Compassion Fatigue: the physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by those who care for sick or traumatized people over an extended period of time-Webster’s
I teach. That is what I do daily. Since 1997 I’ve stood in front of classrooms in several different capacities. It’s defined me and given many gifts I didn’t expect.
Throughout my career, I’ve worked in at-risk schools. Schools with high poverty, low test scores, and little parental involvement. I picked this path for reasons I will save for another article. However, schools of this type tend to have a high incidence of students dealing with trauma and teachers must deal with these issues daily
It’s a tough gig, and it erodes your spirit like water on limestone. It leaves deep grooves that you carry throughout your career. These define and develop you as you progress thru the profession. I am sure if you work with people who are needy or traumatized you understand the point.
I recently experienced compassion fatigue in my classroom. I educate children who are incarcerated. The crimes they commit range from simple probation violations to murder. Some do these things because of trauma. My students don’t deserve what they are subjected to in their young lives. The stories I’ve listened to can draw a tear from the hardest soul.
A young man was in my room. He’s been in our facility several times, so we know him quite well. We were in the process of stating our daily journal when he decided it would be ok not to do it. Instead of doing what was asked he became a clown seeking attention.
I walked out of the classroom. Yes, you read it correctly. I placed one foot in front of the other and excused myself from the situation. I was done. I had nothing and my anxiety and frustration mutated into anger. I didn’t want to understand the why of his action. I needed to get away and vent before I exploded and left emotional goo all over the walls.
I understand why he behaves this way. His academic skills are not on par with his age or grade. The school he attends on the outside is for children with severe behavior issues. He must be on guard all day due to his trauma. He told me he has no family and is basically on his own.
These are issues he didn’t ask for but he must deal with them the best he can. Behaving badly in class is only a manifestation of his trauma.
I’ve supported and spoken to him about his case on several occasions. I offer compassion and empathy and genuinely want to see him do better in the world. However, today I was done because my compassion tanks were empty and there was no oasis for me to visit and fill them up once again.
We’ve all been there. We are running on empty with nothing to give but people continue coming to the well looking for more of your emotional capital. They turn and look surprised when all you can do is hunch your shoulders and say “I have no answers for you today”.
Kids come to me regularly with their issues. I offer advice and encouragement. I am told their stories. They cry on my shoulder and ask me to pray for them. I carry it with me, and it becomes personal. I take on my kids baggage and lug it around like an emotional skycap.
According to Concordia University, Portland, educators who work with traumatized students run the risk of developing secondary traumatic stress or compassion fatigue. Furthermore, the symptoms can range from
- difficulty focusing
- excessive drinking
- appetite changes
- anger and sadness
Personally some of these I’ve never experienced. However, I’ve dealt with depression, difficulty concentrating, anxiety, insomnia, and anger in one form or another.
It’s tough standing in front of a classroom of students who need you emotionally and spiritually every day. You must take care of you if not, walking out will become an option just as it did for me.
There are several practices recommended by Concordia University which are useful to assist in dealing with compassion fatigue.
In school Support
Working in a school or profession populated by traumatized individuals require a large amount of heavy mental lifting. You must be in a mode of love and compassion every day, and it takes a toll after a certain amount of time.
School leadership should provide support for staff. Mindfulness activities such as after-school meditation and peer support groups would benefit not only the professionals’ but the organization as well.
Teachers should get together in groups after school and decompress from the day. They can talk about the troubles and successes in the daily routines of their classrooms. Discuss strategies to combat their student’s problems and possible journal about the stresses in the classroom.
My fellow teachers in juvenile detention are a godsend. We often talk about our stress and how tapped out we are after giving so much.
If we didn’t have each other our spirits would burn to cinders and leave nothing but a smoking shell of who we once were.
Valuable conversations are essential, and there’s no one better to talk to than peers. However, sometimes outside counselors are needed for compassion fatigue. If I ever enter into school administration again, I will implement an after-school program for my staff to decompress.
In the education profession, we always have conversations about better teaching. However, how often do we in our nation schools actually get together to speak on our mental health and attitudes? In all the schools I’ve worked in it’s never a topic of conversation.
Take care of you first
If you don’t take care of number one, then you are useless to your students, patients, or any other group of people you deal with daily. Self-care is important. Open the app store on your phone and instead of downloading the most viral video game download a meditation app.
I have one on my phone titled “Mindfulness” it has timed and themed sessions. When I use it, I am calmer, and my mind is clear. I am releasing negativity and beginning the day anew. I cannot carry the emotional baggage from my job all the time. I must put it down and focus so I can be there for the kids.
Workout or take a walk. Hop on a treadmill or the local trail and exercise. It’s proven exercise helps with stress. It takes the mind away from all you’ve given away in your day to day professions. When I exercise, which isn’t enough, the problems and traumas of the moment fall away into oblivion. I am energized and prepared to enter the next day ready to offer hope and love to my students.
You must leave it at work
Before you walk out of the door, lay down your sword and shield because the dragon will wait until the next day. In other words, understand you can’t save the world. It’s too big and ugly for you to defeat. The problems pre-date you and will remain long after you’re retired.
Furthermore, we as caregivers or teachers can’t save or heal them all. It’s a fact of the job. It hurts us when we lose someone we thought we could save. However, even in the face of likely failure we must continue and remind ourselves if we save just one our job is worthwhile. If I can make their life better, then I can consider that a success.
We cannot beat ourselves up about the failure or the stresses of the job. If we do, there’s nothing left for the students or others who need our care. Each day you walk into your job I suggest saying:
Today will be a good day.
My students or patients will do well.
I know I can’t save them all but I hope to help as many as I can.
I make statements similar to these every day I walk into my classroom. If, I didn’t my sanity would be up for grabs and I wouldn’t have anything to offer.
We must take care of ourselves first. We are useless to others who need us if we don’t
I understand implicitly what you may be going thru as you perform your daily duties. It may not even be your profession.
Your father or mother may need you as they move through the ugliness of Alzheimer’s.
A spouse is injured and you are the sole caregiver as you watch more and more of yourself disappear.
Illness strikes the most vulnerable, a child, and you are tasked with offering support as you go through your own anguish.
Please remember if you are going through anything like compassion fatigue talk to someone.
If you are the religious type speak to your pastor or join a group of other people who are in a similar situation and talk.
Write or journal if that’s your thing if not at least meditate as suggested previously. Clear your mind, wipe your slate, and float on a cloud of peace.
I don’t desire for you to reach my point. I don’t want you to throw up your hands and walk away like I did a few days before.
Frustration, hopelessness, and anxiety cannot define you, because if you allow it too, you can’t help others define themselves. Peace Y’all and share your story in the comments below.