Preservice Teacher Burnout: Secondary Trauma and Self-Care Issues in Teacher Education Provided to Pre-Service Teachers

Fall 2019

Source: Issues in Teacher Education - Fall 2019

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The authors used grounded theory methodology to inductively identify themes from reflective writings and interviews to answer their research questions through a systematic, data-driven coding procedure and analysis.
Grounded theory is based upon the interpretivist perspective, which proposes research is never purely objective, and multiple realities can exist (Corbin & Strauss, 2015).
Building upon this notion of multiplicity, they embraced the idea that participant perspectives are based on their perceived realities and unique situations within a teacher preparation program (Thanh & Thanh, 2015).
The following questions guided this study:
(a) How do preservice teachers describe the influence of student trauma on their personal well-being during a practicum experience at a low-income school site?
(b) How do preservice teachers perceive the connection between self-care and secondary trauma?

This study took place at a large teacher education program in the Midwest.
Participating preservice teachers (PSTs) were beginning their junior year of the program and entering their first clinical experience at Title I schools in both urban and rural areas.
In addition to assisting in a classroom two days each week, PSTs were also enrolled in a 16-week introductory elementary education course that covered education practices and policies (e.g., controversial issues in education, classroom management, lesson planning, assessment, technology).
The first author served as the instructor for the introductory elementary education course, which was redesigned to incorporate the topics of trauma and self-care in discussions, activities, and assignments.
Specific content related to trauma and learning, trauma-informed practices, the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) questionnaire (Centers for Disease Control, 2019), domains of wellness (physical, social, psychological/emotional, spiritual), work-life balance, meditation, and mindfulness were added to the course.
This additional content was unique to the instructor-researcher’s section and was not included in other courses or clinical experiences at the time.
All PSTs in the introductory elementary education course agreed to participate in the study and the sample (N=25) included two male participants, and 23 female participants.
One year after the conclusion of the course (when participants were seniors), a subset of PSTs from the original sample participated in the second phase of the study.
The subsample (N=8) was stratified to include four participants who struggled with self-care during their junior year and four participants who engaged in self-care regularly.

Data Sources
The first phase of data collection consisted of PSTs’ written reflections, self-care plans, and a research log kept by the researcher-instructor.
The end-of-semester written reflection prompted students to describe what they observed in their Title I schools, focusing on the adversity in their students’ lives, the influence of student trauma on their experience as a preservice teacher, the types of self-care they engaged in during the semester, and the role of self-care in teaching.
The self-care plan asked PSTs to complete a self-care template as a guide for future semesters and teaching.
In these plans, PSTs listed physical, social, psychological, emotional, and spiritual activities in which they wanted to engage.
They also identified current barriers to and supports for the implementation of these self-care activities.
The second phase of data collection occurred one year after the first clinical experience and involved semi-structured interviews related to how PSTs recalled their first clinical experience, with a focus on classroom dynamics, student trauma, and self-care.
At this time, PSTs were also asked to discuss their current student teaching placement in relation to student trauma and the role of self-care in their lives.
At the end of the interview, participants reviewed the self-care plan submitted during their junior year, identified the self-care goals they met, and reflected upon unmet goals.
Interviews, which lasted approximately 45 minutes, were audio-recorded and later transcribed for analysis.

Findings and discussion
Caring for students opens teachers up to the impact of secondary trauma (Hydon et al., 2015), and the PSTs in this study experienced secondary trauma absent an understanding that trauma can be transferred from one individual to another, even when the effects of trauma on teachers’ well-being were discussed in class.
This type of secondary traumatic stress wears teachers out—physically, emotionally, and mentally—and it is especially damaging when individuals feel unsupported in demanding environments (Fowler, 2015), like teaching placements.
PSTs expressed frustration with what they viewed as unrealistic requirements and expectations from instructors, coupled with a lack of support for processing the emotional realities of the classrooms in which they were placed.
The narrow definitions of trauma these PSTs held may have prompted even more frustrations, as they kept PSTs from recognizing that student trauma can be a consequence of fear or poverty, and can elicit secondary traumatic stress in teachers, just like more recognizable forms of trauma.
While the term ‘trauma’ is at the fore of educational discussions (Báez, Renshaw, Bachman, Kim, Smith, & Stafford, 2019), attention is currently directed at student trauma and the development of responsive teaching strategies (Thomas et al., 2019).
The effects of secondary trauma and ill-formed coping strategies, are not however, discussed widely in teacher education or school districts (Dawson &Shand, 2019; Hydon et al., 2015).
Moreover, even when information on trauma and self-care was infused in the participants’ teacher education course, PSTs struggled to make connections between self-care and the secondary traumatic stress experienced in their clinical sites.
Instead, PSTs viewed self-care as an isolated activity that could benefit one’s teaching, rather than recognizing it as a coping mechanism that could be integrated into traditional teaching processes to offset the emotional stress their students’ stories elicited.
The emotional burden of working with students affected by trauma is often carried home, which compromises teachers’ well-being when not supplemented with self-care (Alisic, 2012).
Even more troubling, the emotional burdens on the PSTs grew during their senior year.
As PSTs took on more central teaching roles in the classroom, seniors completing their student teaching experience expressed greater responsibility for students, deeper connection with them, and more direct access to student stories (Kearns & Hart, 2017).
Yet, instead of feeling better prepared to deal with the stresses of the more profound and grounded relationships they formed with their students, the PSTs said they felt more stress within these relationships.
In fact, participant data aligned with research that shows teaching is inherently relational and student distress can evoke an innate desire to comfort and care for children, which can lead to secondary trauma (Tehrani, 2007).
It is clear from this study that teacher educators and school districts must work together to provide preservice and inservice teachers with the tools to recognize and prevent secondary trauma. Viable methods might include normalizing secondary traumatic stress and providing spaces for discussion, as well as more formal professional development in teacher education programs (Hydon et al., 2015).
Findings from this study affirm the need for including resiliency practices as a part of teacher education programs (Cefai & Cavioni, 2014).
Yet, teacher education and the schools teachers work in seldom focus on building teacher resilience, ameliorating the effects of secondary trauma, or facilitating self-care (Benson, 2017).
Teacher education can thus play a key role by making resilience central to its mission and infusing self-care into coursework, as well as into mentored experiences in the field.
For example, in response to this study’s findings, the elementary education course that served as the platform for this study now introduces “trauma,” “secondary trauma,” and “self-care” on the first day of class, and revisits these concepts at the beginning of each subsequent session, in tandem with concrete self-care activities.

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Updated: Nov. 07, 2021