Teachers need trauma supports too, doctoral grad says

It started with a crisis that made international news.

In 2016, forest fires ravaged Fort McMurray. Almost 100,000 people were evacuated and 2,400 homes were destroyed. In the aftermath, Nathalie Reid’s research into trauma-sensitive pedagogy found many student-focused resources, but there were few resources for educators also experiencing trauma.

Reid, who crosses the virtual convocation stage to receive her PhD in Elementary Education on June 12, realized that the significant research gap might present an opportunity to better support teachers in schools.

"I came to see that much of the current research seemed to position trauma as something students ‘have' that teachers ‘need to be prepared to deal with,’” recalls Reid.

“When I asked several of the teachers in Fort McMurray whom I worked with what the best professional development was in relation to trauma sensitivity they received, many said that it was the day they were put into groups, sat in circles and shared their 'fire stories.' My sense grew that teachers' trauma stories are often silent and silenced on school landscapes, and that this silence was being shaped by institutional stories of trauma, and I wanted my research to foreground those teachers' experiences.”

For Reid, the goal of her research was to explore “the wholeness of a life in the making” where the trauma isn’t the focal point of someone’s life so much as it is a part of their whole life. She recognizes that this research has timely implications with a global pandemic disrupting the typical school experience for students, families, communities, and educators.

“I often take time to think about what I am struggling with by thinking about the temporal, social and place-based experiences from across my life-making that might be shaping what I am experiencing,” says Reid.

“I try to attend to what my body is telling me, to what stories my current experience is drawing on and from, and to remind myself that I am a knowing being. I think with the stories from across my life, I think with the narrative threads from my life that have and are shaping this moment, and I am comforted by this attending as it supports me to understand myself, to tell, retell and relive my stories in new ways.”

The potential impact of this research for educators and students is expansive, explains her supervisor Janice Huber.

“Nathalie’s dissertation is of profound importance in the broad field of education, given what it shows about teachers’ experiences of and with trauma, and how relational narrative inquiry can open potential for creating healthy forward-looking stories,” she explains.

Fellow academics in the field agree, leading to the Canadian Association for Teacher Education acknowledging Reid’s work with a 2020 Recognition Award. Still, Reid remains humble and plans to continue her work in this area with the University of Regina’s Child Trauma Research Centre—a research centre she helped start.

“My hope for this research is that it is a beginning to think with teachers' experiences and to wonder with them in relation with instruction, policy, programming and attrition,” says Reid.

“There are many many people doing incredible work, and the conversation is beginning to shift, but the vast majority of research and programming still seems focused on what teachers can do for students.”

Research approach shaped by lived experience

While her research is timely, Reid acknowledges that her life experience frames her approach to trauma and narrative inquiry. In particular, she sees how growing up in a military family shaped her research practice.

“Living internationally, my brother and I had to engage deeply with unfamiliar ways of knowing and being, and to learn how our experiences were shaped by and shaping our world views,” recalls Reid.

“It taught us humility, understanding, critical engagement and the importance of conversation. These early experiences shaped my research as I began to think with the institutional, familial, cultural and linguistic narratives that have and continue to shape my life.”

She also points to her childhood school experience as formative to her work as an educator and a researcher.

“We lived through certain traumas and, at least in my experience, school was not the place where these traumas were engaged, considered or talked about. These understandings shaped who I was. Through writing my autobiographical narrative beginnings, I came to understand them as profoundly shaping some of the experiences that I would story as traumatic in my early life as a person who teaches.”

Once Reid decided to pursue a doctoral degree from the University of Alberta, she connected with colleagues across the Faculty of Education, particularly with the community in the Centre for Research for Teacher Education and Development.

“Nathalie is a caring, genuine and thoughtful person who enriches the lives of her family, friends and colleagues,” says Bonnie Watt, the Centre’s director and member of Reid’s doctoral supervisory committee.

“She was an engaged and active member in these spaces. Her enthusiasm, dedication and steadfast commitment to our academic space was and continues to be resolute.”

Reid highlights the relationships in this network as a significant key to her continued success.

“Without this community, my doctoral program would have been vastly different,” says Reid.

“I have often heard that graduate work can be lonely. This was not my experience. The people I have met through the Centre have become some of my closest friends. We truly draw on each other both personally and professionally. I always felt like I could turn to anyone, and that they were committed to supporting my successful completion of my degree, at all levels. I also am very humbled by the circles of support from across the Department of Elementary Education, and the Faculty of Education. This dissertation was truly shaped in, with, and by this community, and I am forever grateful.”