In college, I had a summer where I taught English to some grad students and their families a few nights per week. The gig was done on a volunteer basis and was fairly informal overall, which is good because I did not have any experience teaching adults. Additionally, most of my students already spoke English with a fair amount of fluency; they were mostly there to brush up on some grammar, to be able to ask a teacher questions from their day-to-day experiences in English, and for social interaction.
I adored teaching in this context. Interacting with (and learning from) people all over the world led to some very deep, complex, and nuanced conversations, and it was really fulfilling to problem-solve and simplify the vocabulary within these really complex issues without watering down the topic itself.
Nonetheless, I had one situation where I was at a complete loss for what to tell my students. One student was asked by another where she was from. “Taiwan,” she responded, at which point the question asker turned to me and asked, “Where is Taiwan?”
I don’t remember who began to answer that question, whether it was me or the Taiwanese woman herself (she was more than capable of doing so, but the inquiry was directed at me and in my memory she and I locked eyes and it seemed like she wanted me to answer, though that portion of the memory may be false). Regardless of who did the speaking, all that was said was “Taiwan is a country that–“
“No, it not,” another lady chimed in. “Taiwan is not a country.” She was one of the three students from China seated at the far end of our longish table, listening the conversation that had been going on. She was very matter-of-fact about her statement, and I don’t think she truly realized the hurtfulness in her words.
The original question asker, unaware of the deep-rooted issues behind this disagreement, looked very confused. “Taiwan is not a country?”
“The US recognizes Taiwan as a country,” I hurriedly explained. “And it’s located in the Pacific Ocean near China.”
I left the topic there. The question asker was still clearly confused, all of the people from China were tense, the woman from Taiwan was upset, but I did not know as a 21-year-old college student how to mediate such a conflict. I didn’t know if it could be mediated at all. These places were their homes; I was not going to be able to change any of their minds.
I also knew that I had some biases when it came to this topic. Growing up, I had friends who lived just a few houses over from me who were Taiwanese, and I’m pretty sure that I had more Taiwanese classmates than Chinese classmates in school. It’s entirely possible that I was aware of Taiwan as a country before I became aware of China. I obviously take Taiwan’s side.
Now that I am no longer a child, I know that those childhood experiences influenced my thinking on the matter, but I also know more about the conflict now, and I am pretty sure that I would still stand with Taiwan. Those biases, though, as well as my dislike of conflict and my fear of losing respect from some of my students, made me doubt whether my voice was worth raising on the topic. So I just stuck to the facts and didn’t add my opinion. I still don’t know if that was the correct choice.
I’d like to thank everyone for being so kind in response to my last post. I may have been a tad dramatic in some of my wording of it. I was sincerely just trying to gauge whether the people who read my poetry would be interested in reading other things, too. The great thing about writing as a hobby is that I get to write whatever I want. Whether (or at what point) I publish that writing to the internet is an entirely different consideration.
I know that back before I narrowed the focus of this blog, my poetry seemed to be preferred over anything else I published, which is how I found myself in the niche I’m in. I don’t regret that; in fact, I feel like having a narrow range of content has helped me to grow and find fellow bloggers with a similar interest.
With all that said, you can consider this post as part of a trial run of posting a greater variety of content to this platform. If it goes well, I’ll continue to post other things. If it doesn’t, I’ll either keep my prose in draft-form or make a new blog to contain it.
People suffering from compassion fatigue may find it difficult to feel compassion toward the people they work with, despite their role demanding it.
I knew many education majors during college–in fact, I was one. I had the opportunity to see first-hand what a 4-year education program at a university looks like, and I also got to see what types of people would choose to enter such a program.
Everyone I met in the program was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. They genuinely loved instruction and they viewed their current and future students as whole people with their own struggles and dreams. These future teachers cared deeply, not just about the educational system, but about the individuals being educated by that system. They all had a passion for the job. During out final year in college, our cohort made shirts that read on the back “Teaching: we’re not in it for the income; we’re in it for the outcome.” Everyone in that cohort was an embodiment of that saying. In all four years, I did not meet a single person who seemed like they would make an uncaring, uncommitted teacher.
