“Students’ coping skills or resilience can change”
Tommy Wells spent years working in schools as a counselor, listening to children and teens as they struggled to come to terms with what adults might consider typical drama for their age, but also very grown-up situations even most adults would not
know how to address. Now, Dr. Tommy Wells—he earned his Doctor of Education degree in 2020—continues to listen while he shares his experience and wisdom with educators who might not have anticipated that trauma-affected students would
need them as much as they do. As an instructor in Bellarmine University’s Master of Arts in Education (MAEd) in Trauma-Informed Practices Teacher Leader program, Wells works with both new and experienced educators and other social service
professionals who seek to deepen their knowledge of child development under traumatic circumstances.
>“If you want to start a trauma-informed school or district, this program will provide the tools and skills needed for implementation.”
“Teachers, instructional coaches, deans, school counselors—anyone interested in creating a trauma-informed class and a trauma-informed school in an equitable way” are how Wells describes the makeup of those currently in the program.
Also eligible, he says, are administrators, principals and central office staff for whom a background in trauma-informed practices was not required. “If you want to start a trauma-informed school or district, this program will provide the
tools and skills needed for implementation.”
Wells says trauma-informed practices are not just for instructors whose background is in counseling or whose students are known to have a “rough” home life. “Teachers don’t always know where they’re going to teach,
so it’s hard to prepare,” he says, citing that all teachers have an equally vested interest in guiding their students’ well-being and being able to recognize and identify personal and scholastic challenges. “[Our teachers]
are in urban schools, suburban schools, rural schools; they are all different, and trauma [can be] found in all.” He explains that the environments might be replete with socioeconomic variability, community violence, or very high—or
very low—familial expectations that may run counter to where the students are in their academic pursuits. “In some suburban schools,” he says, “if you fall behind, the effects could be more devastating [because of]
that culture in school. It’s a shock to the status quo, because you haven’t maintained what you’re ‘supposed’ to.” On the other hand, some students may lack reliable access to broadband internet necessary
for nontraditional instruction during the pandemic, and parents may be unable to help. Even getting started at the school or district level is not universally recognized, Wells says. “Everyone wants to know about trauma-informed practices,
but schools often aren’t providing enough training,” he says. “There are no set national standards, and districts aren’t necessarily providing guidance.”
“[Our teachers] are in urban schools, suburban schools, rural schools; they are all different, and trauma [can be] found in all.”
“We try to challenge the status quo. With an equity approach you ask how, systematically, you can create an environment for all the students to succeed. And with trauma-informed approaches, you learn how to create a tiered model to help everyone
get what they need.”
In the school Wells envisions, “everyone” means everyone. The four-semester Teacher Leader full degree begins each summer, preparing educators to step right in when they return to their classrooms in the fall—but at the same time, they
have to grasp the importance of taking care of themselves.
“There is a very real risk of secondary traumatic stress in teachers,” Wells says, adding that there can be a higher risk for many females because of the cultural imperative that they bring more empathy to the job than their male colleagues.
“We try to create a plan to identify what might cause them too much stress so they can set up boundaries. We reflect on boundary setting: knowing when to send the student to someone else, knowing how to set up a self-care plan, intentionally
cutting off the time you work . . . [paying attention to proper] physical activity, diet, hydration, socializing with friends, family, colleagues”—without guilt. “A lot of teachers connect with setting boundaries, but they feel
they let their students down,” he says, mentioning that the care of the self is presented in concert with the care of the student in his class, Trauma-Informed Classrooms. (Other trauma-informed courses include Foundations of Trauma-Informed
Practices and Wellness, Creating Trauma-Informed Schools, and Advocacy for Wellness and Trauma-Informed Care. Those wishing to take just those four courses for a Rank I or other further education may apply to begin at any time.)
We need to listen to what our kids are telling us, collect data to learn what students need, and use this information to approach those needs.
Naturally, the current pandemic has added a layer to the adverse childhood experiences (known as ACEs) that most teachers are at least aware of. “Before COVID-19, we didn’t know who had been exposed to trauma,” Wells says. “Now,
there’s less second-guessing about who’s been exposed. Some teachers may not know the severity of the students’ trauma or how to investigate it, but we’re in the middle of the pandemic—we don’t know the long-term
effects of this, especially for younger students, such as [those in] kindergarten or first grade. Also, [we have found that] some students to do better virtually. But [regardless], we need to listen to what our kids are telling us, collect data
to learn what students need, and use this information to approach those needs.”
Although any educator can start the degree upon receiving an initial teaching certification, those with some experience will get the most out of it. “You’ll be most comfortable if you have been working for about two years,” Wells
says. He also believes that those who have served in areas hardest hit by educational inequity would benefit from this deeper knowledge, such as those who are veterans of Teach for America. Even then, though, teachers can only do so much—but
it’s a start. “Teachers are on the front lines at school; they need to communicate when they see that students need more assistance and have the mechanism to identify when the students need the next level of support.”
The Master of Arts in Education in Trauma-Informed Practices Teacher Leader program is available to education professionals as a 10-course, 30-hour full-degree sequence or a four-course, 12-hour cognate-only program. Both versions are online and asynchronous.