Compassion Fatigue: Positivity as a Solution

Jess Ledbetter Current Affairs, Life in the Classroom

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Do you ever care so much about your students that it hurts your heart or makes you feel tired? Last summer, I had coffee with a friend who is a counselor. She asked if teachers get training in compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue? I’d never even heard of it. But the term spoke to me right away and made sense on a deep level. Compassion fatigue. Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’ve experienced that in my career. I bet you have, too!

By definition, compassion fatigue occurs when a person experiences concern about the trauma of another person or people, gradually becoming desensitized and having feelings of hopelessness. Since I’d never heard the term, I was surprised to find that teachers are commonly mentioned in articles about compassion fatigue. Because teachers are aware of student hardships (poverty, abuse, family illness, divorce, death, etc.), we can become overwhelmed with concern and discouraged by our limited power to protect the student(s) or improve the situation(s).

The more I think about compassion fatigue, the more I’m convinced that it’s a problem for Arizona educators today. First, research indicates individuals have higher risk of developing compassion fatigue if they experience high stress in their personal lives. Being a teacher in Arizona today includes incredibly stressful working conditions: low pay, low school funding, high class sizes, less support (positions cut due to low school funding), and high stakes tied to untrustworthy accountability measures. Worse, social media is flooded with articles proclaiming the demise of public education in Arizona. (Little bit of stress there!) Further, social media posts beg teachers to invest time and energy in events to SAVE education in Arizona. (Little bit more stress there!) Overall, our personal lives are stressful as teachers—and this may increase our risk for compassion fatigue.

In addition to the concerns we have for our students, teachers may also feel concern for our colleagues. We aren’t stressed alone—we’re stressed together with similar challenges. Perhaps this decreases our resiliency and increases the possibility of experiencing compassion fatigue. Articles about compassion fatigue describe symptoms including: anxiety, negativity, decreased productivity, chronic exhaustion, and feelings of self-doubt. Does this describe any phases of your teaching career? Does it describe characteristics you see in colleagues from time to time? Could compassion fatigue be a factor contributing to teacher attrition in Arizona?

I think it’s empowering to know that compassion fatigue is a real condition that can happen when we care too much. Teachers should talk about this condition openly and take intentional steps to avoid developing compassion fatigue. Experts offer ideas such as setting realistic expectations about our actions and results, self-care, connecting with others, authenticity, and mindful meditation. Other experts suggest being kind to ourselves, journaling, and seeking positive influences.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how seeking and sharing positivity is uplifting to me. Don’t people seem thirsty for positivity these days? Yesterday, I posted a funny student quote on Twitter because it made me laugh and I was compelled to share it with others. Would you believe that this random, funny little tweet has been more popular than any other tweet I’ve EVER shared? (Over 5K impressions in 24 hours). I was so amazed by the tweet activity that I looked back through my tweet history of articles, blogs, and important announcements I’ve shared—none of them come close to the Twitter activity on the student quote. Perhaps the best way for educators to connect with others is through these positive glimpses into our classrooms. Every time I see tweet activity on the funny student quote, the moment comes flooding back and I can’t help but smile. Even better, I know it’s helping other educators smile, too. If we could all seek positive influences and seek to BE positive influences to each other, I think we’d be doing a lot to advance the profession. And perhaps these interactions are one of the best strategies to counteract the risk of compassion fatigue for ourselves, our colleagues, and our schools.


I teach preschool students with developmental delays in a Title I school in Glendale, Arizona. I am a National Board Certified Teacher (ENS-ECYA), an Arizona Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow Alumni, and a Candidate Support Provider for teachers seeking their National Board Certification. I earned my doctorate in Educational Leadership and Innovation at ASU. My research explored how early career special education teachers collaborated with peers to increase their team leadership skills working with paraeducators in their individual classrooms. I believe all teachers are leaders in their classrooms and possess the skills to be leaders within their schools, districts, communities, and greater context. I am passionate about National Board Certification, mentoring early career teachers, improving teacher retention, elevating teacher voice, and collaborating with a network of courageous educators who passionately advocate for kids and schools. I believe that real-life stories from our schools should inform the policies that affect students, teachers, and their communities. Therefore, I am grateful to have the opportunity to share my stories here. I welcome your comments on my blog posts and hope that we can advance the dialogue together.

Comments 5

  1. Leah Clark

    Jess, I am so glad you shared this phenomenon plaguing out . Being a teacher is an overwhelming job in itself and when we add students and their lives into the mix, it’s downright crazy. I love your advice on how to handle this stress. Laughter is the best medicine, and I love that you shared your experience with your funny Twitter post. I try to infuse humor into my classroom and personal life. We cannot constantly shoulder the burden of compassion fatigue; however, we can always laugh.

  2. Yolanda Wheelington

    Thank you for this article. I do agree that compassion fatigue is probably a real issue in the lives of many teachers. Most come into this field with the heart to help the child. The problems we see at a variety of levels will naturally want to and feel responsible to do more. When there are barriers to a positive outcome, it is easy to feel disappointed, frustrated, sad, and fatigued. In addition to this, I am hearing more and more language from many sides that suggest schools (= teachers) need to play a bigger role in the lives of students that are at risk/low income/limited parental involvement/limited activities…whatever. At some point, I think a line needs to be drawn for the well being of all.

  3. Sandy Merz

    I’ve mostly managed to avoid compassion fatigue. I’m not sure where I learned how to construct walls that block emotion but allow me to appreciate and work, within sane limits, to do what I can for students living in traumatic conditions. I guess it gets down to the old thing about circles of control, influence, and no control, and recognizing and avoiding the circle of no control.

  4. Lisa Moberg

    This last weekend I had it for the first time in a long time. A student of mine lost his dad- but in the most horrific way- he was murdered in cold blood on Mother’s Day, protecting a woman from being assaulted. What makes it worse is that he is a veteran and firefighter Captain. The weeping and loud wails from his children- one of my students- during the memorial service broke my heart. And then it occurred to me that we are the extension of family of our students. I am tired from my grief and wondering how to help with his grief.

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