August 8, 2019—Earlier this summer I attended a conference at Goshen College titled; The Heart of Higher Education: Living Between What Is and What Could Be.  The gathering was hosted by a team of Courage to Teach facilitators committed to advancing the work of Parker Palmer in higher education communities. The 80 participants were invited by the organizers to consider: “how their inner lives and outer work are connected; how to bring their gifts and skills to what they do; and how to fully engage in the purposes of higher education while pondering the gap between what is and what could be.”  These are worthy principles for a conference and even more compelling questions for educators to consider.  I find the last question particularly worthwhile in my work.  It invites me to pay attention to both my role as a professor (the institutional expectations and protocols) and my calling to teach (the ways my heart takes a non-linear approach to classroom practices).  Imagine, what teaching and learning might look like if these three questions were just as important, when considering a teacher’s promotion and tenure, as the traditional measures of success: quantitative assessments of publications, teaching evaluations, and amount of service? I think about these questions on a regular basis, it is how my teacher heart is wired.  I find elements of my inner-life of teaching just as valid and reliable as my outer metrics of effective instruction.  I’m at my best when my inner and outer lives are held in productive tension; neither holds complete sway over the other.

I found it affirming that I’m not the only higher education faculty experiencing similar feelings.  The 80 conference participants suggest that I’m part of a wider community willing to explore that space between “what is and what could be” in support of human-flourishing in classrooms.  As I reflected on the conference I was struck by how closely the professional life and challenges of educators on college campuses mirrors the work of physicians.  For the last four years I’ve lead monthly wellness conversations with doctors and learned a lot about how they would, fully engage in the purposes of health care while pondering the gap between what is and what could be.  I think it is important to raise the following comparisons to bring attention to the fact that teachers are not alone in the challenges they experience when attempting to integrate both the head and heart.

  • Both small campuses and hospitals are closing or merging into bigger competitors;
  • Both professions are constricted by external standards, accountability, efficiency metrics, and pay for performance;
  • Both educators and physicians feel that there is not enough time in the day to breathe and engage in self-care because of the intensity and pace of the work; and
  • Both professions are experiencing high rates of attrition, burn out, and loss of faith in the core calling of the profession to enhance learner or patient health.

Many of the educators and doctors I know feel that the heart of their work is often denied or curtailed access to the classroom or examination room.  In some cases, to the point of atrophy and potential arrest.  In hospitals a “code blue” immediately rallies a team of skilled doctors and nurses to rush to the aid of a patient experiencing life-threatening cardiac arrest.  Maybe it is time to institute a similar code and system-wide response when a member of the helping professions (educators, physicians, faith leaders, social workers, counselors/therapists, etc.) experiences the equivalent of a professional faltering of their professional heart and calling.

It is common knowledge that prevention is the first line of response in medicine.  And I think prevention is also the first line of response when addressing the stress that can result when the heart and head of the educator are in competition with each other.  Why wait for burnout and cynicism to set in before attending to and reducing the symptoms?

The season of summer is upon us.  A perfect antidote to stress.  As you move deeper into the months of June-August I encourage you to lean into the gifts of summer, whenever and wherever possible.  This can be easier to say than do.  Another comparison between educators and doctors is that when a patient or student requires immediate attention and a healing touch, most teachers and physicians will interrupt time off to help out.

To fully receive the benefits of rest and renewal is a discipline.  It takes practice and attentiveness to one’s self-care, ultimately to better serve the needs of others under your professional care. The best vacations are attentive to your unique needs and interests; a time away just for you.  Slow down.  Spend time with family and friends.  Go swimming.  Soak in the warmth.  Just be present to yourself and your needs.  This doesn’t have to be month long vacation, a little here and a little there adds up.  Take a walk, with intention, around the block or neighborhood.  A well planned day or two-hours that is grounded in your “wholeness” can be just as renewing as a longer period of time where the needs of others are also present.  I like to pick up a pair of binoculars and scan my backyard for birds.  A few minutes and I’m no longer thinking of work.

