Do You Have Compassion Fatigue? A Teacher’s Guide

A teacher with compassion fatigue, looking upset with her head in her hands.
By: Erin Swanson, M.Ed.

Supporting my students through trauma was a consistent and heartbreaking part of my teaching career. These stories from my own classroom and those of my colleagues might feel familiar to you:

A student showed up to class one morning, seeming down. After several hours, the student shared that his dad had died the night before. The teacher had no idea.

At snack time, students seemed agitated and anxious. The teacher overheard them sharing how they heard gunshots outside their homes the night before.

A student’s parent was a drug-addict and regularly slept through the day, forgetting to make him food or bring him to school.

A student showed signs of abuse. The teacher called child protective services.

If you’re nodding your head in recognition, you’re not alone. Day-to-day, teachers grapple with how to best support their students through such hardships. Sometimes, teachers feel frozen, unsure of what to do. Other times, they go into overdrive, excessively researching how to help the child; they stay up at night analyzing and ruminating.

We teachers care deeply for our students, and we feel the resulting weight of responsibility, heartbreak, fear, and uncertainty as their caretakers. We might become distracted from our other job responsibilities and consumed by a child’s struggle. We might lose sleep, experience high levels of anxiety, feel a constant sense of exhaustion, and eventually feel unmotivated and hopeless.

This sums up my experience as a teacher, but I didn’t know this condition had a name. I didn’t know that I was suffering from compassion fatigue.

What is Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue is the experience of emotional and physical fatigue due to the chronic use of empathy. It is often used interchangeably with the terms secondary trauma and vicarious trauma.

Sadly, most educators have students who have faced trauma. The National Survey of Children’s Health reported that Roughly half of American schoolchildren have experienced at least some form of trauma.

This is an image of a compassion fatigue survey to see if you are at risk.

What are the Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue?

Most teachers don’t realize they are experiencing compassion fatigue. They chalk their symptoms up to the effects of daily stress.

Betsy McAlister Groves, a clinical social worker and former faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says that she has often been surprised by the number of teachers, school counselors, and administrators who recognized the cumulative stressors that they faced in their schools but did not realize that their symptoms were a common reaction to working with traumatized children and that these symptoms had a name.

Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue:
  • A shift in one’s beliefs about the world, self, and others
  • Increased cynicism
  • Feeling unsafe, mistrusting
  • Lost sense of control
  • Decreased sense of personal/professional accomplishment
  • Physical exhaustion
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Inability to feel empathy
  • Diminished capacity for intimacy
  • Difficulty separating work from personal life
  • Hypervigilance
  • Increased startle response
  • Flashbacks, nightmares, or intrusive thoughts

A teacher comforts a crying child.

Why Does Compassion Fatigue Happen to Teachers?

Compassion fatigue stems from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering child. Today, children not only face trauma in their personal lives but also face new global and national challenges, such as school shootings and the pandemic. Teachers can become preoccupied with and stress over students’ well-being and traumatic experiences.

As explained by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, “Any professional who works directly with traumatized children … is at risk of secondary traumatic stress.”

Dr. Marjorie Fujara, who specializes in child abuse, explains:

“I’ve spoken to so many groups about childhood trauma, and nobody gets it as well as educators. They understand it intuitively because they are experiencing its effects in their classrooms every day.”

Do You Question if You’re Doing Enough or Doing the Right Thing?

When teachers support traumatized children, they often feel weighed down by whether or not they are making the right decisions. Are they doing enough to support the child? What is enough? They might feel guilt, shame, or regret if they feel they let the child down.

Thoughts might arise, such as … what are the consequences of my actions? What if, when you call child protective services about abuse, the abuser gets angry at the child and hurts him or her more? You might even feel concern for your own safety as a mandated reporter. What if the abuser suspects you of being the reporter?

While teachers want and need to help, we put ourselves in a vulnerable position by doing so. We aren’t always trained adequately for this responsibility or supported through the emotional toll it takes. We need more support for ourselves, in order to stay healthy and strong enough to offer this support to our students.

When A Child’s Trauma Triggers Your Own PTSD

A sad and stressed woman puts her head in her hands.

We must not forget that teachers often have their own trauma. When one of my colleagues was a child, she had a sibling with cancer. As a teacher, she then had a student whose sibling had cancer. Watching this student and her family grapple with this trauma triggered her own PTSD.

She started having flashbacks, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, and anxiety. She wanted to help her student, but she worried that she might project her own experience onto her. Keeping emotional boundaries felt harder than ever.

Your Needs Matter

Teachers are humans, too. We experience our own traumas, daily struggles, self-doubt, and fear. Tasked with leading a full classroom of students through their own emotional and academic journeys, we put our own needs aside. There just isn’t time to address our needs. Our students’ safety and well-being feel more important than our own.

