February 7, 2019—Is empathy fatigue just another word for burnout or is there something particular about empathy fatigue that is worth leaning into?  In the past week I led a professional development session on empathy fatigue and I had two separate and unrelated conversations with professionals around this theme.  I have learned over the years that when something appears frequently in my life it is worth paying attention to.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, empathy or compassion fatigue is defined as the “indifference to charitable appeals on behalf of those who are suffering, experienced as a result of the frequency or number of such appeals.” In other words, empathy fatigue is a response by caregivers to repeated requests for help by someone else in need.  Empathy fatigue is more typically experienced by physicians, nurses, and other health care providers as their capacity to express empathy for patients is eroded by stress, external performance indicators, and the press to increase efficiency.  It is also sometimes called empathy fatigue. However, I think empathy fatigue, or some variant, is experienced by teachers when their calling to serve learners collides with the frequent appeals by learners (expressed and unexpressed) for social, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual support.

Empathy fatigue for educators, much like for health care workers, is more of a systems problem than the work of individual teachers or students. Most teachers I know care deeply about their students.  They want to help; that is why they are educators.  Teachers don’t set out to experience it and equally so I don’t think most students intend to inflict their teachers with it.  Yet empathy fatigue is part of the teaching landscape and is a contributing factor to teacher attrition rates.  One underlying social factor that contributes to empathy fatigue is chronic stress.  The American Psychological Association reports that a third of workers experience regular and sustained stress.  Suicide and rates of depression are rising, in part from stress, according to the Center for Disease Control and surveys from Blue Cross Blue Shield.  Within the field of education half of the teaching force has contemplated leaving because of personal and professional stress.  Two-thirds of educators in a survey of 5,000 teachers stated that they found their work environment stressful.  These statistics may help explain why empathy fatigue can materialize despite the deep sense of calling a teacher holds for her craft.  It can happen to the best of teachers who deeply care about the learning and emotional state of their students.  In fact, the more a teacher cares the more likely they are to experience empathy fatigue as they dig deep into their empathy tank in response to frequent appeals for assistance from students.

There are several actions a teacher can take to either reduce the likelihood of empathy fatigue or to work their way toward better health and wellness.  On an individual basis, mindfulness, meditation, deep breathing and contemplative activities can help.  Another workable response to empathy fatigue is keeping a gratitude journal or log.  A simple list of things to be grateful for in the teaching day.  Maybe it was an instructional breakthrough that opened up a new way to teach a concept.  Maybe it was a joke a student told during class.  Maybe it is the feeling of gratitude for a colleague who took the time to check in.  A variant on the gratitude log is keeping the hand written notes, drawings, and emails from students, parents, or colleagues complimenting some aspect of your teaching.  When the days are rough, and those days do occur, looking through the file can be a reminder of your ability to do great things to enhance learning.  And most importantly, there is always self-empathy, recognizing that empathy fatigue is a part of what it means to be a teacher, because you care enough to invest your heart in service of another person.  You can’t be perfect all the time; imperfection and imperfect care are human qualities.

Beyond individual actions in combating empathy fatigue it is helpful to have a good social network of like-minded colleagues, especially colleagues who know you well enough to recognize if you are not quite yourself as you interact with students.  Fellow educators who ask how you are doing, invite you out for a cup of coffee/tea to talk, or shine a light in your darkness reminding you about your calling.  A trusted colleague, friend, or partner can recognize the symptoms of empathy fatigue and make you rest and renew your empathy gas tank.  As anyone who travels by plane knows you have to put your oxygen mask on first before you can help others in need.

Students can help as well.  They are highly tuned to the moods of their teachers and therefore make good empathy fatigue detectors.  One of the signs of empathy fatigue is a loss of focus or interest in the other.  Students spend large parts of their day in direct contact with teachers, watching their emotional states and anticipating their teaching moves.  As such, if they have a strong relationship with their teacher, they can call the teacher out when they are inattentive and wandering, seeming to lose focus and interest in the educational needs of the student.  If the teacher is resilient they will recognize the truth of the critique, and if true, admit they were not fully present to the student and take steps to refocus.  It is also the case that empathy fatigue for teachers can be the result of trying too hard to reach into the learning heart of the student.  Teachers are typically hardwired to help students learn and this is generally an admirable quality.  But the shadow side of this gift is that a teacher’s identity and sense of accomplishment can become affixed to the learning performance of students.  Yet if for any number of reasons a student resists taking ownership of their learning by constantly asking the teacher for help, the end result can be empathy fatigue.  The teacher’s sense of self becomes depleted by the cycle of emotionally and intellectually extending oneself to meet the student’s need combined with minimal or slow student learning outcomes.

Students can also be a source of energy, giving back to the teacher, restocking their empathy tank.  Care dynamics are reversed and the student is now helping the teacher. An observant teacher knows which students in their classes are likely to give caring-energy.  With that knowledge a empathy fatigued teacher can look ahead into the daily class schedule with a sense of anticipation, not to burden the student with unreasonable and unprofessional expectations, but simply to be present to the mutual joy of teaching and learning.  This is a form of positive, rather than negative, projection into the instructional day. Who are the students just as ready to greet you as you are to greet them?  After all isn’t this one way to describe good teaching: a shared sense of care for the other?  Empathy fatigue is real for teachers but it doesn’t have to blunt the teacher’s call to serve others.