Another strategy is naming and seeking out the delights of summer. Those experiences that bring joy to your heart and a smile to your face.  For me, peaches fall squarely into the category of delights, especially Palisade, Colorado peaches.  Here are a couple of stanzas from a favorite poem about peaches that brings me closer to that summer delight.  A simple act with deep potential to renew the heart.  The poem is From Blossomsby Li-Young Lee.  He writes:

O, to take what we love inside,

    to carry within us an orchard, to eat

    not only the skin, but the shade,

    not only the sugar, but the days, to hold

    the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into   

    the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live

    as if death were nowhere

    in the background; from joy

    to joy to joy, from wing to wing,

    from blossom to blossom to

    impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

Find your summer bliss and delight and plunge fully into it. Your heart will appreciate the gift.

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.

“I have come to believe that caring for myself is not self-indulgence. Caring for myself is an act of survival.” Audre Lorde

Committed educators are aware that teaching in America’s public schools is a demanding and frequently unappreciated profession. Yet, it is a profession that when it is focused on fulfilling the needs of all students, it is life transforming for the student and the educator, which can in turn can create social justice. Further, students’ lives demonstrate the most productive results when teachers actively and intentionally address their mindset regarding personal privilege or socioeconomic class differences, work to create equitable classrooms and schools, and implement culturally responsive-culturally sustaining practices (Delpit, 2012; Hammonds, 2015; Irvine, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 2014; Ware, 2006).

The demands on educators are exacerbated by a public consciousness that perceives the demanding and highly impactful work of educators as having low status and deserving of low wages. The field of education often demonstrates that work driven by a moral commitment to the success of children and adults is not valued and those who perform the work are therefore, not valuable.

Working to ignore the noise of a society that does not appreciate the worth of hard and heart driven work and to remain committed to the needs of all students is stressful. Further, stress is increased by the requests, demands, and requirements occurring within schools that are driven by well-intended programs and policies that do not deliver the intended impact of insuring students’ academic and social emotional needs are met. Yet, teachers operate within and in-opposition to these daily struggles and demands to find solace in the smile of a child, the joyful demonstration of learning, and the successful completion of a lesson, course, grade level, or graduation.

To be sure, attaining the pivotal goal of education by demonstrating academic achievement with minoritized students when addressing privilege, equity, and implementing culturally responsive practices within systems of oppression is not an easily attainable success that naturally contains challenges and stress. The multiple demands of the noble duty of teaching can lead to benign or intentional self-neglect which in turn leads to un-managed stress.

As an educator who has experienced these challenges and supported educators who faced these challenges, I have experienced intentional and benign neglect of my wellbeing which lead to my creation of a body of work on self-care.

Self-care is a part of the popular lexicon that has encouraged many people to be aware of their needs and improve their stress management and wellbeing through a variety of means. Self-care experiences can be free and/or expensive and create life-long changes or temporary relief of the challenges of being an educator. To be sure, self-care is a significant strategy for all people who experience the stressors of daily life. However, it was through my experiences and research that I realized many self-care strategies are often temporary fixes for unaddressed stress and create temporary bursts of oxytocin which do not prevent occurrences of neglect that I have identified as radical self-care.

Radical self-care (Ware, 2016) occurs when inconsistent self-care, and the long-term neglect of health, fitness, or stress management lead to a health, physical, or emotional, crisis. This crisis can be demonstrated as an inability to fulfill personal or professional responsibilities or to simply function. The crash, no matter how it manifests, requires the person to implement radical self-care to overcome exhaustion. Think of the image of a depleted phone battery, the battery with the red line indicates the phone is not available for use because it is exhausted. When we reach that point of exhaustion, our personal reconnection to a power source or stress release is required. Like a phone, a brief recharge will make us functional (radical self-care intervention), but for extended use, we need to be completely recharged (active self-care).

To avoid the need for radical self-care (Ware, 2016), I propose that educators use temporary self-care strategies such as massages only as complementary strategies to a life of consistent active self-care. The specific types of active self-care strategy are personal and specific to the needs of each educator. Using reflective practice suggested in the culturally responsive education literature, (Cadray cited in Irvine, 2002) each educator must consider their individual needs to enhance their wellbeing, such as nutrition, hydration, caring relationships, exercise, sleep, relaxation, or extended periods of being unplugged from their electronic devices. Each one of those strategies offer well documented improvements to an educator’s health, wellbeing, and productivity (Amen, D. & Amen, T. 2015). Further, an educator engaged in active self-care increases their productivity and enhanced decision-making processes.

