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Why Do Teachers Experience Compassion Fatigue?

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Towards the end of a Tibetan Buddhism meditation lecture on compassion, a woman in the back row raised her hand and asked, what about compassion fatigue? Before the instructor could reply, the woman added, I am a teacher. I do my best. I care for my students, but it gets to the point when I can’t anymore. I feel empty and useless. I was in the front row and couldn’t see her face, but I felt the heaviness as if she were right beside me. The instructor explained that compassion fatigue is a result of being attached to outcomes. When things don’t turn out the way we expect, we feel disappointed which can lead to apathy and fatigue. She encouraged the woman to use her meditation practice to explore whether her happiness was dependent on the outcomes of her students or if she found joy in teaching them, regardless.

I left the session deep in thought. I appreciated how the instructor used the question as an opportunity to introduce the topic of detachment, the stripping away of one’s ego and the delusion of acting for the sake of self-aggrandizement, but I felt uncomfortable suggesting to a teacher that she detach herself from outcomes and focus on her happiness. So many educators, myself included, have turned to contemplative practices to find peace. Often we work in challenging environments where the best, most dedicated teachers are driven by outcomes. Outcomes tell us if we are doing our job correctly, if we are having an impact on the lives of students. When supporting teachers who are burnt out and suffering, we need to consider a different approach when they turn to mindfulness meditation training.

Teachers typically go into the teaching profession for altruistic reasons. They want to help students and make a difference in the world through the process of education. This is the seed of compassion. In reality, it is only a seed because compassion needs to be cultivated through mindfulness and pedagogical training. Oftentimes, our best intentions don’t translate into the world in the way we would like. Compassion involves listening deeply and bearing witness to suffering and also, helping to relieve that suffering. How does one listen deeply and bear witness? How does one know what is needed in any given situation?

Compassion is associated with the heart chakra. When there is an imbalance in our heart chakra, we begin to experience insensitivity and apathy for others; what would normally be heartbreaking, suddenly means nothing. The heart chakra is associated with love, relationships, and kindheartedness, but it also pertains to self-acceptance. Self-acceptance is often forgotten. It is arguably the most important aspect of how we cultivate our ability to be compassionate. Self-acceptance involves understanding who you are, knowing your strengths and your weaknesses, and recognizing your limits. Without self-acceptance, we cannot be compassionate without burning out, and losing clarity.

Let us consider an example of compassionate behavior in a school setting. A teacher walks down the hall, busy and late. She passes a student who is crying so she stops everything. She takes the time to fix the situation by getting a band-aid or walking him to the guidance office. This is a very simple scenario, but in most cases, it is unrealistic. What about the classroom full of rowdy students who would be left alone without supervision? Or the principal who would be left waiting in her office scowling? Teachers work in complex, often chaotic environments characterized by countless demands and a wide range of social, emotional, and academic needs. It can be difficult to make choices. It can be difficult to be compassionate all the time. For the newest teachers, still figuring out the curriculum, they are unaware of what may be going on below the surface. Why is Fran’s head down? Is she tired, confused, or hungry? Why did Tomás refuse to answer the question? Is he shy or does he not know the vocabulary? Why didn’t half the parents show up to the parent teacher conference? Was it timing or cultural insensitivity?

Contemplative practices, and meditation in particular, can help us develop compassion starting with self-acceptance. We learn to appreciate ourselves and our basic goodness. We gain insight into our strengths and limitations. When we meditate, we become aware that there is a consciousness separate from our thoughts, and that we have the power to look upon ourselves, and our thoughts with compassion and forgiveness. This discernment is so important when many teachers experience an internal battle with their thoughts having been socialized to believe that they can and should be able to fix countless social problems through the practice of education in spite of inadequate support, training and resources.

Compassion fatigue does not mean you are too attached to outcomes, but rather, you are not spending enough time getting to know and appreciate yourself, your humanity, your own suffering, your boundaries. It means you are trying to help others without first taking care of your own needs. Think about being on an airplane. When there is an unexpected change in air pressure, the air masks drop and in spite of the fact that the steward warns you to put the oxygen mask on yourself first, you start to help others. Within moments, it is only natural that you lose your ability to see straight, get disoriented and eventually lose consciousness entirely.

When we consider mindfulness meditation practice in the context of schooling—schools being just like airplanes with levels of air pressure that can change suddenly— we need to view it as the gateway to getting acquainted with ourselves, learning our limitations, understanding that we don’t always see things clearly, that we are human after all, with limited energy. In this way, we begin to develop wisdom that can guide our greatest intention to be compassionate in schools.

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If you are interested in learning more about this topic or continuing the conversation, please visit my website. My forthcoming book, Mindful Practice for Social Justice: A Guide for Educators and Professional Learning Communities will be available this April. In this guide, I offer strategies and tools to help teachers and PLCs explore the notion of compassion and fatigue, and recognize the personal, social and transpersonal dynamics of our work, especially as they apply to our commitment to social justice and shared responsibility.

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Raquel Ríos, PhD is an educator, learning designer and consultant. She is the author of the book Teacher Agency for Equity: A Framework for Conscientious Engagement (Routledge, 2017). She has worked nationally across the US and internationally in Spain, the United Arab Emirates and Puerto Rico. Prior to starting her own consultancy, Raquel worked with New Teacher Center, a national resource on mentoring and coaching for teacher effectiveness located in Santa Cruz, California where she was a key contributor to the design and development of the curriculum. Her forthcoming book, Mindful Practice for Social Justice: A Guide for Educators and Professional Learning Communities will be released in May by Routledge.

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Guest Sunday, 16 June 2019