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CDE Ed Talks Podcast Episode 6

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Compassion Fatigue with Dr. Jacquelyn Ollison

Published: December 2, 2019, Duration: 00:20:27

CDE's Dr. Jacquelyn Ollison shares her research on compassion fatigue in California's teachers. For more information, read Dr. Ollison's article, Compassion Fatigue: How California Can Improve Teacher Retention External link opens in new window or tab. and watch her TED Talk External link opens in new window or tab. (Video; 16:14).



[Intro music plays]

Dr. Jacquelyn Ollison: This is Jacquelyn Ollison, and you’re listening to CDE Ed talks.


Welcome to CDE Ed Talks. My name is Jacquelyn Ollison.

On September 26, 2019, I spoke at a TEDx event about my research on compassion fatigue in teachers. And we’re going to play the full talk in just a minute. It’s an especially important topic given the trauma kids are facing—from wildfires, bullying, suicide, and unfortunately school shootings.

Just this month, the CDC even published a new study saying that childhood trauma is a public health risk. The report is called: Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) to Improve U.S. Health.

ACES can include experiencing abuse, witnessing violence or substance misuse in the home, and having a parent in jail. Exposure to aces can result in extreme or repetitive toxic stress responses that can cause both immediate and long-term physical and emotional harms.

Supporting students who are dealing with aces or trauma is of the utmost importance. But how often have we stopped to think about the teachers who are supporting students dealing with trauma?

Teachers are often put in the situation of going beyond the scope of just academic help. Teachers also provide physical, mental, and emotional support to students experiencing trauma. In this way they are often first responders to trauma.

In my doctoral research at the University of the Pacific, i set out to explore the extent of California teachers’ experience with compassion fatigue. I wanted to know how it impacted their perceptions of their schools’ climate and working conditions’. And I wanted to know what support systems could be put in place to help them.

After I finished my dissertation entitled Improving Teacher Retention by Addressing Teacher’s Compassion Fatigue, I wrote an article about it for Mindful Schools. Mindful Schools’ approach is to support the professional development and well-being of educators as the first step to fostering healthy and sustainable mindful learning environments. They recognize that teaching can be challenging and that educators need more support. Mindfulness provides educators with skills to improve focus and manage stress, allowing them to feel nourished and energized to support students in the classroom.

The article is called Compassion Fatigue: How California Can Improve Teacher Retention. And I also gave the following TED Talk in September called Compassion Fatigue: Teachers Are Suffering and It Impacts All of Us.

Links to the resources mentioned are in the description below.

This research is important! And, the message conveyed in the TEDx Talk is something everyone should hear. Please talk about it, share it with your colleagues, administrators, friends, advocate for resources, and implement the recommendations that resonate with you.

This research shows that compassion fatigue is a real concern for teachers. We all must do our part to help mitigate its effects. So, without further ado, the following TED Talk was recorded at TEDx Ohlone College and TED is the owner of the TED Talk.

A Relational Approach to Ethics and Moral Education says that the aim of every educational institution and every educational effort must be the maintenance and enhancement of caring.

Tonight I'm going to be asking you to care about something that you may not have thought about before and as I do I'm going to engage with you and I might say something like, “Audience are you with me?” And if I do, I want to hear you say
“yes I'm with you.” So let's give it a shot.

Audience are you with me?

Audience: Yes, I’m with You.

Dr. Ollison: Awesome, awesome. And I also want you to know that I'm very glad to be with you all this evening. Being here right now is like a dream come true. And I promise to make the most of it. So, with that, about two-and-a-half months ago I had surgery. I needed to have the surgery because it would improve my quality of life and make it possible for my husband and I who already had three beautiful kiddos—my step kiddos—to try for a biological child.

And I made it through the surgery alright but after about three days, I developed a fever that I couldn't break. And after it hit 103.1 degrees we went to the ER. And of course I was admitted. I had developed an infection that had turned into sepsis. Now, thank God I had no idea what sepsis was or the survival rates, 30 to 40 percent chance of death if caught early. I just knew that I was really sick but the thing that stood out to me throughout my entire experience was the quality of my patient care. The doctors and the nurses were awesome they were kind and patient and caring and willing to do whatever was needed to help me with compassion.

And after I was released I had home health nurses for the next few weeks so obviously I had a lot of time to sit and reflect. You know what I was thinking? I was thinking wow those nurses were awesome. Nothing like the sadistic witches I remember who used to torture me with vaccine shots. Do you remember those? Of course not.

