Trauma Is Everywhere. My Experience With It Made Me a Better Teacher.

Voices | Teaching & Learning

Trauma Is Everywhere. My Experience With It Made Me a Better Teacher.

By Jennifer Yoo-Brannon     Nov 29, 2021

Trauma Is Everywhere. My Experience With It Made Me a Better Teacher.

This story was published by a Voices of Change fellow. Learn more about the fellowship here.

Content Warning: pregnancy loss/stillbirth.

One Saturday morning in 2015, at 37½ weeks of pregnancy, I couldn’t feel my baby move. I waited for a kick or a shift of movement that never came. The subsequent nightmare of induced labor, delivery, waiting and managing the painful disconnect between what I knew had happened and my body’s response to having a baby is too difficult to put into any more words than this. In the end, we never got an answer from the doctors about my first pregnancy. The best explanation medical science had to offer us was, “You and your baby were perfectly healthy. It may have been a cord accident.”

It took some convincing by a grief counselor, but eventually I understood that I had experienced trauma, and that I was suffering from PTSD as a result of the stillbirth of my first child. When I became pregnant again, I met regularly with a therapist who helped me manage the effects of my past trauma. I was convinced that I would lose this baby too. Fortunately I did not, but when the worst thing you can imagine happens, there is no longer a reason to believe that all kinds of horrible things can’t happen again and again.

In the weeks after our loss, I would call my husband at work multiple times a day to see if he was OK. I would wake up at night to check that my dog was still breathing. I was deathly afraid of mosquitos because of the risk of Zika virus. I could no longer protect myself by saying, “What are the chances of getting Zika? It’s so unlikely.” When you are part of the 1 percent of mothers who experience a stillbirth, you can no longer engage in that kind of statistical thinking.

Years ago, I came across the idea of trauma-informed pedagogy, a practice that asks educators to keep trauma, and how it affects us, in mind. In other words: teach like you understand that we’ve all been through it. Back then, my understanding of trauma and PTSD was limited to this vague idea that war veterans and victims of violent crime were the only ones who could legitimately use these terms. Since then, I’ve realized that trauma, like pregnancy loss and stillbirth, is more common than you think.

I recognize now the ubiquity of trauma—the distinction between “Big T and little t” traumas—and the fact that no matter the scope, it impacts learning and the everyday business of education. There are childhood traumas and more recent traumas educators carry into school settings, and there are a myriad of traumas our students experience; ones that we, as the people who are tasked with teaching them, may know nothing about.

In addition to this part of the educational landscape, which has existed for decades, when schools were dismissed and teachers went home to work from their laptops, I believe we collectively experienced what the trauma researcher Samira Rajabi calls “ambiguous grief.” Rajabi does not discount the very real grief of losing a loved one to COVID-19 or experiencing a long illness. But she also describes a universal “low level grumble” of trauma. So, knowing this, what can educators do to address it?

Becoming More Mindful

During my second pregnancy, I learned coping mechanisms to fend off panic attacks. I eventually gained the self-awareness to recognize my hyper-vigilance and my tendency to engage in catastrophic thinking. This recognition came with practical strategies. Most importantly, I learned about mindfulness and it saved me.

My favorite definition of mindfulness is from Jon Kabat-Zinn, a leading expert in the field, who says that mindfulness is “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” Practicing mindfulness allowed me to push a metaphorical pause button on my spiralling catastrophic thinking. Multiple times a day, I would put a hand on my growing belly, take many deep breaths and say to myself, “Right now, everything is OK.” Not only did mindfulness in the moment help me stop a progression of negative thinking, but, over time, mindfulness created a space in my mind for self-compassion and healing.

Educators, I realized, need the superpower of mindfulness in order to do the difficult work of trauma-informed instruction, and we need it now more than ever. Here’s why.

Sarah Fuller

The Super Power of Self-Awareness

I distinctly remember a moment in the classroom when a student raised her hand and asked, “Miss, are you mad at us?” It caught me off-guard. I wasn’t even talking to the class at that moment. In my mind, I was berating myself for not thinking through my instructions well enough. I felt like the students didn’t have a clear understanding of what to do because I didn’t give them enough structure. My student caught me in a moment when I was standing still a little too long with eyebrows furrowed, staring off into the middle distance, which happened to be at her table group. From my body language, she concluded that she had done something wrong and I was upset with her specifically.

