By Crystal Ladwig, Ph.D.
It seems like the children we work with come to us with more baggage than ever before. Some face poverty, violence, abuse, hunger, divorce, trauma, and illness. We are reminded daily of their struggles when they enter our classrooms hungry, tired, dirty, or even afraid. Good teachers can’t help but feel compassion for these children. Over time, our compassion for our students can become more than we can handle, and we experience compassion fatigue. We can get overwhelmed by the magnitude of their problems and our desire to help. Yet, no matter what we do, we can’t alleviate all their pain so that they can focus on learning and being the happy, healthy children we long to see.
Signs of Compassion Fatigue
The toll that this level of compassion takes on teachers leads to burnout. Compassion fatigue happens when teachers care so much and become so emotionally invested in their students that they experience psychological, emotional, and even physical impacts such as insomnia, lack of focus, anxiety, and depression. This is a relatively new concept to teachers, but it’s been around for nurses, therapists, and other “care” providers for quite some time.
If you are working with children in crisis or living with trauma or chronic factors that place them at risk for trauma, there are specific symptoms that you should be aware of. These symptoms are similar to those of depression, including self-isolation, difficulty focusing, anxiety, sadness, anger, and appetite changes.
Avoiding and Treating Compassion Fatigue
What can be done to help keep high-quality, compassionate teachers in the classroom and prevent burnout through compassion fatigue? Thankfully, there are steps that teachers can take to support themselves and the students they long to help.
Know what you can do. Having the self-awareness to know what you can do, and what you can’t, helps you avoid taking on more than you can realistically handle. You may want to be the hero to this child, but that may not be realistic. Just because you’re a good listener and empathetic doesn’t mean that you have the responsibility for solving all the children’s problems, nor should you try to do that alone. You can’t prevent all their pain. You can help them to feel as safe as possible in your classroom.
Take care of yourself. Do things outside of school that you find relaxing: bubble baths, walks, and good books. On tough school days, taking even a few moments for yourself can help you calm down and reset. It’s okay, too, to share this with your students. Tell them you’re feeling a little overwhelmed and need to take a moment. Then model a coping strategy like deep breathing to both help yourself and show them a healthy way to deal with stress. Remember, you can’t take care of your students if you’re not taking care of yourself.
Keep a journal. The stress and worry that come with compassion fatigue will eat you up if you don’t let it out somehow. A journal is a great way to privately express your feelings, your sadness, and your frustration. Reading it helps you reflect on your thoughts, feelings, and actions as you put them into perspective. It also helps you realize when compassion fatigue is setting in so you can get some help when needed.
Monitor your feelings. You can sometimes feel so emotionally spent after an entire school day that you just want to lock yourself up and be alone. That’s fine for a while, especially if you need that. But don’t let yourself become too isolated. You don’t have to deal with these feelings and emotions alone. Talking to someone helps you get those feelings out in a healthy way, so you don’t experience burnout. Other teachers and care providers often experience similar things and can empathize with what you’re going through.
If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by the emotions of teaching and showing signs of depression, don’t ignore them. Talk to your doctor or a therapist to help you cope with these feelings without experiencing the burnout that often accompanies compassion fatigue.
Dr. Crystal Ladwig has taught online and face-to-face college courses for 20 years. She specializes in training future teachers and conducts research on training teachers to work with students with challenging behaviors.