Carrying Our Students’ Trauma Home with Us

By Sydney Jensen, SEL in Action Community

This conversation is part of a series led by SEL in Action awardees from across the country. SEL in Action community gatherings invite educators to exchange promising SEL practices, co-create solutions to challenges, and tap into a network of peers for support. This summary reflects key themes and takeaways from our conversation on February 19, 2020.


“We absorb the trauma our students share with us each day. And, after a while, our souls become weighed down by the heaviness of it all.” Sydney Jensen

Sydney Jensen’s 2019 TED Masterclass on the impact student trauma has on teacher well-being, day in and day out, stopped us in our tracks. It’s impossible to quantify how much teachers care about their students. Teachers never want their students to experience harm or hardship, and yet the reality is there’s so much that’s out of their control.

For many teachers, these hard realities weigh on them long after the bell rings. With Sydney as our guide, we came together as a community to discuss student trauma and its emotional impact on teachers.

The Joys and Pains of Teaching

As Sydney says, “Teaching is soul work, and that’s what makes it both rewarding and impossibly hard.” There is so much joy to be found in teaching. When asked what brings them joy, these were among the things that participants shared:

  • Sense of purpose
  • Lifelong friendships with colleagues
  • Greeting students by name as they come off the bus and making a personal connection in the morning
  • Incorporating students’ voice into lessons and seeing how they respond to new things in the classroom
  • Being a cheerleader and resource to teachers and other staff who work on the frontlines
  • Sense of privilege and gratitude to be well, healthy, and present

Some days, however, these feelings of great joy are overrun by experiences that are heavy on our bodies, souls, and hearts. According to a 2016 national survey, one in five children in the U.S. had two or more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Personal experiences were shared that brought this statistic to life. Several of those who joined the conversation have lost students to violence, illness, drug abuse, self-harm and suicide. As one participant shared, “It’s always terrible when you lose any member of the school community, and especially a student. We always question what more we could have done. It hurts. It’s devastatingly draining.

Another participant shared that, in addition to dealing with student trauma, she also regularly manages the weight of personal trauma and harm, all while aiming to bring love to her work with children everyday. Educators may have experienced trauma individually and/or collectively by way of social systems (see this article by Shawn Ginwright). Another participant shared a medical experience that left her partially paralyzed, and this was in the wake of having lost a parent. Trauma comes in all shapes and sizes. Teachers are humans doing their best to manage the weight of students’ hardship while also persevering through their own challenges.

This is the dichotomy of teaching. Teachers willingly give in service of others, and there’s so much pride and gratitude in that, but in doing so they also absorb some really heavy realities for their kids and their families.

Coping with the Pain

How do these experiences impact teachers on a daily and ongoing basis?
 How does one cope when that weight becomes too heavy to carry? Several different approaches were shared.

1. Look for the good.

One school principal shared that three of their students had passed away in the last year. The one thing that helped her get through these times was the outpouring of support she and her staff received from other schools. It helps to look for the good in others and to find comfort in the kindness all around us.

2. Return to your well and fill your cup.

“When in and amongst trauma, remember the things you need for yourself,” shared one participant. It may sound trite, but the mind and body need exercise, fresh air, good food, and rest. In the wake of devastating events, it’s important to check in with and make time to care for yourself, whatever that means to you.

3. Be in community.

Several participants spoke to the importance of their school colleagues and “family.” In hard times, it helps to come together and be in community with others who are also hurting. Ask the question, “How can we care for one another?” Create time and space to be with one another.

4. Acknowledge and share in the pain.

There is no getting around the sadness that comes with losing someone or knowing your students are facing other traumatic experiences. One participant shared, “It is sad. We have to work to not just shut down, because then we also lose the joy. We have to deal with it.” By sharing in collective pain and collective healing, educators—and students—can get through hard things together.

One teacher gave a recent example of this in action. Just before the semester began, the class lost a student to suicide. The literature that had been planned for that semester directly focused on mental health, including the topic of suicide. While the teachers’ first instinct was to rework the lesson plans to avoid the topic, they decided (with the school psychologist’s coaching) to address the topic head-on and create a supportive space for students to relate and express any sadness they were feeling.

5. Disrupt the harm.

Sometimes the best way to cope is to take action. Look for any opportunity to courageously intervene and speak out on things in the moment. Remind students of the love, kindness, and support that surrounds them. Model caring behaviors.

Healing the Healers: Strategies and Support

There’s a sense that it’s selfish to focus on teacher mental health when student needs are so great. However, teachers need support to help them manage the weight of secondary trauma. According to a 2014 Gallup study, 46% of teachers reported “high daily stress” during the school year, which tied with nurses for the highest stress rate as an occupational hazard. What would help teachers manage these stressors so they can stay in the profession with longevity?

A few different ideas were shared:

  • Create space for deeper connection with students. One participant recently redesigned his lessons to cover core content in recorded modules, thereby freeing up class time for 1:1 conversations with students. It’s “opening up windows” of communication for students that allow for deep relationship-building and intervention.
  • Connect different experiences and share your own story. One teacher started to recognize the connections between her own physical disability and other traumatic experiences and disabilities (academic, physical, emotional). She began to share these connections with her students. “Sharing your story can impact students on a massive level, and help you to heal as well.”
  • Dedicate resources to teacher mental health. For example, one district provides three complimentary counseling sessions for any traumatic life event. Resources, of course, require funding which is a challenge for many districts and simply not the priority.
  • Bring added attention to the issue of secondary stress and teacher mental health. Research on secondary trauma and the impact it has on teachers and teacher retention is much needed in order to garner additional resources. HR2544, The Teacher Health and Wellness Act, would allocate funding for such research.

Where To Go From Here?

One thing’s for sure; this was a much needed conversation. Let’s do more to support educators as they manage the weight of trauma, both their own and of their students. Let’s care for those who care for our students. Thank you to everyone who participated in this community gathering.

Biggest thanks to Sydney Jensen, for facilitating this conversation. You can learn more about and connect with Sydney through her website and on social media (@sydneycjensen on Twitter and @lovemsjensen on Instagram).

Thank you to all who joined this SEL in Action community gathering! Join us for the next conversation on March 3, 2020 on “restorative” classroom management with Phillip Taylor.