Supporting Anxiety and Secondary Trauma for Teachers

By Phil Kitchel posted 03-22-2022 06:00 AM


Teachers, particularly those working in schools in high poverty areas, are often faced with situations that affect job expectations. The COVID-19 pandemic required teachers to plan and prepare instruction quickly to help students continue learning remotely, thereby increasing teacher anxiety. In this article, we will focus on two situations of concern, alleviating anxiety and secondary trauma, and how to reduce them.

As teachers, we often experience secondary trauma, as caregivers who listen to students’ external challenges. COVID-19 has heightened many of the issues that students are currently facing, in turn increasing teacher’s experience to secondary trauma and anxiety. Families with limited income before COVID-19 may not have a source of income. For those families that continued working during COVID-19, a lack of childcare made schooling an impossible feat. Many teachers struggled with knowing how much schoolwork to expect from students when they knew that access to technology at home was limited or nonexistent.

According to a 2017 survey conducted by the American Federation of Teachers and the Badass Teacher Association, stress levels are higher among teachers than any other profession. Likewise, secondary trauma affects any professional who is exposed to stories or experiences of trauma and trauma survivors, which is a surety among teachers. To help relieve the anxiety and secondary trauma experienced as a teacher, we recommend establishing realistic expectations, knowing what resources are available, and making sure to take care of socioemotional health.

Since the time of COVID-19, it is even more important to know what expectations are realistic for both teachers and students. Research has shown that one of the main reasons teachers leave the field is due to unrealistic job expectations—external and internal (Darling-Hammond, 2000; Huberman, 1995). Many teachers set unrealistic internal job expectations, such as “I will teach every child to love mathematics,” or “I will make sure that every child is loved in my classroom.” One issue with these expectations is that the outcomes aren’t measurable. How can we determine whether every child loves math, or that we have loved each child enough? By setting realistic, measurable job expectations, new teachers can have more moments of satisfaction versus frustration, reducing their anxiety. One way to do this is to reframe expectations so that they are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART). Using the SMART goals framework guides new teachers to make outcomes that are realistic. You may not use all the components of the SMART goal framework, but it is important to set a goal in which the outcome is clearly identified. Here are some examples:

  1. By the end of the first semester, the class average score on the problem-solving rubric will increase by 10 percent.
  2. When I come across a student who is hungry, I will make sure to provide the student with access to resources at our school.
  3. When I come across a student facing technology hurdles, I will refer them to the school’s and state’s tech resources.

In order to reach a SMART goal, teachers need to know what resources are available. Schools may have several types of resources: personnel, material, funding, time, facilities, equipment, technical assistance, and training. Due to COVID-19, some of the resources may have changed or may no longer be available. To find out, ask the school administrators the following questions:

  • What will the collaboration between content-area teachers and the special education and/or specialists look like?
  • Is the curriculum accessible for students in both face-face and virtual settings?
  • How has state funding impacted our schools and have any programs been cut?
  • How will technology be used at our schools and will teachers be provided with technical assistance?
  • What training sessions will the district offer to support teachers through this transition?

By learning the answers to some of these questions, teachers will not be caught off-guard, which in turn will improve anxiety and personal trauma.

Most importantly, practice self-care. Teachers cannot help others if they do not take care of themselves. Find out what can be done for both school and at-home self-care. Model and regularly practice deep breathing with students. Ask students what strategies work best for them to relax and focus. Long-term self-care includes eating healthy, exercising, meditating, and getting enough sleep. Teachers and students can make SMART goals for taking care of their physical, psychological, spiritual, and emotional self-care. We are all in this together.

For more information:

Midwest and Plains Equity Assistance Center COVID-19 Resources & Support

National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments (NCSSLE): Trauma-Sensitive School Training Package.

By Jennifer Oloff-Lewis, Pier A. Junor Clarke, and Jamalee (Jami) Stone

Dr. Oloff-Lewis is a Professor of Curriculum and Instruction in the College of Communication and Education at California State University, Chico. She has worked in the K–12 setting and higher education for over 20 years, with an emphasis on secondary mathematics. Her research interests include mathematics education and preservice students’ co-planning and co-teaching during their clinical experiences.

Dr. Junor Clarke is a Clinical (Full) Professor of Mathematics Education at Georgia State University (GSU), Atlanta, Georgia. She holds a PhD from OISE of University of Toronto, Canada. Currently, she coordinates the Initial Teacher Preparation (ITP) Program for secondary mathematics education and the mathematics education concentration of the Doctor of Education degree. Her research interests include the development and sustainability of effective professional learning communities that support high-quality secondary mathematics teachers in urban settings.

Dr. Stone is an Associate Professor of mathematics education in the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences at Black Hills State University (BHSU) in Spearfish, South Dakota. Her research interests include equity and mathematics education, and preservice teachers’ use of co-planning and co-teaching during their clinical experiences. Prior to earning her EdD in Educational Studies from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Jami taught Grade 8–12 mathematics in Nebraska for 21 years.


American Federation of Teachers & Badass Teachers Association. (2017). 2017 Educator Quality of Work Life Survey Executive Summary.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2000). Teacher quality and student achievement: A review of state policy evidence.  Education Policy Analysis Archives, 8(1).

Huberman, M. (1995), Professional careers and professional development: Some intersections.

1 comment



03-23-2022 09:37 AM

I am currently working with after school programs. I see teachers at the end of the day and have spoken with several regarding the lack of skills I am seeing in the students in my programs.  These teachers are tired. They are emotionally spent, especially if they work in inner city schools.  They not only need information about programs and services, but time, place and space to process and vent. Current second graders are often emotionally, socially and educationally more at the level of end kindergarten or beginning first grade.  The children worked at home; they did not need to raise their hand for permission to go to the restroom. They didn't have to complete activities. Some did not have access to basic supplies like scissors or crayons. 
I see the frustration of the teachers, especially the newer teachers.  I have over 30 years of teaching experience, am working in after school programs with fun activities and I am ache when I see children who are struggling due to the effects of the pandemic. 
Loran McEvoy EdD