Compassion Fatigue: How can we help our students when we have trouble helping ourselves?

Will Tucker

As the class of 2010 prepares for its 10 years reunion, my mind turns to Wes. 
When he was a senior, he was prescribed several different medications to help with his ADHD and focus. Wes was a handful, often a bit neurotic, his brilliance turning the hamster wheel in his brain at 200 mph. The meds helped, but at the same time, he was also self-medicating with other things. When he came into class feeling groggy and worn down, I would express my worry, and he would always brush it off. “Tucker, I’m fine. I’m here to take over this world, and nothing is going to stop me.” 

He was, without a doubt, the smartest kid I’ve ever taught. He got a 1600 on the SAT, and a full ride to UVA. On a more personal level, he loved writing more than any young person I’ve met, and often stayed after school to discuss a book he was crafting. He loved world-building, and in some manner fancied playing god when it came to creative things. I had the privilege of teaching Wes three times, and each year our camaraderie grew as we discussed difficult books, the etymology of obscure French words, and politics from around the world.

I went to his graduation party and saw him a couple times that summer. He started wearing cowboy hats, and fancied himself to be Colonel Aureliano Buendia from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, a persona that grew once he got to college. 

One afternoon the following spring he came by school for a visit and he told me everything that had happened in college. How he’d been forced out of the University of Virginia for various reasons. How he hoped to start again at U of L that fall. 

In some ways, he already seemed like a ghost. I missed the old Wes, the nerdy kid who taught himself German and loved Bob Dylan more than anything. 

When he died that December, just a week shy of his 21st birthday, I was shocked and devastated. 

But any loss is going to be hard. 

I have only recently become acquainted with the term “compassion fatigue”, something I think all of us in this profession are suffering from. 

We see poverty, violence, racial and cultural insensitivity, trauma, and issues with mental health, every single day in our classrooms. And yet, some members of the American public seem to think that we can solve these, and other social problems, while preparing our students for high-stakes testing, college, career, the rest of their lives. 

The pressure never lets up in a culture that is only focused on results, and our educational leaders seem to think that our resilience and grit will last, even when the ground beneath our feet is crumbling. We see how polarized our culture has become, we try to teach unity and compassion, but the world keeps invading, keeps us from being able to sleep at night as we worry that what we do will not make a difference in the long run. 

It should not be surprising then, that a Learning Policy Institute study on teacher burnout suggests that new teachers leave at a rate between 19 and 30 percent over their first five years of teaching. No School of Education can completely prepare someone new to the profession for the traumas they may face, especially one like losing a student to death. 

But perhaps schools can take steps to train teachers on recognizing the signs of issues like compassion fatigue.  Maybe if we spent more time on self-care, and less time worrying about potential state takeovers and test results, the entire climate of our schools would change.     

Some days it feels like there’s a bit of black cloud we’re trying to outrun. On others, it seems like the sadness and pressure are forgotten and things are normal again. Or as normal as a high school can be. 

The reality is that we don’t just let our kids run around the maze of our hearts for 175 days. We sometimes worry about them all evening. On the car ride home. In line for groceries, or standing at our son’s soccer game. 

I sometimes wonder if the public fully understands how much we care for our students. How we invest in their futures and await the fulfillment of potential. How we remember their names 10 years after they graduate, and how we like to tell stories over and over to our current students about all the funny things that a previous class did. 

We become the parental figures that so many of them don’t have. The crazy uncles and loving aunties. And even though I’ve become a father myself, my students will always be “my kids.”  

In this holiday season, I am grateful for the chance to teach. I am grateful for the laughter and the tears that come with each passing school year, for the happy memories that students and teachers alike treasure, and even for the pain of losing someone like Wes.  

So the next time you question the value of your work, or the importance of your life, think about a teacher that made a difference. One that meant the world to you. 

Chances are you meant the world to them, too.

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