I’ve experienced this. I went into full self-sacrifice to meet the needs of my students. Yet, my own compassion fatigue and inevitable burnout didn’t help anyone. When we don’t practice self-care, everyone suffers. Always remember that …

“You deserve the love you so freely give to others.” – Unknown

 

Early Detection & Self-Care Can Prevent Teacher Burnout

 

A study showed that …

“The stress that educators experience affects their enthusiasm about the profession and longevity in the field. For example, a survey of 30,000 teachers revealed that 89% said they had been enthusiastic about teaching when they started the profession, but only 15% reported being enthusiastic at the time they completed the survey.”

We see more and more teachers experience burnout. Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. The negative effects of burnout spill over into every area of life, including your home, work, and social life. Burnout can also cause long-term changes to your body that make you vulnerable to illnesses like colds and flu.

The more we ignore the effects of compassion fatigue, the more teacher burnout we will see. Compassion fatigue often goes undetected. Early detection can prevent symptoms of compassion fatigue from progressing and leading to burnout.

It Takes a Team Effort

Once, I had a student who was struggling greatly. As he processed his own trauma, he’d say and do disturbing, inappropriate things in class and at recess. Before I knew it, I had 15 families emailing me, sharing their concerns about what their child had heard from this boy. It became a community issue, and I felt at the center of it, not sure how to protect the struggling student or his peers. Whatever I did or didn’t do felt like it would hurt someone. It consumed me and kept me up at night.

What I didn’t understand at the time were my own limitations. At first, I tackled the issue head-on, researching and strategizing day and night. I dedicated my whole self to addressing the issue at hand. Unfortunately, this was not sustainable, and it was too much for one person to take on. I felt myself becoming increasingly defeated, depressed, and anxious. At one point, I teetered on apathetic and hopeless.

Fortunately, a school counselor stepped up as my partner in managing the situation. She advocated for meetings with the child, his family, teachers and aides from other grade levels and specialty classes who interacted with the child, and the principal. We created a care team, all stepping up together to support the child and his peers. That support and collaboration meant the world to me. As a team, we were stronger and more capable of providing the support needed.

No question about it, I was lucky in this situation. Not all schools I worked at even had a school counselor. There were countless other times I supported students through trauma on my own. Most of the time, I felt isolated and left to my own devices.

Schools Are Not Doing Enough to Help

A new EdWeek Research Center survey found a fifth of teachers say they never receive opportunities in their job to reflect upon and improve their own social-emotional skills.

Even more, a study found that only 25.5% of schools offer stress management education to staff.

What Steps Should Schools Take to Address Compassion Fatigue?

The Harvard Graduate School of Education explains that “there is a growing movement around creating trauma-informed schools: schools that recognize and are prepared to support community members affected by trauma and traumatic stress. Such schools deeply integrate social-emotional learning into their teaching, culture, and approach. While centered on supporting the emotional care and well-being of students, trauma-informed schools, by their nature, foster communities where educators have the understanding and tools to recognize and address STS in themselves and each other.”

What Steps Should Teachers Take

Teachers sitting in a circle in a peer group offering each other support.

You shouldn’t have to tackle this on your own. It’s too much weight to be placed on one person. This is an issue with the school system—and it needs to be fixed.

Yet, the reality is, most schools aren’t trauma-informed yet and don’t have any social emotional support programs focused on their teachers. Sure, they might have a social emotional learning (SEL) curriculum for the students (which is a great start!)— but SEL support just for the teachers? Not so much.

We hope more schools will offer this in the future. That’s our goal with the JabuMind teacher self-care app.

To start, you can advocate for yourself and seek out resources. Talk to your administrators, share this blog with them, bring up compassion fatigue at a staff meeting, and reach out to your colleagues to support each other.

Perhaps you take the initiative to set up your own teacher support group. “Peer support groups are an effective strategy to combat secondary traumatic stress in other helping professions. Schools should replicate this practice, creating a regular space (maybe once a month, or even once a week) where teachers can come together to check in with each other about how they are doing emotionally. If possible, these meetings should be supported by a mental health professional, and teachers should get to share their experiences, learn strategies for understanding their stress responses, and gain skills to cope with STS.”

As someone who left teaching due to compassion fatigue, I can assure you—taking the time to address this affliction is well worth the effort. Your future self will thank you for prioritizing your own health and well-being, and so will your future students.

About the Author: Erin has a master’s degree in Education from Stanford University. Before joining JabuMind, Erin was an elementary school teacher for the first, fourth, and fifth grades in both public and private schools throughout California and Oregon. She is also certified to teach children’s yoga. Erin is passionate about helping teachers address compassion fatigue with mindfulness and self-care.

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