Compassion Fatigue | Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud

Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue is usually attributed to those who work in the medical field and emergency first responders. But teachers who often hear or observe what a student is going through or have students turn to them for help, can also experience compassion fatigue.

Beginning this fall, many teachers were on the frontline in a different way than they were in the spring. Currently with the virus surging, some teachers are facing the same psychological effects as frontline healthcare workers. Some teachers are frustrated and angry seeing conditions as potentially unsafe. This is added to the unknowns of what instructional practices they may need to implement the next day… all virtual, hybrid, or everyone back in school. (I am working with one school district that came back to in-class instruction in November and after four days were back to virtual, which left everyone wondering what the next week would bring.)

Instructional coaches and school leaders, who are also themselves susceptible to compassion fatigue, should consider ways to assist teachers in building supportive/protective strategies.

Here is a description of compassion fatigue from the US National Institute of Health.

The compassion and empathy shown by healthcare, emergency, and community service professionals can prove to be psychically, mentally, and economically costly. In short, exposure to patients or clients experiencing trauma or distress can negatively impact a professional’s mental and physical health, safety and wellbeing, as well as that of their families, the people they care for, and their employing organizations. The term compassion fatigue was coined to describe the phenomenon of stress resulting from exposure to a traumatized individual rather than from exposure to the trauma itself. An often extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the emotional pain and/or physical distress of those being helped can create a secondary traumatic stress for the caregiver, and, when converged with cumulative burnout, a state of physical and mental exhaustion caused by a depleted ability to cope with one’s everyday environment, compassion fatigue results.

The symptoms of compassion fatigue include:

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

A blog from Lesley University offers some guidance that you can share in your conversations, interactions, and planning with staff.Wellness and body care lifestyle concept with a wall clock and myself word and sign printed in red 3D illustration image.

  1. Know what’s yours to do. “Separate what you wish you could do from what you know you can do.” This is what I have been describing as an important coaching response. When a teacher describes what they can’t do in the current instructional setting, the coach can move the conversation to what can maximize the positive impact of what we can do. What might I add to my synchronous activity that makes students feel more connected?
  2. Let go of results. “When we loosen the grip on our ideas about the way things should be, we are much more open to new ideas and new ways of looking at things.” I would describe this as ‘lightening-up.’ Some humor, empathy, and positiveness may allow the creative juices to flow.
  3. Practice self-care. “Creating a strategy for taking care of yourself is a necessary step in avoiding compassion fatigue.” Sherry St Clair shared in a podcast on supporting teachers’ social-emotional needs that leaders should normalize self-care. She shared that a study of successful innovative schools found that they frequently set up extra events for their teachers that really didn’t have anything to do directly with teaching. Things like yoga classes, catered meals, and sponsored book clubs that were not just related to education. These things model self-care. The model that we expect staff not to spend a hundred percent of their lives in school because we know that’s going to lead to burnout. We realize that you need to take care of yourself. We want educators to understand that we value taking care of yourself, we’re investing in you as a human and know that it will lead to a place of longevity in your career.
  4. Create a strong network. “We are hardwired for connection and interdependence; it really does take a village.” PLCs, teams, co-teaching, and coaching conversations all create opportunities to build connections. Sharing the ‘accountability for’ and the ‘celebrations of’ student success decreases stress.
  5. Be authentic. “Showing up as your truest self is an invaluable gift to your students. In meeting ourselves where we are, we give students permission to meet themselves where they are.” Vulnerability is present in authenticity. Vicki Dearing states that vulnerability builds trust. “Other people are watching you and may begin to take on your behaviors.”
  6. Practice mindfulness. “The physical and emotional benefits of mindfulness or focusing one’s attention on the present moment and accepting what is rather than what should be, are many.” Fortunately, many educators are learning to bring mindfulness to their students and thus practicing it for themselves. In an earlier blog, I shared my own experiences with walks in the woods generating reflection that often leads to behavior or actions I want to take in response to current conditions.

As you address these strategies with staff members who might be dealing with compassion fatigue, remember to connect them to your own well-being.

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