting point for introducing this work into your PD. And did I mention it’s FREE? It’s called Support for Teachers Affected by Trauma (STAT) and you can find it at www.statprogram.org
Okay, now I have to be honest. I have brought this topic up with administrators and am sometimes met with some pushback. The “buck up” culture is so deeply ingrained in education that some administrators don’t see allocating time and money toward “talking about our feelings” as a good use of resources. In those cases, you will need to reframe this for them in terms of the bottom line (read: money). There are record numbers of teachers feeling stressed and burned out. This results in a plethora of problems from apathy and ineffectiveness in the classroom to increases in sick days (which result in the need for subs) and to outright leaving the field. If you talk about this aspect to your admins, they are likely to listen.
Recruit help. Find the folks on your staff who work in the area of wellness and mental health and introduce these ideas to them. Partner with them and go talk to your administration together. If you don’t already have one, bring the idea of a wellness committee to your administration so that there is a dedicated group of folks who would lead this work. (and if you are not in the place mentally to be able to be on that committee, that’s okay!)
Learn the symptoms. Read up on Provider Trauma. Learn to identify some of the symptoms of Provider Trauma. Find out as much as you can so that you will be able to strategize for yourself, and so that you can share information with your colleagues. You can start with the list of resources below.
Connect with colleagues. I once taught in a school where I never found any other colleagues that got me or that I connected with. By November, I started using one personal day a month to skip work and go take a hike in the woods and mostly just cry. I look back on that experience and think if I had connected with even one or two other teachers there, it probably would have changed the whole experience. I only lasted at that school for a year.
Look, even though you are surrounded by people all day long, teaching can often be one of the loneliest professions out there. We spend all day with people who don’t have fully developed prefrontal cortexes and we sometimes forget that we need to talk to other adults in order to re-ground ourselves. I know we are busy and we have a ton on our plate, but it is crucial that you find colleagues who you can connect with. This may occasionally take the form of that aforementioned bitch session, but really, the connection doesn’t even need to be about work. Find people to chat with about common hobbies, interests, etc. The idea is that we need to feel a sense of belonging and a sense of solidarity in order to stay mentally healthy.
Check in with your own mental health frequently. I used to keep a daily journal where I would just quickly jot down a high and low from the day. It was when I realized that I was really struggling with coming up with a “high” for several days, or even weeks, in a row that I realized I needed to focus on my own mental health. Find a way to do some self-monitoring. There are many ways to check in with yourself. Journaling, chatting with friends, colleagues and loved ones, etc. There is also a pretty nifty tool out there called the Professional Quality of Life Measure that can help you assess your own work satisfaction, burnout, and compassion fatigue.
Make time for self-care. Okay, I know, I know. A lot of people hear “self-care” and cringe. The concept of self-care has been commodified and codified to mean pedicures, candles, and warm baths, and even though I love a good glass of wine while I get my nails done, I know that isn’t actually what mental health providers mean by self-care. What they do mean is focusing on taking care of yourself. This is everything from physically caring for your body with healthy food and exercise to making sure you are setting aside time to be with the people you love, spending time doing the things you love, and checking in regularly with how you are feeling. There are a million ways to do self-care that don’t involve buying things from Crate & Barrel and creating Instagram-worthy experiences for yourself. For me, it was hiking in the woods, biking, being with my family, meditating, journaling, and honoring my own emotions. It may look totally different for you. If you are struggling with what that looks like for yourself, you might want to start here with a Self-Care Assessment Worksheet.
Interrupt the “buck up” narrative. Shut that mess down whenever you can. It will help immensely if you have introduced the terms and have talked to your colleagues and admin but even if you haven’t, whenever you hear your fellow educators talk about “bucking up” or being stronger, take a second to let them know that feeling stress and trauma related to your work as an educator is normal. And even if you aren’t ready to speak up to your colleagues, you have to interrupt that narrative in your own mind. When you catch yourself minimizing your own feelings or trying to be strong, acknowledge that and remind yourself that these feelings are real and that you are not weak for having them.
And finally, don’t be afraid to seek professional help. I spent a lot of time minimizing my own stress and trauma by telling myself, “Well, I have a safe warm home to go to at night. I have food in my kitchen and clean clothes every day. A lot of my students don’t have those things so I have no right to feel sorry for myself.” This way of thinking kept me from seeking the professional help that I needed and deserved. Mental health issues carry a lot of stigma in our culture that needs to be challenged. It is okay to ask for help. It is okay to find a therapist and to spend time working on your own mental health. It is more than okay. In some cases, it is crucial.
Tonya Wilhelm, LICSW, Founder of Wilhelm Therapy & Consulting, specializing in Provider Trauma
Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self and Others by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky with Connie Burk
Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski, PhDandAmelia Nagoski, DMA
ProQOL: Professional Quality of Life Measure The ProQOL is the most commonly used measure of the negative and positive effects of helping others who experience suffering and trauma. The ProQOL has sub-scales for compassion satisfaction, burnout and compassion fatigue. FREE!
STAT (Support for Teachers Affected by Trauma) A FREE online course where teachers can learn about Provider Trauma, explore strategies for self-care, and track progress over time (https://statprogram.org/)
SHAPE (School Health Assessment and Performance Evaluation System): A FREE self-assessment tool for teams to assess the comprehensiveness of their school mental health system and to identify priority areas for improvement. (https://www.theshapesystem.com/)
Compassion Fatigue Self Test: https://www.ptsdsupport.net/compassion_fatugue-selftest.html