But I also got to thinking about my research on compassion fatigue and teachers. Researchers define compassion fatigue as the physical mental and emotional exhaustion that comes with working with people who are in constant states of distress or trauma—which is something that first responders do, doctors, nurses, but so do teachers.

Did you know that students living in high poverty experience post-traumatic stress disorder at a rate that is three times that of Iraqi War veterans? Imagine all of that trauma and pain entering the classroom on a daily basis. What must that be like to work with, support, serve, teach?

You know what, indulge me for a moment here, okay, and close your eyes. Place your feet flat on the floor and take three deep breaths in and out. In and out. In and out. And imagine if you will your favorite teacher and it can be anyone from cradle to career. And think for a moment about why they were your favorite teacher. Were they fun? Were they cool? Did they listen to you? Did they support you? Did they help you? Can you visualize them? Do you have them in your mind? Okay, raise your hand if you do and open your eyes. Look around the room. Each of us has been affected positively by a teacher. But have you ever stopped to think about how all that helping and supporting has affected your favorite teacher or maybe your not so favorite teacher?

I'd like to read a vignette of an interview I conducted with a teacher during my dissertation research that is about the toll that all that support and helping can have on teachers. This is Amy's story. Amy is a high school math teacher.

“This last year was one of the roughest years I've ever had. My colleagues and I couldn't wait for the school year to be over. The fires and mudslides just wrecked our city. Some of my students lost all of their belongings and one student even lost their life. I tried to do what it could to help them but even now just talking about this makes me want to cry. Yet even with all of that in one year a student committed suicide at the end of the year right before graduation. I remember the administrator interrupting class over the loudspeaker to ask us teachers to read an email that was just sent to us. I did and it was all I could do to keep from crying. The administrator apologized in the email because they did not know how else to tell us given that so many students were asking about it and they did not want us to be caught off guard.

Then the administrator got on the loudspeaker again and asked us to read the email to the students because rumors were flying rampant through the school by that time. I read it to my students. I told them that it was a hard letter to read and that I would probably cry, which I did. But I got through it. The student who had died was in the same grade as the students in my class and so a lot of them knew the student in the room. It was so heavy with the weight of the silence and pain we just sat there.

Finally to lighten the load I just said ‘Well we're almost done with the lesson, why don't we just finish it?’ I had never seen my students so happy to do math as I did in that moment.”

Now in this story, you know that the students and teacher had experienced a major trauma firsthand: The wildfires and mudslides. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, that's what trauma is: direct personal experience or witnessing an event that is so outside the range of usual human experience that it is extremely distressing—so much so that it can cause serious mental health concerns like post-traumatic stress disorder.

But in this story there is also secondary trauma, or indirect experience in that in just knowing about the student suicide, it caused emotional pain and trauma for every person in that school. But in particular here, I want to focus on the teacher.

As long as students are experiencing trauma and teachers are providing physical, mental, and emotional support in response to it, teachers are in effect working with trauma victims, and experiencing trauma—sometimes firsthand though mostly second hand—on a daily basis. In this way teachers are like first responders, like those nurses first on the scene in the face of challenging situations, to provide physical and emotional support to trauma victims their students.

Audience are you with me?

Audience: Yes, I’m with you.

Dr. Ollison: Okay, now look, I'm not telling you this so that you will feel sorry for teachers. Nothing could be further from the truth. I think teachers are awesome and important, just like the work that all first responders do is awesome and important. First responders carry the weight, safety and well-being of those that they save and rescue on their shoulders. And teachers provide the basic educational foundation for every child in this country. Nothing can be more noble.

The problem I want to talk to you about is this: Teachers are suffering from compassion fatigue and there are not enough resources available to help them to combat it. Now as I said compassion fatigue is the physical, mental and emotional exhaustion that comes with working with those who are in constant states of distress or trauma.

Researcher Barbara Stamm describes it as a combination of burnout and secondary trauma. Left unaddressed, it can cause mental health concerns and it might look like anxiety, depression, irritability, inability to shut off thinking about the traumatic experiences of others—especially when you're at home at night.

Some people might start to self-protect and withdraw socially and emotionally from family and friends and colleagues, and students. They might become less kind, less patient, less caring, mean even. They might dread going to work and they might even quit their jobs.

In California we have a huge teacher shortage according to the Learning Policy Institute. California needed like 30,000 teachers for the 2019-20 school year but was only on track to produce 12,000. And the teacher shortage is worse in high poverty schools with the highest population of traumatized students. My research shows that teachers working in high poverty schools experience higher burnout and secondary traumatic stress than teachers working in low poverty schools. My research also shows that compassion fatigue is more acute with female teachers and new teachers.

