On compassion fatigue
How do we safeguard teacher wellbeing in an era of unparalleled challenges?
Compassion and empathy are forces pulling teachers and leaders in every direction right now. Good teachers are leaving the profession citing burnout. Principals are being lectured from on high. And a recent foolish foray of mine onto Teacher Facebook revealed that students have broadly struggled with the return to the social side of education. After two years of disrupted schooling, avoidance and anxiety are now commonplace and students refuse to complete speaking tasks - tasks that were once considered normal, even required by the syllabus. A kind of long-COVID has hit education and we are scrambling to support one another, deal with the complexities of our student care, and of course lastly, look after ourselves.
I was put onto the Being Well podcast with Dr Rick Hanson. One particular episode had an effect on me. Laura Vandernoot Lipsky talks about the ways that care professions (including teaching, but also prison work, nursing and activism) often leave their workers vulnerable to compassion fatigue, overwhelm and burnout. She positions her research as advocacy, saying that employers have a responsibility to provide ‘safe’ workplaces. I’ve been lucky in my role, but between supporting my colleagues, the media narratives about teaching, and my Twitter interactions, I am exposed to a fair amount of vicarious stress and trauma. A few years ago, the idea of compassion fatigue and burnout wouldn’t have prompted a mention at a WHS meeting, but the world - and certainly teaching - has moved into uncharted territory.
Thinking about the problems our industry faces right now, I was reminded of some short-term work I did several years ago at what was then named Green Square School. It’s a school for special purposes, where a team of education and allied health professionals deliver targeted interventions for educationally vulnerable families. In recognition of the work the school has done with community, a new name was gifted by the Metropolitan Lands Council a couple of years ago. Three names were offered and students chose Yudi Gunyi, meaning 'learning home' in Cadigal language. One thing that stood out to me at the time was the daily debrief. I reached out to the principal, Patrick Faucher, to ask him about the practice and how it has evolved.
Patrick says, that “compassion fatigue is inevitable” but that “the healthy habits and relationships we keep with ourselves and others are a protective factor in offsetting the impacts of compassion fatigue.” He says that predictability and structure are “of critical importance,” and this is certainly something that has been lacking in mainstream education for the last couple of years. What impressed me when chatting to Patrick was that the debriefing practices at Yudi Gunyi have changed in response to research. We often engage in research-informed practice in the classroom but fall short in matters of student wellbeing, let alone teacher wellbeing. He says,
Briefing (mornings) and debriefing (afternoons), provide a formal and informal way of maintaining a level of collegiality and collaboration in an intense and dynamic workplace. Briefing and debriefing has changed over the years, to reflect research into vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue. Two examples of this are in response to the rhythms of people who may suffer adversely from having to listen to people recounting the various struggles of a day, potentially 're-exposing' them to a situation their nervous system would prefer to process in a different way.
He describes the daily process like this:
Firstly, providing a framework where the most significant behaviors of concern are shared at the end of debrief, and only to those who wish to stay and share with executive staff, is a discretion afforded everyone. Bookending this approach, the first part of debrief is typically geared toward celebrating the achievements and successes of students and staff. It's a great time to celebrate those moments we may have missed throughout the day. Secondly, in response to the heterogeneous way our nervous systems like to process energy, we are afforded the opportunity to skip debrief one a week, so that we can do something restorative that is unique to us (go for a swim, run, play golf, catch up with a friend, family etc). Debriefing is a practice that needs to be authentic and in keeping with staff rhythms and emerging research.
What I really like about Patrick’s thinking is that it helps us to frame teacher wellbeing as an essential factor in not only risk management but service delivery. If your role requires you to be emotionally available and empathetic, then your cup needs to be filled and not completely broken. If student academic achievement is your focus, you can’t afford to enter the classroom in a depleted state for days on end. If you still want to be in the classroom in five years time, then you will need a safe workplace. Perhaps it’s time for us to start a conversation about teaching as an industry where employee wellbeing needs to be proactively managed, rather than triaged.