And yet, many people have had teachers who seemed uncaring. I’ve had teachers who seemed uncaring.
Why does such a disconnect exist?
I can think of a few reasons. Perhaps the students’ perspectives are just skewed. Perhaps there is a generational difference such that the people entering the education field now think of it as a lifestyle, while more teachers from previous generations considered it more as a job. Or perhaps the group of education majors that I was surrounded by in college was just extraordinarily compassionate.
None of these explanations fully satisfy me.
So what else could explain the difference between the people majoring in education who seem eager and willing to help and the percentage of working teachers who seem cold and bitter? And, even more importantly, how can we keep these bright-eyed and bushy-tailed future educators from losing that passion for their work?
What is Compassion Fatigue?
Simply put, compassion fatigue describes a condition in which a person in a caring role becomes exhausted, both mentally and physically, due to their exposure to others’ traumatic experiences. People suffering from compassion fatigue may find it difficult to feel compassion toward the people they work with, despite their role demanding it. Additionally, they feel drained by the demands of that caring role. Therefore, those experiencing compassion fatigue suffer in their caring role, and that suffering can also bleed into their personal lives.
Compassion Fatigue vs. Burnout
While some literature still conflates compassion fatigue and burnout, many researchers use the terms to describe two separate phenomena. Compassion fatigue may appear suddenly after an exposure to secondary trauma, whereas burnout builds over time and has a much slower onset. Compassion fatigue can therefore be described as “unpredictable” whereas burnout can be described as “predictable” (American Bar Association, 2017). Additionally, compassion fatigue is more likely to be treatable, while burnout may require a temporary or permanent break from the type of role that caused it (Good Therapy, 2020).
Careers and Compassion Fatigue
There is both anecdotal evidence and studies to support the idea that teachers, especially those who deal with traumatized or otherwise disadvantaged students, may develop compassion fatigue within their careers, but teachers are far from the only ones to experience this condition. Anyone who spends a significant portion of their job caring for others is a potential victim of compassion fatigue.
Other professionals who may develop compassion fatigue include but are not limited to:
medical professionals (including doctors, nurses, nursing home staff, etc.)
veterinarians and others working in animal care
It is important to note that, though much of the literature surrounding compassion fatigue focuses on people in caring professions, volunteers and others who make systematic caring a large part of their lives can also be affected. As noted in a 2019 paper by Gorski, Lopresti-Goodman, and Rising about activist burnout in the animal care field, additional research which separates professionals in caring industries and volunteers in such industries is needed. Even if one’s job is not within a field typically associated with compassion fatigue, it is still possible to develop the condition. Thus, anyone who takes on a compassion-heavy role in their lives should be aware of compassion fatigue, monitor for its symptoms, and take steps for its prevention.
Compassion Fatigue Symptoms
exhaustion (including physical, mental, and emotional)
changes to appetite
increased anger, frustration, or irritability toward others
disconnection from relationships
feelings of inadequacy or loss of meaning within the caring role
Compassion fatigue is sneaky since it affects people who are accustomed to caring for others and asking for little in return. As more research emerges about this condition, we better understand its effects on individuals and the industries in which they work as well as what works to prevent its onset.
If I learned anything from writing this post, it’s that you should express your feelings in a productive way, whether that’s through journaling, creating a blog (hey!), or talking to a friend, family member, boss, or therapist. From personal experience, this advice holds true for anyone, but it is especially important for people who spend large amounts of time in compassionate roles.
In spite of all this research about the detrimental effects of compassion fatigue, I still firmly believe that compassion is worth it. Empathizing and showing compassion can increase one’s own feelings of self-worth, not to mention make profound impacts on others. My purpose for writing this was to increase awareness about this issue as it is an important piece of the puzzle when discussing kindness, empathy, and compassion (as I hope to do more in the future). I did not intend to frighten anyone. (Boo! Okay, this time I did intend to frighten you guys.) In other words, don’t let this blog post deter you from doing good in the world. Just be sure to check in with yourself regularly and be willing to prioritize your mental health for your own sake and for the sake of those you are helping.
Be kind to other people, y’all. And be kind to yourself.