Dealing with teacher stress is no easy feat, especially for ESL teachers. Read on to find inspiration for taking back control of your life.
"My last school got bombed while I was inside it. I'm really glad I'm safe here now. Do you have a pink crayon I can use?"
Cut to me absolutely panicking and dealing with teacher stress while trying not to freak out my entire class.
I will never, ever forget those words from one of my sweet 5th graders. It was my very first-day teaching in public schools in the US (I had just moved back from teaching abroad), and we weren't even an hour into the school day. My students were coloring an all about me page and chatting about their summers when a tall, skinny girl with braided hair and glittery eyeshadow spit out those sentences. And let me tell you, I FROZE. How on earth was I supposed to respond to that? I can't even remember what I said, but I got her a pink crayon... and then cried the entire drive home that day.
All teachers have to manage tough days. From dealing with challenging behaviors to hearing heartbreaking stories from our students to the insane amount of pressure placed on us from administration, districts, and parents, dealing with teacher stress is no easy feat.
ESL teachers tend to have to deal with another layer of teacher stress that those with a more general population don't, though. It's called secondhand trauma, and it makes dealing with teacher stress a little more complicated but still manageable! I've found that having a name and a definition for the feelings I had has been so helpful, so I'm here to share what I know and a few self-care tips to help you feel like yourself again!
Before we get started, let me say that I'm not a healthcare professional, and I'm not trained to diagnose or give medical advice. I'm just sharing the information I've learned along my journey because I think it is important and not talked about enough! Please seek professional help if you need it, and consult with a doctor or other health professional before making significant life changes.
In the United States, you can call:
SAMHSA's Mental Health and Substance Abuse Hotline 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
Suicide Prevention Hotline 800-273-8255
National Domestic Violence Hotline 800-799-7233
So what is Secondhand Trauma?
Secondhand trauma is the physical and emotional response felt by someone who spends a lot of time with people who have experienced trauma.
Basically, our brains don't know how to differentiate between trauma that is physically happening to us and trauma that we are hearing about from others. When you listen to lots of horror stories from your students about war zones, life on the run, living in refugee camps, being fearful about making it across borders, and so on, your brain starts to process the information as if you actually experienced it. This leads to experiencing a lot of the same trauma responses we see in our students, from apathy to nightmares to negativity and more.
Secondhand trauma can occur in anyone that works with a traumatized population. It's often seen in other groups like therapists, ER staff, medical and court translators, and victims assistance units. Since such a high percentage of ESL students have experienced trauma, ESL teachers tend to be at a higher risk of experiencing secondhand trauma.
The good news is, once you're aware of what's happening, there are simple steps you can take to start dealing with teacher stress and secondhand trauma.
The first time I heard about secondhand trauma, I was like that overexcited kid jumping out of their seat to raise their hand going "THAT'S ME! THAT'S ME! HOW DID YOU KNOW?" It just felt so good to know that what I was feeling was real, that it had a name. Secondhand trauma isn't talked about enough, especially in ESL teacher circles. So many administrations had told me that I should be dealing with teacher stress, but when I said it felt like more than just stress, I was quickly dismissed. For so long, I had just thought that I was a burnt-out teacher incapable of handling her emotions.
So if that's you, I feel yah! You're not alone. Secondhand trauma is real, and its effects are a lot different than standard teacher stress!
The biggest hurdle is identifying what's going on. From there, you can take steps to implement a self-care plan that will help you decompress and step back.
I bet you're thinking I'm talking about bubble baths and chocolate, right? I'm not! I once was at a training where one of the leaders said, "People tell me to take a bath when I'm stressed. Why? Then I'll just be stressed and wet!" and I thought it was just the best.
The self-care we're talking about today is less glamorous and more routine, but it will have the most significant impact on your overall health!
Dealing with teacher stress in the form of secondhand trauma requires a solid self-care plan. Get out a notebook and write down any ideas you get so that they're there for you to refer to when you're at a loss for what to do.
The best advice I've heard for dealing with secondhand trauma is that self-care should be preventative, not reactive. Whenever possible, weave in your self-care plan to your everyday life, even when things aren't too tough. It'll help your brain bounce back faster when the hard times do come.
Here's a list to get you started! Note that this list is certainly not comprehensive- it's just a jumping-off point! These are ideas that I have gathered from various social work and mental health resources over the years!
Will it Ever Stop?
Honestly… I'm not qualified to answer that question. Maybe? But I'm going to guess that as long as you are working with a population that has faced trauma, you're going to feel the effects of it. I know management can definitely get easier (I know I've come a long way!), but sometimes it just creeps up on you again, and that's ok.
I will say that I have seen a HUGE difference between three of the places I've worked. In all three situations, I worked with a similar population of mostly refugee students.
If you're in a position where you're able, talk to your administration about ways to implement mindfulness programs and teacher self-care programs. It significantly impacts teacher morale, turnover, and student outcomes, so it should be in their best interest! I'm no mental health expert, but in my experience, these programs make a HUGE difference.
Dealing with teacher stress, especially secondhand trauma, is complex and can feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. Know that you are not alone and there is help out there. I hope this can be the starting off point to inspire you to start your journey of dealing with teacher stress and being the best, healthiest, happiest YOU you can be!
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