Monday, November 5, 2012

Teachers and Compassion Fatigue ...

... I remembered Bill, who was murdered in Texas the year after I taught him in sixth grade; Brian, who died in a car accident just after high school graduation; and Catherine, who struggled with a brain tumour in second grade.
 As teachers we feel the children in our classrooms become part of our lives. We witness them growing, learning, and becoming. Sometimes we witness and experience their tragedies as well. ...
Marj Vandenack in
Teaching With Fire: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Teach
Sam Intrator and Megan Scribner, Editors

I have had three requests for Compassion Fatigue (CF) workshops for teachers in the past week (a really good thing!) but when I mentioned the fact to a neighbour, she laughed out loud and asked what on earth teachers needed with a compassion fatigue workshop. After all, they had easy jobs, short days and long vacations - what more could they ask?

My response was that, though sometimes maligned for just those reasons, teachers and teachers aides are as much at risk for CF as other helping professionals. They are confronted daily with students whose lives have been upended by trauma - trauma as varied as birth trauma; physical, sexual or emotional abuse; war, torture, or immigration trauma; poverty or privilege; chemical dependency; natural disasters; or medical trauma. Frequently, these students lack the resources to heal their emotional wounds and, thus, suffer a diminished capacity to learn. They and/or their families may share painful trauma stories and lean heavily upon their teachers for the care they cannot find in other places.

Emily Noble, past-president of the Canadian Teachers' Federation, has said:
I think that the whole idea of teaching has changed in the last 15-20 years. ... People are dealing with more high-need students, with more multicultural issues, and with no-fail policies. ... Teachers want to make a difference, but the supports are just not there."
And so, even (or especially) the very best of teachers are falling by the wayside. They push too hard, within a culture of expected endurance and self-sacrifice, to accommodate both an increasing administrative burden and the special needs of traumatized students. The result is increased sick time and the eventual attrition of excellent teachers.

One study of urban Saskatchewan teachers, by Ron Martin and Rod Dolmage of the University of Regina, indicates that 61% of respondents reported becoming ill due to stress, 40% had had to take time off work due to stress, and 51% would leave teaching if they could find an alternate career. (!)

Fortunately, CF is beginning to be acknowledged, alongside burnout, in education circles. As leaders in education learn about CF and adjust organizational policies to increase support and decrease trauma exposure in their teachers, the impact of trauma can decrease and the people and process of teaching and learning can be renewed.

Some CF research and resources for teachers include:

1.  Hooker, S  (2012)  The Cost of Caring
2.  Hamilton, M  (2007)  What School Leaders Need to Know About Secondary Traumatic Stress
3.  Marsay, G and Higson-Smith, C  Exploring Compassion Fatigue and Trauma in the South African Learning Environment
4.  Wolpow, R et al (2009)  The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success 



Unknown said...

This is a great blog post, Jan! I look forward to booking you for one such workshop as soon as I can.

Jan Spilman, MEd, RCC Compassion Fatigue Specialist said...

Thanks, Shirley. It will be great to join you in the Cariboo again.

Lynn Dion said...

Hi --
I am heartened to see this topic brought up as something that happens to teachers more often than is commonly recognized. My training is both psychology and English (creative writing) and a lot of my teaching overlaps those areas. I have had the occasion to teach major disorders like schizophrenia and PTSD in an academic writing setting, for example.
My observation is this: I find something like "compassion fatigue" setting in from time to time with regard to the "trauma" of terribly inadequate early preparation in literacy itself, teaching as I do in an inner city college. I can see better than the students what they weren't given and don't have, and what I have only a limited prospect of making up for in an undergrad composition course -- and it hurts like hell sometimes. Often, in fact, and of course it's depressing as well. Recognition for support in this facet of teaching doesn't seem to be too prominent, outside of grouse sessions about how substandard the preparation of these kids usually is.
Any thoughts?