Compassion Fatigue: Positivity as a Solution

Do you ever care so much about your students that it hurts your heart or makes you feel tired? Last summer, I had coffee with a friend who is a counselor. She asked if teachers get training in compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue? I’d never even heard of it. But the term spoke to me right away and made sense on a deep level. Compassion fatigue. Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’ve experienced that in my career. I bet you have, too!

By definition, compassion fatigue occurs when a person experiences concern about the trauma of another person or people, gradually becoming desensitized and having feelings of hopelessness. Since I’d never heard the term, I was surprised to find that teachers are commonly mentioned in articles about compassion fatigue. Because teachers are aware of student hardships (poverty, abuse, family illness, divorce, death, etc.), we can become overwhelmed with concern and discouraged by our limited power to protect the student(s) or improve the situation(s).

The more I think about compassion fatigue, the more I’m convinced that it’s a problem for Arizona educators today. First, research indicates individuals have higher risk of developing compassion fatigue if they experience high stress in their personal lives. Being a teacher in Arizona today includes incredibly stressful working conditions: low pay, low school funding, high class sizes, less support (positions cut due to low school funding), and high stakes tied to untrustworthy accountability measures. Worse, social media is flooded with articles proclaiming the demise of public education in Arizona. (Little bit of stress there!) Further, social media posts beg teachers to invest time and energy in events to SAVE education in Arizona. (Little bit more stress there!) Overall, our personal lives are stressful as teachers—and this may increase our risk for compassion fatigue.

In addition to the concerns we have for our students, teachers may also feel concern for our colleagues. We aren’t stressed alone—we’re stressed together with similar challenges. Perhaps this decreases our resiliency and increases the possibility of experiencing compassion fatigue. Articles about compassion fatigue describe symptoms including: anxiety, negativity, decreased productivity, chronic exhaustion, and feelings of self-doubt. Does this describe any phases of your teaching career? Does it describe characteristics you see in colleagues from time to time? Could compassion fatigue be a factor contributing to teacher attrition in Arizona?

I think it’s empowering to know that compassion fatigue is a real condition that can happen when we care too much. Teachers should talk about this condition openly and take intentional steps to avoid developing compassion fatigue. Experts offer ideas such as setting realistic expectations about our actions and results, self-care, connecting with others, authenticity, and mindful meditation. Other experts suggest being kind to ourselves, journaling, and seeking positive influences.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how seeking and sharing positivity is uplifting to me. Don’t people seem thirsty for positivity these days? Yesterday, I posted a funny student quote on Twitter because it made me laugh and I was compelled to share it with others. Would you believe that this random, funny little tweet has been more popular than any other tweet I’ve EVER shared? (Over 5K impressions in 24 hours). I was so amazed by the tweet activity that I looked back through my tweet history of articles, blogs, and important announcements I’ve shared—none of them come close to the Twitter activity on the student quote. Perhaps the best way for educators to connect with others is through these positive glimpses into our classrooms. Every time I see tweet activity on the funny student quote, the moment comes flooding back and I can’t help but smile. Even better, I know it’s helping other educators smile, too. If we could all seek positive influences and seek to BE positive influences to each other, I think we’d be doing a lot to advance the profession. And perhaps these interactions are one of the best strategies to counteract the risk of compassion fatigue for ourselves, our colleagues, and our schools.

 

Jess Ledbetter

Dr. Jess Ledbetter teaches preschool students with developmental delays in a Title I school in Glendale, Arizona. She is a National Board Certified Teacher (ENS-ECYA), an Arizona Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow Alumni, and a Candidate Support Provider for teachers seeking their National Board Certification. She earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership and Innovation at ASU in 2016. Her mixed methods research used a Communities of Practice model as a strategy for early career special education teachers to collaborate with peers to increase their team leadership skills working with paraeducators in their individual classrooms.

Dr. Ledbetter is guided by the belief that all teachers are leaders in their classrooms and possess the skills to be leaders within their schools, districts, communities, and greater context. She hopes you will contribute to the dialogue by leaving comments about your own experiences, opinions, and insights so that real-life stories from our schools can inform the policies that affect students, teachers, and their communities.

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