September 14th, 2018—It is a well-known fact that teachers are leaving the profession at increasingly higher rates.  50% of teachers leave the profession in 5 years and in urban or rural schools the rate can be as high as 50% in three years.  Burnout is the current explanation for this phenomena.  There are, it seems, a lot of good reasons to accept this account.  It is challenging to keep the tender flame of calling burning when the fierce storms of testing, accountability, and low-social status are blowing hard.  Most teachers value data, assessments, and information that guides their instruction.  The best teachers are not anti-testing and accountability.  They know that data can provide a true-sense of how well their teaching is impacting learning.  But the daily grind of doing your best with little or no recognition or acknowledgement of improving student learning can wear the spirit of the teacher down; wellbeing becomes a concern.  Burnout happens when the idealism of serving the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual needs of students drifts to the background in the face of institutional imperatives that are narrowly focused on standards and performance indicators.

Burnout is an occupational hazard of teaching, but there may be a more complex undercurrent to burnout that is worth considering.  The struggle to retain deep meaning and purpose is a phenomena wider than teachers. Other members of the “helping professions” also experience it.  Physicians, for instance, find that the institutional demands, structures, and narrowly defined performance indicators they experience daily tend to divide their professional identity in two.  Their inner calling to heal begins to separate from the outer requirements of the profession. Doctors, like teachers, are increasingly practicing medicine in professional settings that are less concerned with their wellbeing (humanity) and more attentive to efficiency metrics, bottom lines driven by prescribed daily contact hours, pay for performance, and pre-determined treatment protocols.  A recent article in STAT on physician burnout by Simon Talbot, M.D. and Wendy Dean, M.D. (2018) makes the argument that doctors are suffering less from burnout and more from “moral injury” because of the health care system.  Most doctors, like teachers, support accountability and value the link between performance, effectiveness, and patient satisfaction.  What they resist, like their teacher counterparts, is the commodification of their identity and numeric narrowing of the profession.

I think the argument Talbot and Dean make for shifting the language away from burnout, which can seem rather deterministic, to moral injury is worth considering as a more accurate descriptor for teachers as well.  The first concern they raise is that burnout, for physicians, “suggests a failure of resourcefulness and resilience”.  How can this be, they ask, given the strain and stress associated with the long-years of medical training?  Resourcefulness and resilience, it seems, are baked into the professional education of doctors.  When it comes to teachers the financial, emotional, and relational demands of learning to teach may not be as severe or demanding as medical school.  Yet, the year of student teaching followed by the first three-years of teaching, by all account, is pretty intense and challenging.  Resilience, self-determination, and resourcefulness are important skills that all successful early-career teachers have mastered.

From a critique of resourcefulness and resilience they move to a more troubling description of the work of physicians: “Physicians on the front lines of health care today are sometimes described as going to battle. The moral injury of health care is not the offense of killing another human in the context of war. It is being unable to provide high-quality care and healing in the context of health care. Continually being caught between the Hippocratic Oath, a decade of training, and the realities of making a profit from people at their sickest and most vulnerable is an untenable and unreasonable demand.” Moral injury was first used when describing the emotional and psychological costs of a soldiers’ actions in war which often violated their deeply held beliefs and values about life.  In the world of medicine, moral injury describes the impact of the gap between who physicians want to be because of training or calling to heal and what is required by the current system.  It is defined by journalist Diane Silver as “a deep soul wound that pierces a person’s identity, sense of morality, and relationship to society.” The strain of constantly struggling to serve the needs of patients can have profound impact on the psyche of physicians.  As Talbot and Dean note: “Navigating an ethical path among such intensely competing drivers is emotionally and morally exhausting.”

The metaphor of going to battle is not as farfetched for teachers as it might seem. The cover of the September 9th, 2018 issue of The New York Times Magazine boldly claims: “Teachers just want to teach but the classroom has become a battleground”.  The influential book on the history of teaching in America by Dana Goldstein (2015) is titled, “Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession”. Alfred North Whitehead in Aims of Education described the outcomes of an education that stunts the enjoyment of the learner as “soul murder”.  And now policy makers and pundits are pushing to arm teachers in their classrooms. Teachers regularly face choices that cut against their training and moral instincts to care for students and facilitate learning.  For instance, when a teacher makes a pedagogical choice that doesn’t really address a particular student’s learning needs but it does fit the assessment rubric they are being evaluated by.  The battlefield metaphor of teaching, it seems, has a certain resonance with the profession.  Like physicians, the concern for teachers is less the need to navigate these choices, that is what professionals do, it is part of the work.  The concern is that the cumulative effect of the persistent feeling of moral exhaustion, like the repeated moral exhaustion of a soldier in war, leads to a condition where physicians and teachers can “stay—wounded, disengaged, and increasingly hopeless.”

Maybe it is time in education to shift from the soft language of burnout to the starker but perhaps more accurate description of moral injury to describe the experiences and choices teachers face in schools.  What if a teacher or school were rated equally on the ability of the system to help teachers sustain their moral integrity—consistent with their calling and training—with the same vigor that well-crafted external metrics of success are held?


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