Teachers, Are You Experiencing “Vicarious Trauma”?

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This is a guest post by Moriah Stephens, a high school teacher in a school outside Minneapolis, Minnesota. See Ms. Stephens’ bio below. Edukention thanks Moriah for being our first ever Guest Blogger!

[Details in this post have been altered to maintain anonymity and protect the privacy of those mentioned.]

“I have to wear them, otherwise everyone will see.”

I had only been teaching for a few months, in a self-contained high school classroom. I had been a substitute and a paraprofessional previously, but this was my first time teaching in special education, with a full-time license. I had a student who always wore heavy pants, and would complain about being hot, but never wore shorts or even cropped pants. I asked them about it, and received the above response. 

“Everyone will see what?”

“Come with me to the bathroom and I’ll show you.”

The student rolled up their pants, exposing countless fresh and healing scars. “They go all the way up. I don’t know why I do it, but I have to. And I don’t want anyone to know.”

It’s been over a year, and my stomach still sinks when I think about it. My stomach also sinks when I think about the first CPS report I had to make, the IEP I read with 3 full single-spaced pages detailing abuse, and the time I spent over $100 on toiletries, because a student’s guardian refused to provide them. 

As I finish up my second year of full-time teaching, with an entirely different caseload of students, I still carry those stories and experiences with me, like a trunk that’s been cuffed to my ankle. 

Last year, the trunk got so heavy that I had a panic attack. I was having a completely innocuous conversation with a staff at my school, when suddenly my breathing got shallow, my chest tightened, and my vision went blurry. I managed to sit down while, for the next ten minutes, it felt like my entire body was going to burst into pieces. Upon processing with this staff member, they mentioned that it sounded like I had been experiencing vicarious trauma. 

Vicarious trauma, according to the Australian organization The Lookout, “is the experience of trauma symptoms that can result from being repeatedly exposed to other people’s trauma and their stories of traumatic events. It is cumulative, building up over time.”

I have a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism. We learned about, and how to cover, so many traumatic events. I have a masters degree in special education. In neither of these areas of study did the concept of vicarious, or secondary trauma ever come up. And that’s a problem.

In speaking with other educators, I’ve found that the majority did not learn about vicarious trauma in their prep programs, and if you read about vicarious trauma, the research centers mostly around social workers, counselors, and emergency medical service providers. Why is it not considered that school-based educators will encounter the same stories? The students we see from 7:30-3:00 are the ones who are home in the evening when the police are called, or attending therapy, or sitting in the hospital with a family member. They bring those realities with them to the classroom, where we are ill-equipped to support them.

While I am currently a teacher, I believe that educators in all capacities deserve appropriate and adequate training in what vicarious trauma looks like, how to work through it, and how to support students simultaneously. I say this, because in 2016 I worked as a paraprofessional, and I still have experiences from that time in my trunk. I watched students be tranquilized and taken to the hospital. I saw students have their lunches withheld for misbehavior, while knowing that would have been the only food they’d have gotten that day. A few weeks after leaving that particular school, I got a call that one of the students I’d worked with had murdered a close family member – stabbed them to death amid a psychotic break. I still remember that student’s name, and every few months I look to see if their records have been made public, if they finally received necessary psychiatric help, or if they’re just being shuffled through the carceral system. I also regularly check in with the person who called me to tell me – they too, keep this student’s name close to them.

I don’t share these narratives for pity. I am naming my vicarious trauma publicly to hopefully give a voice to other educators who are struggling to carry the weight of student trauma, with no preparation on how to do so. I want these educators to know that what they’re feeling is real, that whatever the manifestations are – sleeplessness, inexplicable irritability, hopelessness – are valid.

This is something I want everyone to see. I want everyone to know.

Moriah Stephens is a high school special education teacher outside of Minneapolis, MN. She holds a Masters in Developmental Disabilities from the University of St. Thomas, and was a 2020-2021 fellow for the MN Education Policy Fellowship Program. She spends her free time playing Animal Crossing, listening to true crime podcasts, and sitting in her hammock. The primary tenet of her teaching philosophy is that all students are capable, able, and worthy of love. Follow her on Twitter @CallMeMoprah

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