Trauma in the Classroom (Part 2)

Guest Contributors: Allyson Eamer, Amea Wilbur, Katie Crossman, and Jennifer Allore

This blog is the second in a two-part series on trauma in the classroom. Part 1 discusses how teachers can better facilitate learning and provide support for students who have experienced trauma, such as refugees.  This segment focuses on vicarious trauma?

Vicarious trauma is a form of second-hand trauma. It is experienced by people in helping professions when they are deeply affected by their exposure to others’ trauma. The term was coined in 1995 by Laurie Pearlman and Karen Saakvitne, and originally was used to describe symptoms that clinicians experienced from working with clients with trauma experiences. Vicarious trauma has since been recognized in other fields. It can occur in various ways, such as listening to traumatic stories or viewing disturbing images. 

Anyone who engages empathetically with survivors of trauma or materials relating to trauma can be affected. In particular, it can affect instructors that hear traumatic stories from their students. This is especially true for instructors who work with recent immigrants or refugees to Canada. Instructors in full time language programs where they spend a lot of time with their learners may be at a heightened risk.

Vicarious trauma accumulates over time. Someone with vicarious trauma will experience a shift in how they view the world, or a shift in their fundamental beliefs about the world. For example, they might observe a shift in the belief that they are safe. This might manifest in checking and re-checking that doors and windows are locked or that family members are safe. These shifts in belief tend to gravitate towards the negative and play out subconsciously. 

How can vicarious trauma be addressed?

Like most things, prevention is better than a cure. Vicarious trauma can be prevented. In language classrooms, instructors can use trauma-informed approaches by creating a predictable, consistent, and safe environment for learning. Instructors should also be clear with themselves and their learners about their own boundaries and the scope of their role. For example, it would be irresponsible to listen to a learner’s disclosure of trauma and try to provide them with advice. Instead, an instructor should remind the learner of their role and acknowledge that they are not trained to provide advice. Instead, instructors should be aware of community and organizational resources such as counselling, women’s shelters, or settlement organizations that learners can access. Learners can get the support they need, and instructors avoid taking on the “weight” of a learner’s disclosure. 

Furthermore, in the classroom, instructors can build in everyday practices as part of warmers or other activities that promote emotional regulation. This can be done with grounding activities, such as mindful breathing or observation. Likewise, instructors can use these activities when they are overwhelmed in the classroom or their daily lives. 

As well, having a routine or ritual that marks a distinction between work life and home life can have a protective effect on instructors. For example, a leaving-work ritual that helps you mentally end the day can help keep work and home life separate. This can be as simple as mindfully turning out the light or saying goodbye to work at the end of the day. 

Finally, organizations, institutions, and funders must prioritize and support well-being for instructors. This can be done through balanced workload, access to counselling or wellness programs, collaboration, and maintaining a system-wide environment of care throughout our systems. 

Where can I learn more?

Resources are becoming available to support language instructors. As part of a research project at the School of Global Access at Bow Valley College in Calgary, a toolkit about vicarious trauma and other empathy-based stress was developed for language instructors. Along with instructors from across Canada, a group of TESL Ontario members are piloting it this fall, and the toolkit will be more widely available in Spring 2023. More information can be found here.

You can also read more about this in a forthcoming book, Teacher Well-Being in English Language Teaching(Routledge). Amea and Katie each contributed chapters on this topic. We (Allyson, Jennifer, Amea, and Katie) want to understand more about trauma in the classroom. To share your own experiences and thoughts, look for a survey in the coming months.


About the authors: This team of four researchers from three provinces and four post-secondary institutions brings a wide variety of experience (ESL teaching, settlement work, teacher training, adult education) to their research on the migrant experience, language learning, trauma and vicarious trauma. Allyson Eamer and Amea Wilbur are university professors; Katie Crossman is a researcher; and Jennifer Allore is an ESL instructor and (former) Chair of the TESL Ontario Board of Directors.

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