From the President: Still just doing what needs to be done: dealing with trauma in schools
Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 125 No 2, 20 March 2020, page no.7
A horror start to 2020 has again brought into sharp focus the role of schools – particularly principals, other school leaders and teachers – in leading communities impacted by trauma.
Early last year, in the aftermath of devastating floods, I wrote about the laudable work of QTU members in the Townsville community, helping students, parents, school staff and the community to recover. This essentially involved educators leading communities through picking up the pieces. Again, in 2020 my first column pointed to the repeated efforts of schools across the nation in assisting communities to recover from bushfires of an unprecedented scale.
Such acknowledgements are an important demonstration of the connectedness of our Union to members and the issues they face. They also always reflect the culture of the QTU in relation to using our collective strength to support each other – in the good times and the bad times.
What then of the role of schools in assisting with individual traumas that inflict deep hurt on families or small groups within the community? They fall into two distinct categories: individual trauma will be covert, hidden behind the anonymity of a family’s wish for privacy and time to grieve; or overt and in the public eye because of the enormity of the event, often highlighted by significant media attention.
In all these circumstances, schools play a vital role in providing support, assistance and consolation. The Department of Education has a good record on providing immediate support in relation to a critical incident and, where necessary, continuing to support schools in dealing with the ongoing impacts of trauma. This often involves allocation of additional staff, especially guidance officers and senior guidance officers, and other resourcing specific to the event. Some other schools are allocated additional school leaders to support the work of the incumbent to lead the community. After a brief burst of attention in the media, trauma involving children, such as accidental deaths and crimes such as murder, brings heightened support initially and some level of support in the long term, but this soon fades from the public consciousness.
The QTU has a long-standing protocol of providing support through Organisers and Senior Officers advocating with the department on behalf of the school where resources needs are identified, and conducting welfare checks on individuals and staff groups within a school. The QTU has recently introduced professional development for all members, accessible through QuEST, to upskill teachers and principals on trauma-informed practice – a vital insight into how what we do in our teaching practice can influence outcomes for students impacted by trauma.
Perhaps the most complex and least understood element of this challenge is the invisible demands emanating from covert events. Special schools experience a unique type of trauma associated with the death of students with complex disability – this is generally not public, nor should it be. Suicide is a leading cause of death among young Queenslanders. Death of a student from suicide has a massive impact on the family and friends of the student and their immediate community – this is generally not public, nor should it be. Death of a staff member and the death of family members of staff also have a traumatic impact.
The QTU and the department provide support in all these cases, as well when we become aware of them through reports from school leaders or Union Representatives reaching out to us. Many times, the circumstances work against even this level of acknowledgement.
The work schools do in this regard, often unrecognised, is vital. It has a cumulative impact on workers in schools as they strive to help others. Every one of us can do our bit to address the impact of the experience of trauma on the whole community. We can be considerate and compassionate, we can be alert to the trauma that may be playing out in the lives of students or our colleagues, be they teachers, school leaders or school support staff. We can and should build supportive practices into all that we do, because with the way things are, we never know when we might need that helping hand.
Speaking of which, one of the great strengths of belonging to a collaborative profession such as teaching, and to the professional and industrial voice of Queensland teachers and school leaders in state schools and TAFE for more than 130 years, is that there is somewhere to turn for that help. The QTU often receives news of critical incidents from Union members at neighbouring schools – our education community members look out for each other. The Department of Education also shares information with the QTU on such incidents. Union Representatives at your school have detailed information about how to seek support. One phone call, web request form or email will bring a timely response and support from your QTU for your workplace or an individual member in a time of need.