The matter of trauma, and secondary traumatic stress, resonates with me tonight. My niece is in a summer program, and today, another student in the group drowned while swimming at a national park. Without any interaction with this child or knowledge of the details even, my heart still aches.
The reach of trauma is arbitrarily terrible, striking unevenly and powerfully.
As a teacher, heart break comes with the territory, and this year, my state has invested in regular professional development about trauma awareness. And moments like this exact one - where I am unable to sleep - are proof of its value. Seemingly small things to unimaginable horrors can have unexpected effects, some far beyond what seems “normal” or reasonable.
Student trauma reveals itself in many ways, but for English teachers, it seems to manifest in writing most frequently. Any form of free writing is a virtual minefield – the threat of dangerous triggers constant.
Even in writing as high pressure and formal as an AP exam, students write about trauma. While I read essays last week for AP Language, I read essays about loss, change, and heartbreak in regards to the unknown, but my own reading was just the tip of the ice burg. Our question leader shared an impressive essay which illustrated the current trauma faced by children of those facing deportation and the trauma associated with systematic racism and police brutality.
In my experience, given the chance to speak, students are willing. Some are even eager to offer up their own trauma. Not all – but many share their own battles with mental illness, death, and abandonment freely.
What this creates is that metaphoric minefield for their teacher – a frightening dive into their trauma. As our understanding of secondary traumatic stress suggests, this takes a toll, creating impressions of the students’ trauma on the teacher’s heart.
BUT (and there’s always a “but”…) we all have to acknowledge the value of writing about difficult subject matter. Avoidance is a disservice. How do we teach students to confront these difficult stories and situations? How can we reveal the psychological benefits of writing about trauma while protecting our own mental health?
So I dug in a bit, and found some advice from the many experts – people much smarter than me – on how to respond to student writing about traumatic events. From them, I’ve pulled a few takeaways that really shape how I react.
Responding to trauma in writing
Empathize (Duh) – but also, value their story.
It seems so obvious to be empathetic when students talk about trauma, but it often feels in conflict with what the assigned task is. For instance, if I ask for an essay defining “hope,” I have certain criteria for their writing that I use to assess their work. However, when they bring trauma into their definition, it can feel impossible to correct things like sentence structure and grammar. John MacDevitt, a psychologist and composition instructor, published an article, “Responding to Student Traumatic Writing: A Psychologist’s View,” which suggests using “I Statements” to shape your feedback. An example from the article is below:
Darrell Fike illustrates the value of empathy as a response to a student’s writing by relating the story of one student who had written an essay about domestic violence for her capstone course. This essay included a courtroom scene where her grandmother was on trial for the murder of her abusive husband (this was fact), and addressed her stirring remarks to the student (who was not yet conceived). The student had failed the capstone course previously because of disagreements with faculty readers and the earlier instructor. Fike suggested the student cut the courtroom scene, which did not seem to fit in the piece, a moment before he realized that this scene was more important to her than was passing the course. Then he said, “I can tell your grandmother is very important to you. You must love her very much.” The student teared up and began to talk, while Fike listened. “After we established her emotional investment in the essay, I suggested that doing the tedious work of incorporating technical revisions to improve the readability of the piece would help a reader understand her grandmother’s story better and ultimately would help Janet honor this remarkable woman” (n. pag.). Ultimately, the student revised her piece, it passed muster with both Fike and the readers, and she graduated. Being received and understood can allow a student to go on to do what needs to be done.
Acknowledge the offering.
It isn’t easy to share our trauma with others, so when students do choose to share traumatic experiences with us, that generosity should be acknowledged. As a creative writing teacher, I found this to be essential in building a culture of mutual respect and trust. Every semester, I would have a couple students who were considerably insecure about sharing any personal writing. Despite how much I wanted to force a little “healthy discomfort,” I learned to recognize the value in small acts of gratitude (positive comments, notes on their writing, etc). If students with the courage to share personal experience aren’t praised, or at least acknowledged, they tend to revert to only fictional, fantastic writing. Both types of writing have value, certainly, but my best student growth appeared in those students who worked toward deeply honest, personal writing – or rather, found a unique writer’s voice. To get them there, it took intentional gratitude and praise.
Don’t shy away but be prepared.
Sometimes my reaction to writing about trauma is to dismiss it with a note and assume that if they are writing to me, someone else must know. My next inclination is to modify the assignment to avoid any triggers that might result in further trauma. This simply cannot be the response.
First, we can never assume that student trauma has been addressed in a healthy way. There are too many cautionary tales about undiagnosed mental illness and concerns that go unchecked to risk the same. Therefore, to minimize a lot of my own secondary stress, I keep the mindset that I’d rather be safe than sorry. A quick email to a counselor or check in with the student can protect your piece of mind - which is important in preserving your own mental health.
Second, backing away from such assignments is dangerous in its own way. I appreciate how Deborah Kellner explained it in her article “Confronting the Trauma-Sensitive Writing of Students.” Kellner states that “When their story is told, it may encourage healing to begin.” In other words, the potential for healing and personal insight that accompanies emotional writing cannot be surrendered for the sake of avoiding student trauma. I, for one, recognize this in myself. Writing about personal struggles guides me to healthy resolutions and peace with my decisions. The value in this experience should not be ignored in a composition course where we can teach students to find that same peace. We just need to be prepared for the process.
Managing Secondary Traumatic Stress
And for some teachers, like myself, writing is the best way to manage the secondary traumatic stress that comes along with teaching. As of late, however, further information about managing stress from student trauma has come with the Trauma-Sensitive Schools initiative. Treatment and Services Adaptation Center, or TSA, suggests self care via exercise, healthy diet, sleep, meditation or yoga, hobbies, and time with loved ones. For me, the support of my colleagues and their friendship helps me most.
As with most things, self care is determined by the person and their preference, but universally, being aware of the effects of trauma has to become part of your professional practice. Modelling healthy treatment of stress is necessary for your survival as a teacher, but even further, it is what students need as they confront their own trauma.
It’s a heavy burden – one they don’t mention in Intro to Teaching – but in acknowledging the weight of this stress, we become healthier and better.