How students interpret your words and actions are shaped by their own experiences and traumas. I later learned from her counselor that Monica (a pseudonym) had her own traumas to contend with including the recent departure of her father from the family home. Her eagerness to please me, and the way she would internalize any kind of negative feedback to the class, were part of her own unique responses to trauma.

I do not have control over my students’ interpretations of my actions but I can be more aware of myself. Mindfulness has helped me become more aware of my thoughts and feelings moment by moment and how those thoughts and feelings are broadcasting outward towards others. I turned to Monica and I unclenched my fist, relaxed my face and said, “No, I’m not mad. I’m beating myself up for not being perfect. Thanks for snapping me out of it.”

The Super Power of Pausing

Tell me if this sounds familiar: You go to your overflowing inbox to find an email from your administrator asking to meet. There are no details, no information about the purpose of the meeting or what will be discussed. Your brain goes into hyperdrive. You think, “When was this administrator last in my classroom? Is it time to be evaluated? Should I be worried? Did I wear deodorant this morning, because I think I’m sweating through my shirt.”

Maybe your version of this story is, “Why is this parent emailing me? What did that student say I did? Now I have to meet with this parent and a counselor and everyone will think I’m a terrible teacher.”

In that split second after reading the email from an administrator or a parent, mindfulness can drive a wedge between the input and your reaction. Mindfulness can give us the Zach Morris time-out power which allows us to notice and acknowledge what is really happening. Mindfulness has made me less defensive and more curious; less reactive and more open to all interpretations. It has given me the power to stop and ask myself, “What is real? Right now, what is actually happening?”

Perhaps the administrator wants your input on a decision that will affect your department. Maybe the parent wants to know how best they can support your student or maybe it is something slightly less worse than the worst possible scenario you imagined. Teaching is stressful enough. We can’t let our lizard brains, the part of our brain that houses our fight-or-flight impulse, make us think everyone is out to get us. Going into a meeting with an administrator or responding to an email to a parent with fear and defensiveness does not serve anyone. Take a breath.

The Super Power of Self-Compassion

In 2017, I began to teach my juniors what I learned. We engaged in weekly Mindful Moments on our Mindful Mondays. I talked explicitly about how our brains work and how our brains work against us. Each week, we would begin with a short video and then engage in a minute or two of silence, beginning and ending with a gong sound I would play on my phone. One of these Mondays, I shared a video about negative self-talk. I asked students to write out a stream-of-consciousness of the negative thoughts they often hear in their own heads. I shared my own:

I should be spending more time with my baby. I came back to work too soon. I’m neglecting my instructional coaching duties because I’m focused on teaching my classes. I’m missing too many days with my students because I have to be in meetings. I’m not doing any job well. I really should lose this baby weight...

I told my students that, to combat this negative self-talk, I began repeating a simple mantra in the mornings as I got ready for the day: I have enough, I do enough, I am enough. Since it’s hard to start a new habit, I say this to myself as I brush my teeth. Sometimes, I change the order of these statements depending on what I need to tell myself that day.

When I find myself impulse-buying on Amazon because of my anxiety that I don’t have enough developmentally appropriate learning toys for my child, I would say, “I have enough.” When I feel guilty for being late on a deadline because I have too much on my plate, I say to myself, “I do enough.” When I start to shame myself for not going back to the gym, I say, “I am enough.” I shared all of this with my students and asked them to develop their own mantras. One student, Paolo (a pseudonym), raised his hand and said, “I want to say to myself: I’m a worthy human being.”

By the end of the year, students told me that the mindfulness strategies we learned together in class helped them to stop the negative self-talk constantly playing in their brains—that they weren’t good enough, smart enough or worthy enough. They may not have all passed the AP exam, but if they left my class with that super power, that is enough for me.

As teachers, we need to have thick skins and soft hearts. We need to let go of defensiveness and be that calm, non-reactive presence in classrooms, in meetings, in moments of workplace conflict. Mindfulness cannot solve all your problems or heal your students’ trauma, but it can empower us to be present to ourselves, acknowledge our experiences, name our traumas and start to address them, because pain that is not transformed is transmitted.

We don’t have to be experts on trauma. But we should be the kind of mindful educators who cultivate spaces where healing can happen.

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