As the number of students dealing with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) has increased, so has the incidence and severity of disruptive behaviors in classrooms. And that, experts say, has led to tremendous secondary stress for teachers. In fact, teacher stress levels have ratcheted up in recent years because of a number of factors—something that CEA has teamed up with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence to study in a statewide survey of educators.
“We are seeing it here,” says Bloomfield fifth-grade teacher Mary Kay Rendock, “and my colleagues around the state are seeing it as well.”
“Teaching has always been a stressful profession, but in recent years it has become even more so,” CEA Teacher Development Specialist Kate Field explains.
Exacerbating the problems caused by traumatic childhood experiences, she says, are a number of other variables, including early kindergarten start age, high-stakes standardized assessments and test prep in the early grades, less time for play and socialization, and expanding class sizes that make it more difficult for teachers and students to build relationships and connections.
“Teaching is now tied with nursing as the most stressful profession in the United States,” says Field. “While many factors contribute to the high levels of stress teachers endure, perhaps the most significant is the number of students coming to school with serious mental health and emotional problems, many of them connected to ACEs.”
ACEs can be acute or chronic trauma, and they include physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or neglect; witnessing family violence; parents’ incarceration, drug or alcohol addiction, or mental illness; and peer isolation or victimization. And while poverty itself is an adverse childhood experience, ACEs know no borders, affecting children of every socioeconomic status.
“Teachers love their students,” says Field. “Seeing those students in pain and not having the appropriate resources at hand to help alleviate the pain—it’s a heartbreaking thing to cope with every day.”
Left unaddressed, stress can sap teachers’ emotional and physical health, leading to burnout and turnover.
That was the impetus behind the Bloomfield Education Association’s (BEA) Wellness Workshop, an evening of professional learning and self-care activities at Carmen Arace Intermediate School, where teachers came to better understand what they are dealing with, ways of effectively supporting their students and one another, and how to tend to their own needs.
“We like to do a winter workshop each year,” says BEA Secretary and Vice President Rendock, who organized the evening. “This year I suggested we focus on wellness, since the pressure and intensity of the year are really getting to staff.” The workshop follows from Bloomfield’s districtwide screening and discussion of the documentary film Resilience, which delves into the science of ACEs and the movement to treat and prevent toxic stress.
BEA President Susan Sumberg—who led the effort to bring Resilience to all Bloomfield teachers as part of their district’s effort to bring trauma-informed instruction and social-emotional learning into the school environment—suggested that Rendock apply for CEA’s Building Effective Locals enrichment grant for BEA’s workshop.
“Every year,” says Sumberg, “it is our goal to provide at least one informational workshop to our members. Writing a grant to address secondary trauma was very timely, since our district is focusing on trauma-informed instruction and social-emotional learning. We know we need to take care of our students, but sometimes we forget about ourselves.”
“I wrote the grant,” says Rendock, “and I got it. Those who attended our winter workshop had a lovely, relaxing time with friends and colleagues, learning about very important issues.”
Teachers from the elementary level through high school attended, some newer to the profession and many with decades of experience.
Twenty-year veteran Despina Strompolis acknowledged that stress is a part of the picture for her, and her colleagues across every grade level and every point in their careers agreed.
Rendock says, “We’re encouraging our teachers to take care of themselves while they’re advocating for their students. We need to take care of ourselves if we are going to give our best to our students.”
Rendock, Field, and CEA Educational Issues Specialist Michele Ridolfi O’Neill each presented on relevant topics, including how to create a trauma-informed/sensitive classroom, manage the weight of student trauma, and address symptoms of secondary traumatic stress. Tools and exercises included a professional burnout self-assessment, self-care assessment, relaxation techniques, mindfulness activities, and strategies for working with traumatized students and building resilience.
O’Neill notes that the presence of a supportive, caring adult is critical to any child experiencing trauma.
“You can be that adult,” she told workshop participants. “Whether we know how many of our students in any given class are dealing with trauma or the aftermath of traumatic experiences, trauma-informed practices such as mindfulness, measured responses (rather than emotional reactions), and naming and identifying feelings serve to benefit all students.
“Trauma-informed practices are an important component of a high-functioning classroom environment that includes sound classroom management, culturally competent lessons, restorative practices, a bias-free learning environment, social-emotional awareness, and teachers who have strategies to manage their own stress and secondary trauma. These are all topics CEA believes in and can assist members in exploring through our training and workshops.”
Bloomfield instructional coach and building representative Rose S. Rose attended the BEA workshop with several colleagues.
“I’m here to support teachers and students both academically and emotionally and help them be effective,” she said. “The things I learned tonight have made me reflect even more deeply on the roots of children’s behavioral issues and will help me as I listen to my colleagues and give guidance.”
“Providing a night of self-care activities can help teachers manage their symptoms and feel valued,” Field says. “While it’s not a long-term solution to the problems our members and their students face, it’s a way for teachers to refresh, stay motivated and connected to each other, and get through those difficult days, of which there are far too many.”
In response to the increased trauma and secondary stress students and teachers are facing, CEA’s ongoing legislative efforts include initiatives geared toward ensuring safe, compassionate learning environments.