5 Stages of Compassion Fatigue for Teachers

5 stages of compassion fatigue

The concept of compassion fatigue is often associated with those working in the healthcare profession. The pandemic highlighted the toll empathy and helplessness can take on workers in people-oriented environments, and it has opened a broader conversation for non-healthcare public servants as well, such as teachers. 

The role of the teacher has evolved alongside developing concepts and nuances in student experiences. Today, educators are managing more student complexities both in and out of the classroom than ever before. The constant exposure to challenges—some of which can be extremely traumatic—has made compassion fatigue for teachers a real and significant problem emerging in today’s classroom. 

The toll of compassion fatigue can significantly impact a teacher’s ability to manage daily tasks and can contribute to burnout or even a change in careers. Without support, good teachers in difficult situations can slip through the cracks. It’s important for all education professionals to be on the lookout for evidence of compassion fatigue in themselves and their colleagues, and knowing the 5 stages of compassion fatigue is vital for promoting a healthy and sustainable educational space. 

Am I Experiencing Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is often used interchangeably with burnout, but there are actually some key differences. Burnout is attributable to things like classroom stressors and working conditions, including long hours, unreasonable expectations, and lack of autonomy. This leads to both physical and mental exhaustion that leaves a teacher unable to do their job well and dread walking into the building every morning.

In contrast, compassion fatigue is the direct result of exposure to trauma experienced by others. Teaching is a caring profession, and when teachers have to manage students experiencing trauma like abuse and neglect, bullying, food insecurity, or the loss of a loved one they often become focused on the needs of the student at their own expense.  

Constant confrontation with the struggles of the students in their care—about which they may be able to exert little or no control—creates a sense of helplessness and distress in teachers that contributes to emotional exhaustion and fatigue over time. It can result in depression, anxiety, an inability to focus on important classroom tasks, and may even lead to quitting or early retirement.

Fortunately, with proper support and guidance, teachers can learn to identify the 5 stages of compassion fatigue in themselves and their colleagues to better manage the experience of student trauma. 

1. The Zealot Phase

The first phase occurs very early in many careers, and is often associated with young, enthusiastic new teachers who are willing to put in more hours and volunteer for extra projects. At this stage, most teachers feel like they are truly making a difference in their profession, and have large emotional and physical reserves. 

Teachers in the Zealot Phase tend to engage rapidly and energetically with students experiencing trauma, and are willing to invest a lot of energy trying to correct suboptimal life and home situations. They may interpret the measured and tactical approach of their veteran colleagues as dispassionate, tired, or jaded rather than experienced, methodical, and wise

While the ambition to save every student is laudable, it ultimately becomes unsustainable. The daily stress of engaging may begin producing symptoms such as sleeplessness or disproportionate focus on a particular student’s needs. 

2. The Irritability Phase

As a teacher starts to lose a little energy and passion, irritability and disillusionment set in. Colleagues may notice jokes becoming a little cynical or darker, less-than-respectful conversations become a little more frequent, and they may appear to be more distracted than normal. 

In this phase, teachers may also begin to neglect self care, becoming irritable and moody. They often feel undervalued and under-resourced, and begin blaming others for not having the support they need. They are still heavily student oriented, and may experience shame over ongoing circumstances they cannot control. 

3. The Withdrawal Phase

This is the phase that is most similar to teacher burnout. Enthusiasm fades, and teachers begin to feel defeated at work.  They likely feel tired all the time, rarely want to talk about work unless it’s complaining, and student issues become an annoyance rather than a challenge.

A sense of self-entitlement may also creep in as a teacher begins justifying their negative and maladaptive behaviors. Difficulty concentrating, confusion, and brain fog become more common, and different work responsibilities start to blend together. 

This can lead to withdrawing, neglect, and detachment from students and colleagues, and they may even experience thoughts of self-harm. At this stage, teachers are increasingly at risk for developing substance abuse issues. 

4. The Zombie Phase

As the name implies, teachers in the Zombie Phase are on auto-pilot, and may be completely detached from their thoughts and feelings about work. They no longer connect with their students, colleagues, family, or friends and have lost the ability to empathize with student struggles and challenges. 

At this stage, a teacher is likely experiencing noticeable health problems, and may be at greater risk for negative coping strategies such as substance use and self-harm. Teachers experiencing the Zombie Phase may need extended time off and support from colleagues to realign their experience as a teacher with practical realities of the job. 

Training, professional development,  and even therapy are important components for re-aligning healthy and successful strategies for classroom engagement. 

5. Pathology & Victimization Versus Maturation & Renewal

Teachers entering the final stage of compassion fatigue are approaching the point of no return. They have reached a crossroads where they will either become completely overwhelmed and leave the profession, or finally see the impact compassion fatigue has had on them and strive to restore their health and professional commitment.

This is the stage where many good teachers who lack support and professional development guidance find themselves exiting education. Without a capacity to redirect their approach to work and  life, restore their resiliency, and regain their passion and compassion for teaching, they will be unable to reverse the cycle. 

You Can Avoid the 5 Stages of Compassion Fatigue as a Teacher

The risk of compassion fatigue for teachers is an ongoing challenge for all levels of education and administration. Knowing the 5 stages of compassion fatigue and understanding how to guide oneself and colleagues through the experience is critical for developing healthy, supportive environments where teachers and students can thrive. 

Premiere is dedicated to supporting teacher health and wellbeing through informative, high-quality professional development content centered on compassion fatigue and burnout.  Courses like Teacher Burnout and Chronic Stress by Kim Strebler, BS, MSEd, Intervention Specialist, DeWitt Elementary School, and Self-Care and Mental Health by Margaret Chinn, MEd, MSW, provide education professionals with the tools they need to remain at the top of their teaching game. All courses created by Premiere are developed by industry-leading experts. 

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