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January 7, 2022

Supporting Educators to Rise Stronger After a Traumatic Event

Administrators must be ready to reprioritize and address the effects of loss, grief, and change that educators experience.
School Culture
Credit: Photo by Adam Winger on Unsplash
In fall 2017, I was starting my second year as the principal of a comprehensive high school in Northern California when tragedy hit. A wildfire—one that would become the most destructive fire in California history at the time—devastated our community. With little notice, we were forced to pack up all we could and evacuate our homes, not knowing when we’d be able to return or what would be left. 
The desolation was countywide, but our city was hit hardest. The fire destroyed 3,000 homes and displaced tens of thousands of people, including some of my students and teachers. They lost homes, pets, and loved ones. 
Tragedies like these affect everything from academics to routines to relationships. More than a year and a half into a global pandemic, even though I’m no longer in the school building, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it’s like to attempt to lead in the midst of a crisis. Everyone has been affected by the pandemic to varying degrees; on top of that, many educators—upwards of 75 percent, according to one 2013 study—deal with the effects of secondary traumatic stress (STS), the emotional distress that comes from sustained interaction with students who have experienced firsthand trauma.  
It is expected that the increase of firsthand trauma caused by the pandemic will only exacerbate STS and burnout among educators. But recent research studies indicate that providing access to counseling services and encouraging creativity and innovation in educational practices are effective strategies to combat burnout and compassion fatigue.
School leaders need solid tools like these at their disposal to support staff through this crisis and those to come. As administrators move forward, they must be ready to reprioritize and address the effects of loss, grief, and trauma that educators are experiencing. Based on my experiences, here are my recommendations for supporting school staff in times of upheaval and uncertainty.  

Make Space for Personal Connection and Joy

One of the surest ways to build communication, mutual trust, and respect in a professional community is by recognizing one another’s humanity. I wanted to help my staff reset after the emotional duress we’d been through and knew that maintaining consistent routines and expectations would be important. Despite how tempting it would have been to say that we were too busy getting back on track, I decided to start every staff meeting with a social-emotional learning practice that would help us build supportive relationships, which are one of the most protective factors against burnout.  
I’ll never forget opening a meeting with a “secret dance party” activity. People closed their eyes and just danced for a couple minutes. It was a little thing, but it helped us release tension so that we could focus on what was ahead. Through another opening ritual, we all re-introduced ourselves to each other in ways we never had before, talking about our hobbies, family members, and outside interests and skills that didn’t show up in our daily work. I saw teachers who had been in the same building together for 10 years learn new sides of their colleagues. That small prompt helped us grow in our empathy for one another.
 As one way to build community and provide support to our staff, my admin team and I began hosting monthly lunches in our staff room, providing some portion of the lunch ourselves. We would pose an essential question as a discussion topic for each meeting: What teaching strategies are working right now? What are you struggling with most? How do we talk with our students about the fire and the feelings it brings up?  
I also hosted monthly gatherings at my house for the teachers who lost their homes. I invited a therapist to join, and the two of us would mostly just listen. These gatherings created a space for staff members with shared experiences as they went through the rebuilding process.  
These connections assured teachers that their work, expertise, and experiences as individuals were recognized and valued and allowed staff to deepen personal relationships with one another in ways that supported our professional collaboration.  
This whole process required patience—it took about six months to see any notable improvements in staff culture. Gradually, skepticism around some of the SEL practices we had been using in PD gave way to openness. Moments of massive upset call for pauses to mindfully reframe before we restart. We must set time to process emotions and forge collegial support networks we can turn to when we’re feeling challenged. 

Commit to Grounding Your Work in Purpose

Because many of my educators had suffered personal losses from the fire, it was easy to feel unmoored and purposeless. So, I decided to spend time reconnecting staff to their “why.” We reexamined not only our individual purposes as educators, but also our collective purpose as a school. We used a “journey map,” which guided staff to reflect on their personal and professional journeys. Then, teachers considered the intersections of their strengths, their personal interests, and the needs they saw in their classrooms and communities to create future goals for themselves and their students. 
These activities, done over a span of a few PD sessions, dovetailed into larger conversations around our school’s mission and led to tailoring institutional practices to better meet students’ needs. We realized that while our values were aligned, our practices often weren’t. Some teachers were avid readers of the latest education research on project-based learning or instructional techniques for language learners, ready to pivot to current best practices. Others were more comfortable relying on longstanding methods they had learned in preservice teacher training and were wary of veering off that well-trodden path.  
I decided that my role wasn’t to force collaboration, but to set aside the space for ongoing support and encouragement. Outside of PD, I worked with instructional coaches to ensure that any teacher had the theoretical frameworks, practical tools, and thought partnership they needed to improve curriculum. Many teachers began to rethink their curricula to be more engaging and accessible to students with a diverse range of skills, backgrounds, interests, and preferred learning styles.  
As schools continue to rebuild after virtual learning, educational leaders should consider the potential that purpose-driven inquiry and collaborative discussions around school systems and values hold in transforming culture for the better. This may seem like one more task to add to an already overwhelming to-do list, but purposeful development can be short but consistent—discussion prompts around motivation, reflections on personal values, and brief activities that encourage teachers to take in account the perspective of their students.

Connect One-on-One

After the wildfire, schools were closed for two months for safety. Once we were back, talks at the district level were all about lost learning and catching students up as quickly as possible. But it was apparent that we weren’t ready to return to business as usual, much less at an accelerated pace. We had to focus on teacher support first. 
To do this, administrators should make space to connect personally with their staff members through one-on-one check-ins, which provide a better understanding of where teachers are coming from individually, where staff is collectively, and how to best support everyone’s issues and needs. I needed to let go of expectations that students would be able to jump back into learning at lightspeed the moment any sense of normalcy returned—and, likewise, that teachers would be able to support such a recovery.
My main takeaway from conversations with teachers was that, even months after tragedy, they were struggling to balance school responsibilities and their personal lives. They were experiencing their own pain, anxiety, and stress, and it was often a challenge to be available to students. 
To help teachers talk about the fire, we created an educator support system (think MTSS for teachers). This included a voluntary sign-up list for teachers to be support partners for one another. When a colleague needed to take time away to process feelings or deal with ongoing personal logistics, they had another colleague ready to cover their class. For individuals who were facing more persistent challenges, I assisted them in navigating human resources to take a leave of absence.  
This crisis experience showed me that schools can do so much more to create networks of care for their teachers and staff in ways that pay dividends to the entire community. From being transparent and valuing teacher voice in major decision-making processes, to collectively reexamining and reforming their school’s practices, administrators have tools  to support fatigued teachers and prioritize well-being. 

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