I propose that one of the challenges in creating equitable schools and culturally responsive education is a void of school communities that promote and engage in active self-care. Demands on the time of educators contribute to the neglect of self-care. Too many educators work to the point of exhaustion and make critical decisions while in crisis mode fueled by the release of cortisol and a hijacked amygdala (Glasser, 2014; Hammonds, 2015). This stress naturally prevents a critical analysis of systemic oppression for minoritized communities of students and the implementation of equitable learning conditions. Additionally, these stress-based decisions may destroy the critical element of trust in educator and student relationships (Glasser, 2014; Hammonds, 2015; Ware, 2006).

For educators to meet students’ needs and be the change agents that the current conditions of education demand, educators should start with examining their active self-care practices and determine the strategies they need to implement with consistently to be healthy and productive through out the school year. Many educators return from a summer break relaxed with many health strategies in place. Unfortunately, many educators do not maintain these practices and by midyear need a radical self-care intervention (Ware, 2016).

Educators are overwhelmed with the demands on their time, energy, and money. The premise of radical self-care (Ware, 2016) is not to make one more impossible demand on educators. Instead, it is the acknowledgement that the health and wellbeing of teachers is a priority in creating equitable and culturally responsive-culturally sustaining schools. A focus on active self-care of teachers can contribute to the creation of academically successful, culturally competent, and socio-politically conscious students (Ladson-Billings, 2014).

 

REFERENCES

Amen, D. & Amen, T. (2016). The Brain Warrior’s Way. New York: New American Library

Cadray, J. cited in Irvine, J., Armento, B. (2002). Culturally Responsive Teaching: Lesson Planning for Elementary and Middle Schools. McGraw Hill. New York, NY

Depit, L. (2012). Multiplication is for White People: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children. NY: The New Press

Glasser, J. (2014). Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results. NY: Bibiomotion, Inc

Hammonds, Z. (2015). Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin.

Irvine, J. 2002. Culturally Responsive Teaching: Lesson Planning for Elementary and Middle Schools. NY: McGraw Hill

Ladson-Billings, G. (2014). Culturally Relevant Pedagogy 2.0: a.k.a. the Remix. Harvard Educational Review. 84(1) 74-83

Ware, F. (2016, October 25). Radical Self-Care, Elements of a culturally responsive practice. Live performance in Scholars Unlimited Training, Denver.

Ware, F. (2006). Warm Demander Pedagogy: Culturally Responsive Teaching That Supports a Culture of Achievement for African American Students. Urban Education 41(4) 427-456

About Our Guest Blogger

Franita Ware, Ph.D. is the author of the classic article, Warm Demander Pedagogy: Culturally Responsive Teaching That Supports a Culture of Achievement for African American Teachers. She is a Program Manager with the Culture Equity and Leadership Team of Denver Public Schools and a former Adjunct Professor with the Morgridge College of Education. She is currently writing a manuscript on effective warm demander and culturally sustaining teachers in contemporary public schools.

October 5th, 2018—In my previous post I drew comparisons between the moral injury that physicians and teachers experience because of the choices they face when treating patients or educating learners.  Both professions, it seems, experience moral injury as a result of limited professional freedom in response to institutional imperatives that generate goals focused on efficiency, numerics, prescribed treatment/teaching protocols, and economic bottom lines.  The repeated exposure to decision making that threatens moral or professional values can, as Diane Silver (2011) writes, leave “a deep soul wound that pierces a person’s identity, sense of morality and relationship to society.”  Moral injury was first used to describe soldiers returning from war where life and death decisions are made that often cut across a soldier’s morals, values, or beliefs.  Although the experiences of teachers are not analogous to that of soldiers on the battlefield there are still many comparable elements that resonate with the descriptions and costs of moral injury.

