Our Research Shows Educators Are Experiencing Trauma During the...

Opinion | Learning Research

Our Research Shows Educators Are Experiencing Trauma During the Pandemic. Here’s How We Can Reduce the Burden.

By Carlomagno Panlilio and Christy Tirrell-Corbin     Mar 2, 2021

Our Research Shows Educators Are Experiencing Trauma During the Pandemic. Here’s How We Can Reduce the Burden.

This article is part of the guide: Voices of Change.

Educators play a critical role in our communities, but lately—and increasingly— they are burdened with responsibilities more appropriate for other members of the community, such as counselors, social workers, nurses and community organizers. This juggling act is particularly salient in under-resourced communities, where grappling with these issues can be a daily struggle.

Since the onset of the pandemic nearly a year ago, educators have been tasked with addressing new, multi-layered challenges due to the primary and secondary trauma associated with COVID-19. Evidence suggests those responsibilities are taking an emotional toll on these critical members of our communities.

We are researchers who study childhood trauma and co-directors of the Trauma Sensitive Pedagogy (TSP) project, which is a classroom-level intervention that provides educators with knowledge and skills to address the learning needs of children who have experienced complex trauma. As part of a needs assessment we conducted for TSP, our pre-COVID-19 data showed a high rate of secondary traumatic stress (STS) within a national sample of early childhood educators (birth through grade 3). According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, STS refers to the emotional toll of hearing about and supporting those who have experienced trauma. In some cases, STS impedes professional functioning and/or diminishes educators’ quality of life.

By comparison, four months into the pandemic, every educator in our TSP project reported experiencing secondary traumatic stress as a result of the added burdens brought about by the pandemic. As we approach the grim one-year mark, the same educators continue to report high levels of traumatic stress, especially as they look to returning to their school buildings.

In addition to fulfilling their instructional duties, the educators we work with are juggling many intersecting issues that include providing support for the families of their students and managing their own families' pandemic-driven needs. Taken together, such a balancing act can take a toll on educators’ mental health and well-being. In fact, we have seen and heard first-hand how the stress of their COVID-related experiences has brought tears to educators’ eyes and a tremble in their voices.

Until we can implement a long-term solution, we must find short-term remedies to support children in under-resourced communities and, in turn, reduce the burden on our educators. Given that schools are reopening across the country, there really is no time to waste.

One approach, which we describe below, is to leverage the technology we relied on to get schools and students through the pandemic to address some of the needs brought to light by the pandemic. There is evidence that technology allowed educators to both forge stronger relationships with parents and increase parental engagement in their children’s learning over this past year. What’s more, many organizations have identified new ways to engage various members of their communities through technology, linking them to food aid, anti-bullying efforts and effective coping strategies.

Attending to Social-Emotional Needs

Dr. Jill Biden, arguably America’s most famous educator, has said, “Teaching isn’t just what I do, it’s who I am.” Education is more than a profession—it is a commitment to the next generation, but often at an educator’s own peril. Educators in our research project reported emotional exhaustion, discouragement, guilt, insomnia, sadness and worry as a result of the shift to remote learning and all the challenges that came with it. We must therefore identify ways to share responsibility for the children in our communities so our educators can focus on what they do best: supporting and stimulating student learning.

We wholeheartedly support President Biden’s Plan for Educators, Students and our Future, which takes a comprehensive, community-wide approach to education. His focus on community schools and the mental health and well-being of children and educators is critically important in addressing the impact of COVID-19 and poverty-driven needs. Nonetheless, even if approved by Congress, implementation will take time, a luxury that children and educators do not have. This is particularly urgent for the children who continually experience trauma, and the educators attempting to support those children with little administrative guidance and limited resources.

While the news media largely focuses on the physical health, mortality and economic consequences of the pandemic, the reality is that many educators are attending to the social-emotional consequences on their students. In under-resourced communities, disparities in service availability and access often place the burden of care solely on educators, requiring them to go beyond addressing curricular standards in classrooms and, for most, beyond the preparation they received to become a teacher.

There is no doubt educators are working extra hard during the pandemic. Educators who participate in our TSP project have collected donations for grocery store gift cards for families in need, organized holiday toy drives, contacted state legislators to advocate for the reopening of school-based health clinics to ensure children had access to medical care, facilitated access to virtual mental health screenings, dropped off school supplies to children’s homes, and attended virtual funerals. It warrants repeating: Educators are increasingly tasked with responsibilities more appropriate for other members of the community, such as counselors, social workers, nurses and community organizers.

Across the country, schools face increasing pressure to reopen because of a widening achievement gap, consequences of social isolation and parents’ need to return to work. But returning to school buildings is a complicated endeavor that goes beyond health and safety protocols.

A ‘Community-Wide’ Approach

In order to alleviate such a burden on a single community member, it is important to call on all of those within the community encompassing a school (e.g., health, social services, community advocates) to collaboratively support children, families and—yes—educators.

Across the U.S., there are already examples of shared responsibility for raising the children of a community. Kentucky’s Family Resource and Youth Services Centers provide programs that address school transitions, parent engagement, physical and mental health, mask distribution and food insecurity. Judy Centers, established by Judith P. Hoyer, the late wife of Congressman Steny Hoyer, focus on school readiness by providing services to children from birth through age 5 and their families. The work of each Judy Center is guided by 12 Component Standards, which address high-quality early learning experiences for children, service coordination and family support, early identification/intervention, health services and adult education.

Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has laid out a Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child model that calls for staff wellness in addition to the psychological and social service needs of children and families. Such a model can therefore address the needs of everyone in the school community, ensuring that the “trials and tribulations” of educators do not interfere with the quality of care and instruction that our students need to succeed.

A Short-Term Solution

One way that communities can work together in the short-term is to leverage technology that is already in place, to quickly bring everyone in the school community together to support children, families and educators.

Video conferencing can allow educators, social workers, medical professionals and community advocates to collaborate with students and families, in small groups and large, from their offices, classrooms and homes. A virtual approach eliminates the need to compete for meeting space and to account for travel time and costs. Instead, it allows for more consumer-oriented schedules and flexibility in meeting the needs of every member of the school community.

Mobile apps make information on local food banks, job opportunities and mental health counseling available right at one's fingertips. Electronic polls provide an easier way to gauge consensus, while shared electronic drives and documents enable collaborative strategic planning in real time.

Within a trauma-informed framework, a team of educators and support staff in a school could leverage these technologies to discuss the overall social-emotional, physical and learning needs of a particular student through a virtual meeting. Akin to an IEP team meeting, identification of student needs and progress could be documented on a secure, shared electronic drive where responsibilities for meeting such needs would be assigned to the relevant roles (e.g., reading specialist, social worker, etc.). Family-based needs could also be included in such documentation, and use of electronic-based resource maps could identify and connect students and families with the appropriate services based on need. This team approach reduces the burden on any one educator, which is likely to reduce STS and allow teachers to do what they do best: teach.

Finally, coordination of supports for educators will be important in addressing the secondary traumatic stress they have experienced over the past year. Activities such as mindfulness, virtual yoga and exercise have been found to be helpful. However, more formal opportunities to address STS are now available virtually, in the form of support groups and counseling, as well as STS-related education.

It took the pandemic to show us that these technologies were necessary to provide ongoing learning opportunities for our students. As we now embark on a nationwide reopening of schools, such technologies are indispensable in quickly and efficiently wrapping the community around educators and their students to address everyone’s well-being, from the physical to the emotional.

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