The Trauma-Aware Classroom: We All Need Compassion


I am a teacher.

I notice the glassy eyes of the student who recently faced a death in the family. I see the student who wears the same dirty shirt all week. I hear the anger in the voice of the student who is swapped back and forth between impatient parents.

teacher teaching a classroom

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in today’s classroom, two-thirds of kids have encountered some kind of trauma.

Most of them won’t get the chance to process their pain or express their emotions. They come to school and move through the day.

Some shut down to cope while some actively resist the structure that nullifies the chaos inside them. Often this emotional chaos reveals itself in the form of classroom behaviors, whether passive or aggressive.

The child wants to feel safe. They may resist or attack because they don't.

These behaviors affect me.

Teacher burnout has a direct correlation to student behaviors. The Educational Research Review published a multiple study analysis that reports that half of the new teachers are leaving the profession within the first five years. Twenty-five percent of these teachers reported student behaviors as the issue.

Fielding the trauma of one student requires an immense amount of patience. What about two-thirds of a roomful?

I can explain, model, direct, instruct, remind and insist, but the behaviors remain. They are, after all, aftershocks of a major emotional disturbance and only time will heal.

But time is of the essence. I only have nine months. One hundred and eighty days to outlast the child’s grief or retaliation.

In the meantime, how am I to cope? Can a teacher really have that much compassion?

girl sitting in a doorway with her face in her hands

How much compassion do I need?

An article posted in the New York Times states, “that if our minds draw an association between a victim and ourselves — even a relatively trivial one — the compassion we feel for his or her suffering is amplified greatly.”

My compassion is fueled by association. I’ve worn the glassy eyes of a loss. I’ve tasted neglect and dealt with the feeling of rejection. I know how to cope and I’ve retaliated. I’ve gone days- months- teaching, performing and caring, even while my own heart was in a million pieces.

I am a human and I carry the weight of trauma, just like the child ignoring my requests in the classroom. I may not have gone through the same event or felt the extent of their trauma, but I navigate my own emotional aftershocks.

I want to control my day so I feel safe. And so do they.

This can turn into a battle that I don’t want to face.

While the ground is level, I still have the advantage...

I am an adult. For the most part, I get to make choices about my life and my situation. I can choose to leave toxic relationships and work to buy the things I need. I can find emotional support and develop life patterns that are healing. When traumatic things happen in my life, I can choose to deal with them instead of letting them fester into wounds. I am working to heal the wounds from my own childhood.

My students are still children. Mostly at the mercy of the adults in their life. Their toxic relationships are live and real. Their needs are deep and they may be adults before they find any healing. 

two boys with their heads down reading a book

While I develop compassion toward my students, I need to hold the greatest compassion with myself. I need to be aware of my own trauma to associate with theirs. Then, I can let compassion drive my actions.

When I let their emotions affect mine, I react. My emotions will affect theirs. Then, I allow the cycle of trauma to continue.

If I hold still inside, I break the chain.

I am a teacher with trauma, teaching students with trauma. We both need compassion.

** Melanie Lopez learns about herself through writing and teaching. She holds a Bachelor’s in Elementary Education and spends her days finding the most effective ways to communicate with young people. Her nights are spent navigating life with four teens. She lives with her husband in Missouri. Her extra-curricular are discovering nature and creating art, in that order.

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