So to be fair there are researchers and advocates who are focusing on supporting students who are experiencing trauma—like the work of California's new Surgeon General, Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris and the spotlight on adverse childhood experiences or ACES, and the knowledge that students of color and students in poverty experienced more ACES than any other group of students, as well as the influx of trauma-informed practices in schools.

But none of the support really focuses on the teachers who are serving students. Compassion fatigue in teachers, compassion fatigue and educators is not something that is talked about much at all and it is a grave injustice.

I mean we'd never sent a first responder into battle without the proper gear and we never let a doctor or a nurse work on a patient without the proper training and we never send a firefighter in to fight a house fire without the proper training, protective equipment, clothing or water. But we do send some teachers out on the front lines in the classroom every workday without the proper training and tools needed to work with students who are experiencing trauma or to deal with the natural secondary traumatic stress or mental health issues or concerns that might arise.


So, audience are you with me?

Audience: Yes, I’m with you.

Dr. Ollison: All right. So the question is, what are we doing about it? Given that 60% of California’s 6.2 million students live in poverty 73% of its teachers are female, and that newer teachers are often the ones hired to work in understaffed, high poverty schools, compassion fatigue is a real concern for teachers. And it's only going to get worse if we don't address it. I recommend that we change the way that teachers are prepared and supported at the school, district, County, and state levels.

Here are a few examples from my research on how we can do just that. First let's focus on meaningful training for teachers. And I know the teachers are in the audience going like, “Jacquelyn, come on, not another training.” Right? But that's why I said “meaningful”

So for those who are entering the profession, let's include a course on compassion fatigue, secondary trauma, into teacher credentialing programs. The course should describe what it is and how it is measured, symptoms for individuals and organizations, factors that influence susceptibility, strategies to mitigate it, and self-care strategies like restorative circles for teachers, check-in/check-out processes for staff, meetings or even a simple, “Hey how are you doing today?”

Second, for those already teaching, let's hold professional learning sessions on compassion fatigue. The sessions should cover the same content as the course I just described. Lastly let's make sure that every teacher has mental health first aid training so that they can learn to recognize the signs of mental health distress in students, learn about ways to help, and know where to go if more support is needed. The National Council for Behavioral Health is a great one and I hear Lady Gaga's foundation likes it.

In my research, I saw that the growing awareness of compassion fatigue as an occupational hazard in the helping professions—like social workers, first responders, nurses, resulted in a call for its inclusion into trauma training curriculum, training programs, support programs, and self-care strategies.

And seminal trauma researchers like Charles Figley even said that we have an ethical—and I say moral and ethical—obligation to inform those working with victims of trauma, especially childhood trauma, that their job may negatively affect their mental, physical, and emotional health. Why should it be any different for teachers? Why?

So as I wrap up I just want to leave you with a few final thoughts. The image you are seeing on the screen is the African symbol for Sankofa, which is the notion that the gifts of our past can propel us towards our collective future. And Nancy Duarte in her TEDx talk shared that the future is not a place we go but rather a place we get to create.

So let's take the lessons learned from other helping professions—the social workers, nurses, first responders—and apply them to the teaching profession. I believe that Amy could have benefited from knowing how to handle her students’ mental and emotional pain beyond just doing a math lesson. And all of the teachers in my research shared examples of how compassion fatigue and secondary trauma and burnout affected them.

Because it's real. It's real. You know, tonight you just heard one story from one teacher. But California has over 300,000 teachers and the country has over 3.5 million teachers. Imagine the healing we could facilitate with these few tweaks to the preparation and support of teachers, and ultimately students.

You know I'm alive today because of all of that awesome patient care and prayers—lots and lots of prayers. But I am also healthy and a relatively happy adult because of my healthy, happy whole teachers. If we want this to be true for the generations of students coming up after us then I implore you to leave here today and share this research.

Talk about it, advocate for resources, cite it, and implement what you can. Charles Figley talked about compassion fatigue being the cost for caring. Let's make sure in the future we are creating, that the cost for compassion fatigue teachers are paying isn't their physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Because our students need whole teachers. This isn't too much to ask, right? This isn't a cost that we can't cover, right? I for one look forward to this future. I hope you do too. Thank you.



You’re listening to CDE Ed Talks.


[End of Podcast Episode 6]

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Last Reviewed: Friday, October 2, 2020
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