In April 2020, my great-aunt suddenly died from a rare and aggressive cancer. She was an adored and hilarious high school “cafeteria lady” of 20 years, but her funeral wasn’t the celebratory affair I had envisioned: a procession of students past and present, decades in the future. Rather, it was me, her casket, and my cellphone. My grandmother, her sister, could not travel at the time so I was elected to facilitate a video-call viewing—a virtual goodbye for two sisters. I remember my phone screen in those first moments. My aunt’s eyes closed, and my grandmother’s were wide open. And, then, in that moment, a notification flashed onto my screen. A student needed to talk.
Since that moment, I have been supporting student after student and teacher after teacher as they navigate their own grief. I started having trouble sleeping at night and I live with an always present feeling of anxiety and constant fatigue. I struggle to muster the same passion I once had for my classroom work. With a little research and some help from my instructional coach, I realized that I was experiencing compassion fatigue, just like, for example, 49.6 percent of education workers surveyed in Alberta, Canada. Unsurprisingly, the increased trauma associated with pandemic teaching has created a silent epidemic in education: educators with nothing left to give.
Compassion fatigue is the cost of caring, the secondary trauma developed from caring for a person who has experienced trauma. The cost looks different for everyone, including experiencing extreme exhaustion, sleep disorders, increased anxiety, and self-isolation in some of the more serious cases. When supporting a person with the trauma, like the recent death of a loved one, the cost goes up. With more students entering schools with shared trauma, teachers are exiting. Of the teachers who left the classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic, stress was the most cited reason, not the need for more money, respect, or pending retirement. Unfortunately, an increase of secondary trauma and work-related burnout is a bottomless cocktail of compassion fatigue.
Most school leaders are aware that educators, including themselves, are suffering, but they may struggle to talk about it. While many times good-intentioned, leaders’ efforts to help educators dealing with compassion fatigue have further exacerbated a decline in educator mental health. Calls for teachers to exercise “self care” or administrators to “give grace” are often superficial and do not acknowledge the required healing process. Compassion fatigue cannot be cured by shortened meetings, notes of encouragement, or working fewer hours. Instead, educators need to be taught how to identify symptoms, connected with high-quality resources, and invited to help change harmful school climates.
So how can administrators support compassion-fatigue healing for themselves and their teachers? It begins with reframing the conversation.
1. Don’t use language detours.
Calls for educators to be “resilient” can be harmful, making staff feel like they should be able to sustain unmanageable workloads or actively brush off signs of burnout. This kind of language detour masks, dismisses, or ignores signs of compassion fatigue. Normalizing detours can also perpetuate schoolwide burnout—for example, when teachers then encourage students to “build resiliency” rather than address mental-health struggles.
If compassion fatigue is not addressed, it can manifest into more serious mental- and physical-health issues.
Moreover, pain-hierarchy language like “their pain is worse,” “they need me more,” or “do it for the kids,” enforces unhealthy martyr mindsets. Educators are falsely encouraged to neglect their own mental health in favor of privileging a student’s or staff member’s emotional distress over their own.
Calling out and correcting these and other language detours can help educators better uncover symptoms of compassion fatigue and set healthy parameters for defining their own success.
2. Celebrate teacher well-being.
When teachers are celebrated, it is frequently for achievements that result from toxic work habits. An educator working contracted hours is rarely heralded. While these educators give their all to students, leaders that exclusively recognize educational professionals who work endless hours set the expectation that long days (and nights and weekends) are a prerequisite for success. Educators who are already emotionally depleted struggle to mimic these high expectations and feel like “bad teachers” when they fail. A common symptom for this fatigue is the inability to function productively.
Administrators can actively work to change this narrative by celebrating educators who make positive mental-health choices. Why not publicly acknowledge teachers who practice mindfulness, educate themselves about appropriate self-care, and invest in their own well-being outside of school?
3. Normalize the language around compassion fatigue and healing.
Teachers are expected to be positive people, but many times, this expectation can be harmful. When teachers express their struggles, they may be met with “look on the bright side,” “it could be worse,” or “don’t be so negative.” Meeting mental-health concerns with toxic positivity gaslights educators, making them believe that their compassion fatigue can be cured by thinking positive thoughts.
This language muzzles teachers. We may feel like we cannot express concerns without being labeled “negative” or “complainer.” Instead, schools should educate teachers on indicators of compassion fatigue and give us the space to monitor symptoms, report concerns, and seek help. Turning a response from “good vibes only” into, “It is OK to feel this way. How can I help you?” welcomes healing and rebuffs silent suffering.
If compassion fatigue is not addressed, it can manifest into more serious mental- and physical-health issues. While this fact alone should prompt action by those who lead our schools and districts, it should also raise alarms for national stakeholders. When was the last time educator well-being was considered in discussions of education initiatives?
School and district leaders have a responsibility to establish an environment that not only allows educators to heal but encourages it. Not because we will leave their campuses unless they do or student achievement will suffer, but because they recognize the humanity of the individuals who are educating our young people. This is the kind of compassion we should all have time for.
A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2021 edition of Education Week as Compassion Fatigue Is Overwhelming Educators