The counseling literature addresses the question of how to begin repairing moral injury through a process called “moral repair” or “soul repair.”  Soul repair is an apt descriptor for the healing that many teachers are seeking in response to the professional pain they experience.  Soul repair fits because teaching is a profession anchored in “calling”; a tight relationship between the inner commitments of a teacher and external conventions of the profession. Most teachers dedicate time, talent, and treasure to the education of learners because of a sense of moral drive or longing to serve others.  And it is broken heartedness—a separation from calling—that underscores the moral injury when in order to retain their job they are asked to reduce students to data on a spreadsheet.  Although this shift in seeing students as objects is momentary and can reveal negative-instructional trends that should be addressed, the repeated diminishment of students over an extended period of time can result in a moral rupture.  A teacher can, as Parker Palmer notes, find themselves in a state of “divided-self” where the inner calling to teach becomes separate from the external role.  This is remarkably similar to the consequences of moral injury described in the newsletter Good Therapy: “A moral injury can also be described as a sort of disconnect between one’s self and second self, where the second self is the part of the person that develops in the face of combat or a situation requiring a difficult decision.  Moral injury confuses the two selves…” (2016).

Depending on the depth or nature of a teacher’s moral injury the elements of soul repair can include individually-focused practices like mindfulness, meditation, or the modulation of emotions through training in social-emotional learning (SEL).  These are everyday approaches to stress reduction that any teacher can initiate during breaks in the day, practice as part of a curriculum aimed at teaching students mindfulness, or during an instructional breather when students are engaged in self-directed learning.  Taking three deep breaths is a simple way to restore some healing to a bruised or wounded heart.  Another easy practice is the keeping of a gratitude journal.  The goal is to write two or three things that made you laugh, smile, or feel connected to someone else during the day.  By their very nature these strategies are designed to bring teachers back into relationship with their inner-wisdom; the deep center of quietness out of which their moral integrity emerges.

Sometimes the moral violation cuts deeply into the soul of the teacher and the healing process—the return to moral integrity—entails more extensive work and repair.  Let me provide an example that will suggest a process by which a community of educators can work toward a shared sense of wellbeing.  Throughout this description I will draw on strategies pioneered and practiced in the therapeutic care of soldiers recovering from moral injury.

I regularly host conversations with educators with the explicit purpose of helping them reconnect their inner call to teach with the external imperatives of their institutional life.  These teachers, in varying ways and times, are experiencing some aspect of moral injury.  They are thirsting for reconnection and the integration of their two-selves. In soul repair the first step toward wholeness is responding to the internal cry of the heart as it reaches out for support and reintegration.  These teachers, knowingly or not, are following the guidance of The Moral Injury Project at Syracuse University to never approach the process of soul repair alone but rather to seek out “community for a shared process of healing.”  In the field of education the ubiquitous Professional Learning Community (PLC) could be a readymade community for healing the heart of educators.  Of course, not all PLCs have the requisite level of relational trust, listening skills, and communication to successfully follow the conventions of soul repair.  If this is the case then alternative sites for gathering in community should be explored.

In keeping with the soul repair literature we always begin our time together with ritual.  This typically means welcoming participants and establishing norms which create a container where participants are: invited—not required—to share their story; encouraged to avoid fixing or saving each other; expected to show up completely with all their challenges and gifts; focused on deep-listening to the teaching heart of their colleagues; and bounded by a commitment to confidentiality (what is shared in the meeting stays in the meeting).  Prior to our gathering I email a poem and reflection questions to participants.  The purpose is to invite the soul to “engage” the material in a way consistent with the slow and deliberate approach the heart uses to construct knowledge. I recently sent Galway Kinnell’s Saint Francis and Sow to a group because the images in his poem invite me to remember that effective teaching stems as much from “self-blessing” as it does from technique.  The power of poetry, as Emily Dickinson, notes comes from its ability to “tell the truth but tell it slant.”  The Moral Injury Project advocates the use of “artistic and literary formats for public engagement” because they invite “listening and witnessing” to the divided heart.  Healing language for the teacher heart is metaphor, imagery, and analogy.  In high school I learned to take poems apart, to analyze for meaning and the poet’s word choice.  In soul repair the goal is to let the poem speak to your wholeness, to let the poem interpret you.

My goal with a community of brokenhearted educators is not to achieve the measurable metrics of industrial teaching.  Instead I’m offering a brief respite from the divided life.  The longer term goal of soul repair is self-forgiveness, spiritual healing, restoring notions of self-worth, and the restoration of wholeness.  Kinnell seeks a similar outcome when he writes: “for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;/ though sometimes it is necessary/ to reteach a thing its loveliness…” Imagine if you will an educational setting where the measure of success is the depth to which the “reteaching of loveliness” is achieved.


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