Listening to teachers’ voices on experiences of trauma

Awareness of how trauma impacts student wellness and learning is growing, with protocols like the Trauma Learning Policy Initiative (TLPI) providing a roadmap for teachers to help create trauma-sensitive classrooms. But a University of Alberta education researcher says such protocols are incomplete without a key element: teachers’ experiences.

Nathalie Reid, a PhD candidate in the Department of Elementary Education, is seeking out those voices to better understand teachers’ experiences of and with trauma—their own as well as their students’. Her research employs narrative inquiry to explore an area she said is still nascent in educational research.

“The current conversation really focuses on how can teachers help students who are traumatized, how can teachers understand student mental health to support students, but there’s very little out there on teachers’ experiences of trauma as part of the conversation,” Reid said.

“In other fields like nursing or with first responders, there has been more research into the ideas of vicarious and secondary trauma, and there is a small subsection on vicarious trauma in teaching research, but it’s still embryonic, and I find it’s geared towards not grounding it in the teachers’ experiences, but more about eschewing those experiences so we can support students.”

Trauma is real, no matter the source

Reid said her research is informed by her own experiences as a teacher during the 9/11 terror attacks and by conversations with colleagues from Fort McMurray faced with returning to the classroom following the fire of 2016. But, she added, trauma needs to be understood as more than a reaction to large-scale catastrophes.

“More and more the traditional definition of big-t Trauma, such as what results from natural disasters, is being expanded to include the daily lived experiences of trauma. There is increasing understanding that many lives have been and are shaped by many different kinds of trauma,” Reid said.

“So there’s quite a bit of literature around this, the idea of small-t trauma. I really don’t like that distinction, it dichotomizes trauma and makes one kind more severe than the other. The experience of trauma is real, regardless of the source, regardless of the catalyst.”

Honouring teachers’ experiences

Reid said that protocols like the TLPI, which provides a seven-point checklist for creating a trauma-sensitive classroom, are a great starting point for helping support student well-being, but wonders about the spaces for teachers and their experiences.

“My concern is that if trauma-sensitivity becomes solely a program run in schools, the runs the risk of becoming an additional pressure that isn’t grounded in experience, neither the teachers’ nor the students’. I would rather see trauma-sensitivity become more of who we are than something that we do,” Reid said.

“To expect that a fixed trauma-sensitivity checklist works across contexts and across time, as a one-size-fits-all is worrisome to me. I’m not saying we should do nothing, but it’s better to have these conversations and empower teachers and students to adopt what works best at a given time and place.”

Reid said she’d like to see her research inform subsequent work on trauma sensitivity at many levels.

“As the policies and programs are shaped, I really hope this work will support teachers’ experiences to be included in this conversation,” she said.