Understanding Compassion Fatigue

I first heard about the concept of compassion fatigue from the assistant principal at the school I was just hired to teach at. This AP was also a social worker. She pulled me into her office on one of the teacher works days that bridged the end of summer and the beginning of the school year and she started off by saying “Our school is unique and I really want to see you succeed here.”

A little background on the school: this school was a continuation high school for students who din’t make it at the district’s comprehensive high schools for a variety of reasons. The school population included the involuntary transfers for lack of credits, drug offensives, weapon offensives or fighting, or those released from juvenile hall that needed a place to land. Probation visits to the school were frequent as were ankle monitoring devices with both GPS capabilities as well as alcohol consumption monitoring. And then there were the voluntary transfers of the marginalized students who wanted a fresh start at a smaller school setting that was more accepting. Our school attracted students in our LBGTQ+ community that didn’t feel safe at the larger schools. This was a unique blend of a student population and very different than the comprehensive high schools that I had previously taught at.

As I nervously sat in the AP office, she continued, “Turnover and burnout are real. You have to learn to create a separation from your students. You need to leave them here when you close your classroom door each afternoon and head home to your family. Don’t allow yourself to become attached. They will creep into your mind and heart and you will constantly have to create that distance.” I left her office that day and headed back to set up my classroom not sure about what this year ahead would be like. I was surprised that she would warn me in this way, isn’t the key success in teaching to connect with your students? She never mentioned the term compassion fatigue, but as I read about this term in Chapter 8 of Onward years later, I was immediately brought back to that conversation. A light bulb went on when I was reading So this is what she was talking about so many years ago.

Elena Aguilar explains that “empathy is a powerful building block for compassion, but when our distress over what we witness takes center stage, the emotional experience becomes known as empathetic distress…empathetic distress can lead to what’s called compassion fatigue, the feeling of being less motivated and less able to alleviate suffering.” Compassion fatigue often effects those in the healthcare fields but is also prevalent on our schools. And as I continued to read in Onward, my conversation with my AP made so much more sense. “The key to preventing empathetic fatigue is to cultivate a particular kind of detachment. In this state, we acknowledge the pain we witness and the distress it causes us, but we have some distance from it. The is not about being emotionally detached. At its most simplistic, it’s about training our brain not to activate the regions of pain and suffering when we witness other people’s suffering. This can be done through compassion meditation, as the Buddhist monks have done, and also through cultivating a mindset of equanimity – the ability to see and accept things as they are.”

This school was one of my favorite and definitely my most rewarding experiences in my 20+ years in public education. I have such appreciation for that conversation in my AP’s office. Her advice stuck with during my time there. We spent many lunch hours monitoring the quad talking about our students and their lives and also talking about our shared love of shoes and Hawaii. She taught me so much about emotional detachment, and for that I am forever grateful!

If compassion fatigue is something you want to explore more, a great place to start is Are you Suffering from Compassion Fatigue?