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We Don’t Need Another Teaching Hero to Meet Vulnerable Student Needs

by Dr. Astrid Kendrick University of Calgary | September 18 2020

Imagine it: the solitary figure rising above the classroom of eager students lifting her powerful voice and fixing their complex and collective pain through one, effective lesson. The children cheer, the problem is solved, and the teacher saves the day. While stories of the singular, hero teacher make for great movie scripts, true change in schools arises from daily positive interaction between students and the many adults they encounter in schools. Teachers and school administrators have a strong influence on student achievement, but so do educational assistants, bus drivers, custodians, administration, librarians, and counselors.

Research in the education sector, as well as my own nineteen-year teaching career, has taught me that education was the responsibility of a community, not a person, and that burnout, compassion stress or compassion fatigue are the occupational hazards of educational heroism.


Compassion Stress and Compassion Fatigue

Alongside Dr. Lisa Everett from the Alberta Teachers Association and Dr. Carlyn Volume-Smith from the ASEBP, I am leading a research study into the scope and features of compassion stress, compassion fatigue, and burnout in educational workers in Alberta. The term compassion fatigue was first coined by Carla Joinson in 1992 relating to the secondary trauma taken on by nurses from dealing with their patients. Compassion fatigue, or the cost of caring (Figley, 1995), emerges in caregivers as they take on the trauma of their patients or clients, and is normally associated with frontline crisis or trauma workers.

Burnout can result from a prolonged exposure to difficult or trying situations over several years. The combination of burnout and compassion fatigue can be devastating for an individual’s mental and emotional health.

Preliminary findings from the survey and interview data suggests that compassion stress, fatigue, and burnout is an occupational hazard for educational workers, across job roles including teachers, administrative assistants, school counselors, and administration.


Prevention is Key
Taking lessons from other professions that deal with compassion fatigue, compassion stress, and burnout, educational workers can take to heart: these mental health conditions are preventable. The first step is recognizing the main symptoms and taking steps to address them as soon as possible.

In a world of superheroes, educational workers might feel some stigma about admitting that they need help. As a caregiving community, if we know that a colleague has recently experienced a crisis within their work site or dealt with a traumatized client, we should provide space, time, or comfort to them. The next step would be to help them enact their self-care plan.

Prior to the school year, educational workers should develop a self-care plan detailing the key supports and resources they need to manage their mental health distress. This plan should include a variety of individual, workplace, and systemic interventions that can be accessed should a person start to feel distressed. Some examples are noted below:

Individual

Workplace

System

Physical activity (e.g., yoga, running)

Unscheduled time during the workday for educators to decompress

Long-term plans and policies that support employee health

Mindful practices

Reliable work breaks

Commitment to comprehensive benefits plans

Activities with family and friends

Healthy work culture

Advocacy for reasonable workloads

Spending time with pets

   

We Don’t Need Another Hero
The price of singular heroism is paid in lost employee productivity, high turnover, and reduced student achievement. Rather than asking for educational workers to be heroes, we can focus on what is needed to build collective well-being. Caring school communities will benefit children, youth, and adults who work in the educational system.

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Additional Sources

Figley, C. R. (1995). Compassion fatigue. Routledge.

Dr. Astrid Kendrick

Dr. Astrid Kendrick is the Director of Field Experience (Community-Based) at the University of Calgary. She was a teacher for nineteen years, with most of those years committed to educating vulnerable youth in the Calgary area. Her research area is mainly educator wellbeing, although she is also interested in online learning pedagogies. She was a recipient of the 2020 Online Teaching Excellence Award from the Werklund School of Education.