Teachers show remarkable grit and compassion. They chose a career that requires them to pass knowledge on to others in varied and engaging ways, to keep the attention of and hopefully ignite the curiosity of around 20 kids, every day, multiple times a day. They are under a tremendous workload, they often have to comply with ever-shifting district and state mandates, attend staff meetings, provide extra help for students, and spend hours outside the classroom coming up with lesson plans and grading student work. 

But teachers have even more to deal with. As students increasingly face mental health issues and deal with challenges at home like substance abuse or even neglect, teachers take on yet another role. They become a listener, a helper, an ally — a caring adult that a student can trust and turn to. Teachers care about their students, and are moved by compassion to reach out to them. But combined with the insane workload mentioned above, this can put them on the fast track to burnout and something called ‘compassion fatigue.’

What is compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue could be comparable to vicarious trauma, or secondary traumatic stress (STS), “the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another.” (The National Child Traumatic Stress Network).

The difference between compassion fatigue and STS is time. Hearing firsthand accounts of traumatic experiences could result in immediate secondary traumatic stress. Compassion fatigue comes when someone is exposed to these things over time, it includes exhaustion and even ‘burnout.’ 

In an article published by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Nerida Joss and Fiona Cocker describe compassion fatigue as “the convergence of secondary traumatic stress (STS) and cumulative burnout (BO).” It combines experiencing second-hand trauma again and again, with burnout, which may result from a heavy workload and lack of support or work satisfaction.

The symptoms of compassion fatigue include:

  • Anxiety
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Depression
  • Changes in sleeping/eating patterns
  • Hypervigilance
  • Anger and/or aggression
  • Guilt
  • Loss of boundaries
  • Indifference 

Often, compassion fatigue is attributed to those who work in the medical field, or emergency first responders. But for teachers, who, as mentioned earlier, are often the ones students turn to for help, or simply hear or observe what a student is going through, compassion fatigue is very real. 

As a teacher, you may have numerous students every day that you see experiencing trauma. Every day you have students struggling and coming to you for help, and you may not have supports in place in your school to deal with these challenges. How can you cope with compassion fatigue? What preventative measure can you take, and how can you heal?

Take Care of Yourself

First, think about all that you are giving, every day. That is something you should be proud of. As a teacher you care so much about students, it’s likely that compassion fatigue, to some degree, will be unavoidable. Giving, giving, and giving, can drain you, and leave you with nothing to give. And then, even if you feel you have nothing to give, there are still people who need you and will ask you to give some more.

To have something to give, you have to fill yourself first. It can be hard to take the time for yourself. Some feel selfish doing so, but remember that to really be there for your students, you have to be present and refreshed. Just as we’re directed on an airplane — put your oxygen mask on first, only then will you be equipped to help someone else. What does this look like? 

Find a way to fill yourself. What is it that you need? Maybe designate some time in the morning or evenings when you can be alone. Read a book, exercise, draw, go for a walk — or just breathe. Whatever it is that you enjoy and that can help you take care of your own needs. 

Many find it helpful to have someone they can confide in and share with. Maybe it’s a spouse, or other close family member or friend. Also helpful is the camaraderie and support you could find from fellow teachers. If you’re feeling the effects of compasson fatigue, likely your colleagues are too, especially if you work in a high-poverty school where incidents of trauma are sadly higher than more financially stable areas. Reach out to fellow teachers, maybe even form a support group. This could be as simple as a group text where teachers can check in with one another throughout the day.

Set Boundaries

Boundaries matter too. Not to say that you should stop caring or interacting with students. Really, the boundaries should be set in place within the school itself, not in how much you care. Are there trained professionals in your school, counselors and psychologists? Are there programs available to give students the kind of help they need? Is there training available for teachers about how to identify and respond to at-risk kids? All of these supports can help teachers set boundaries and preserve their mental health. How so?

Part of helping someone through a crisis is directing them to go where they can get the help they need. When you have developed enough trust with a student that they tell you their troubles, trauma that they’re experiencing, part of your ability to help lies in encouraging them to seek out available resources. That way, you don’t have to let the heavy burden of their trauma rest on your shoulders alone, and you can know that they are getting help from ones who are especially qualified to do so. Not only does this protect your own mental and emotional health, but it gives your students what they really need.

Reframe Control

But when there aren’t resources available in schools to support these actions, teachers may feel even more burdened. This is especially difficult. Knowing what students are dealing with, and knowing that you can’t fix the problem is distressing. But part of protecting your own emotional state and being present for your students means that, to the degree you can, acknowledge and accept that there is only so much you can do. Can you reframe your idea of control?

Instead of focusing on the things outside of your control, put your effort into the things that you can do. What is it that you have in your power to do for your students every day? Simply being there, believing in them, giving them a safe environment at school, and showing them that there is an adult in their life who cares about them and they can trust. Letting go of the things you cannot control — like perhaps what is happening at home, or the lack of administrative support you may have in your school — will help you avoid burnout.  

In-School Supports

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect, and a big contributor to compassion fatigue in teachers, is that dealing with these issues is really beyond individual teacher control. When schools do not provide the supports that students and teachers need, it places an undue emotional burden on teachers that will harm their own emotional and even physical health. 

What are some things schools can do? Provide some of the supports that were discussed previously. For one, provide a network for teachers to communicate and support each other. Administrators should be deeply connected in this. Administrators can make an effort to understand what teachers are going through, and support them so they know their work is valued and their struggles are validated. When administrators and teachers work as a team to help students, it can reduce the risk of burnout and increase the chance students will actually get help.

If possible, schools can hire more support staff like counselors and psychologists. They can offer education opportunities for teachers to learn about and incorporate trauma-informed practices into their classrooms, and educate them about recognizing signs of trauma. Have programs in place for students in need. Some schools have benefited by dedicating a portion of their daily schedule to small group support where students can meet with a counselor and those facing similar challenges. 

The Bottom Line

It is heart-wrenching to think about all the troubles facing students, and the stresses that teachers are under. Coping with these challenges will likely result in some emotional stress, no matter how prepared you are as a teacher, no matter how supportive your school is. But taking care of your health and your own emotional needs, setting boundaries and finding allies can help you cope with, or possibly prevent compassion fatigue. 

The compassion you have for your students is a gift. Focus on what you can do right now to give them a safe place to learn, to be that someone who cares. Try to let go of what you can’t do. You will preserve your ability to show compassion, and do more for your students than you may realize.

Let’s build a path to close the learning gap and enrich students’ futures.

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