Since January 2020, I’ve been studying the lived experience of educational workers with emotional labour, compassion fatigue and stress, and burnout. As part of this work, I’ve been reviewing survey data and interview transcripts from earlier this year which prompted me to reflect on an experience I had nearly twenty years ago, in 2003.
At that time, I taught at Enviros Base Camp, a residential wilderness school that used land-based learning and therapy to rehabilitate male young offenders. One September afternoon, the teaching staff and students decided to hike three kilometers out to the “small pond” that was located adjacent to a local ranch. As we walked, we stumbled across a horse sinking into a muddy, and surprisingly deep, bog.
My students, young men with extensive and sometimes violent criminal records, were aghast by the horse’s situation and demanded that we act to save it. One teacher and a youth rushed back to Base Camp to phone the rancher while the rest of us discussed ways to rescue the horse.
We tried pushing, pulling, coaxing, and wedging sticks under the horse, but to no avail—the more the horse struggled, the more he sunk into the earth. We worked together for hours as the warm September day turned to a cool September evening, and the horse continued to sink until only his head stuck out above the mud.
The boys refused to give up on the horse. I remember each of them taking turns to hold the horse’s head above the mud, while others provided it with drinking water. One boy spoke quietly and calmly to the horse for much of the time—stroking the horse’s forehead to prevent him from struggling and sinking further.
Even though most of our students were minimally literate and had volatile tempers, that afternoon, they demonstrated an unexpected compassion and care for the trapped animal. Eventually, the rancher pulled up, roped the horse’s neck, pulled the distraught animal out with his truck, thanked us for our help, and went on his way.
My experience at Base Camp is a reminder that “[t]eachers are not fleshy programmable robots, children are not test scores, and real learning is not measurable by a list of numbers and subcategories of objectives. They remind us that we are hearts, bodies, minutes and movement, even in school buildings” (Ali-Khan, 2015, p. 302).
Educational workers might feel helpless and trapped by the intense workload and changes to their daily life brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and other stressors. Much like the horse in my story, people struggling with compassion fatigue and burnout can feel stuck in the mud, unable to reach solid ground on their own.
Compassion stress and compassion fatigue typically occur in response to working with other people experiencing a crisis or trauma event. Burnout develops over time as the result of long-term exposure to heavy workloads and high numbers of students. With burnout, compassion stress and compassion fatigue—all real and present mental health concerns in the educator sector—a variety of positive and collective interventions are needed to help an individual return to a state of mental well-being.
A person experiencing burnout or compassion fatigue needs a community of helpers to support their mental health journey. While an individual can take personal action, such as talking to a trusted friend, starting a walking program, or eating a nutritious lunch, these self-care strategies are only one part of a larger HEARTcare plan (Alberta Teachers Association and Kendrick, in press, 2021).
HEARTcare stands for scHool, systEm, individuAl, pRofessional, educaTional worker, and is a holistic framework aimed at preventing and treating compassion fatigue and burnout in educational workers.
- scHool interventions include creating a warm and caring school culture that values the children, youth, and adults who work together each day. It includes building meaningful and professional relationships between co-workers, communicating effectively on matters of disagreement, and respectfully allocating resources and supports that promote positive mental health for students and staff.
- systEm interventions are pedagogical and professional learning opportunities, accountability and well-being policies provided to schools from leaders in the educational community. These interventions include noticing and elevating the good work of all staff to promote student progress while also providing guidance, resources, and supports for those experiencing distress. System interventions also address and remove racial, gender, or other barriers to equity that limit the potential of the educational workforce.
- individuAl interventions are the personal, self-chosen strategies that each person can take to improve their own mental, emotional, intellectual, physical, spiritual, and environmental health. These interventions include understanding one’s own responses and coping strategies when faced with stress or distress, and accessing the necessary resources and supports to ensure a return to mental health.
- pRofessional interventions include the medical doctors, psychologists, and other health professionals, who (like the rancher in the story) have the necessary training, resources, and expertise to assist a person with processing and treating their mental distress. Rather than feeling stigmatized for accessing these treatments, getting this form of help should be a necessary part of a balanced wellness care plan.
- educaTional worker interventions reflect the unique work provided by the community of caregivers in school and in other educational settings. Working with children and youth requires an enormous amount of emotional labour that has both positive and negative implications for educational workers.
Healthy adults make better educational caregivers, and they are a key component of nurturing and helping students. As the COVID-19 vaccine rollout promises a more recognizable schooling experience in the fall, treating and preventing further burnout, compassion stress and fatigue also needs to be a priority.
HEARTcare planning should be a part of every educational worker’s professional growth plan—from superintendents to bus drivers, and educational assistants to principals. Starting out with two simple questions, "What can I do today to feel well?" and "Who can help me do that thing?" can go a long way to ensuring that you see the mud bog before getting swallowed up by it.
- Alberta Teachers Association and Kendrick, Astrid. (in press, 2021). Phase Two Report from the Compassion Fatigue, Emotional Labour, and Burnout Study.
- Ali-Khan, C. (2015). 14. Liberation, mice elves and navel gazing. Doing Educational Research: A Handbook, 293.