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December 1, 2020
Vol. 78
No. 4

Show and Tell / Regaining “Compassion Satisfaction”

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School Culture
2020 is shaping up to be an annus horribilis. As educators, we’ve witnessed firsthand the triple punch of a global pandemic, racial injustice, and economic devastation. We have seen the suffering of students and their families, our communities, and our colleagues. The emotional, psychological, and economic toll on schools has been profound. Many schools (including the one where we work) opened the school year at a ­distance. Other schools are experiencing the ­uncertainty and—at times—­distress that has become part and parcel of face-to-face learning during a ­pandemic.
We are a helping profession. Check in with yourself about why you chose to become a teacher or school leader and invariably it has something to do with a generosity of spirit. We care deeply about young people and our communities. It might be an occupational hazard, but in many cases educators have a tendency to minimize our own needs in the face of the great needs of our students.
Now more than ever, however, practicing self-care is crucial to being able to take care of others. Mental health professionals speak of two related but conflicting phenomena that can affect those in helping professions—compassion satisfaction and compassion fatigue. The first is the rewarding elements of the knowledge that what we do makes a positive difference in the lives of others. But compassion fatigue can occur when the traumas of others overwhelm us. This kind of fatigue leaves us feeling depleted physically, emotionally, and psychologically.
Allow us to share some everyday practices ­educators can use—individually and together—to build resiliency in our lives and regain the compassion satisfaction that speeds our forward movement.

Practice Self-Care, A Key to Resiliency

Resiliency is the counterweight to distress in our lives. And resiliency can always be strengthened. During times of disruption to our daily routines—something we’re all experiencing now—it’s essential to invest in your resiliency. The Committee for Children, an organization committed to transforming the social-emotional lives of children, has developed modules for educators for building their own resiliency. The project’s introductory video, parts of which were filmed at our school, is featured below. It highlights how crises we’re facing today have “chipped away at our resilience,” as child psychologist Janine Jones puts it. “Emotions fester . . . and [the situation] doesn’t give you an opportunity to get resolution.” (Many other groups also provide resources on educator resilience; this is just one example.)
Self-care is a critical part of the work of strengthening your resiliency. Each “microlearning” in these resiliency modules focuses on an aspect of evidence-based self-care practices. Self-care routines begin with the basics: managing your eating, increasing physical activity, and getting enough sleep. In case you’re thinking, “I already do that,” collect some data on yourself for a week. For instance, monitor whether you really get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night, the amount the Sleep Foundation recommends for ­working-age adults.
"A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow,” wrote Charlotte Brontë. The converse is true: practicing cognitive self-care makes it easier to engage in physical self-care, such as getting enough sleep. Being able to label one’s strong emotions allows us to “name it and tame it” and move forward from an emotionally stressful moment. Additional protective activities include having meaningful conversations with people inside and outside your home each day, having morning and end-of-workday ­routines, ­socializing with colleagues, and engaging in nonwork activities you enjoy.
Self-compassion—granting ­ourselves the grace we routinely give others—is another practice worth cultivating. To settle your “ruffled mind,” the Committee for Children recommends writing your own personal permission slip to say no to a committee assignment, take a break from your work, or cross something off your to-do list.

Empty the Cup

Francisco Escobedo, superintendent of Chula Vista Elementary School District in California, meets regularly with his senior leadership team to make decisions that impact the learning lives of nearly 30,000 students and the working lives of the district’s 3,300 employees. Yet Escobedo begins every one of his cabinet meetings with a reminder that it is difficult to take care of others when your own "cup" is full, noting that you can’t put anything more into a cup that’s filled to the rim. He invites each cabinet member to "empty the cup" by talking for a few minutes about what they’re bringing with them, personally or professionally, into the meeting. The opportunity to unburden oneself provides a ­supportive transition to centering on the work ahead.

Now more than ever, practicing self-care is crucial to being able to take care of others.

Why not use this technique at the beginning of your professional learning community or grade-level or department meetings? It’s not self-indulgent to take time to pose these questions to one another:
  • What’s on your mind?
  • What’s a recent challenge or success?
  • What are you thankful for?
  • What are you looking forward to?
In our experience, taking time to check in emotionally with one another for a few minutes actually increases the efficiency of a meeting. We get more accomplished—and prevent some of the “decision fatigue” that can set in as a meeting goes on.

Suggest More Help If Necessary

These practices aren’t meant as a substitute for professional counseling and support. If you think anyone in your school community (or you) needs the assistance of a mental health professional, speak with someone who can refer them to the right resources. Encourage colleagues to take advantage of your Employee Assistance Program benefits and consult your district’s services for ways in which teachers, students, and families can be supported.
Educators, we can get through this together. Your school and colleagues need you. Your students need you. And your family needs you. And you deserve the investment in yourself and your own resilience.
End Notes

1 Essary, J. N., Barza, L., & Thurston, R. J. (2020). Secondary traumatic stress among educators. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 56(3), 116–121.

2 Sleep Foundation. (2020). How much sleep do we really need?

3 Mendes, E. (2003). Empty the cup before you fill it up: Relationship-building activities to promote effective learning environments. Mendes Training.

Doug Fisher is a professor of educational leadership at San Diego State University, where he focuses on policies and practices in literacy and school leadership. Additionally, he is a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College, an award-winning, open-enrollment public school in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego that he cofounded in 2007. His areas of interest include instructional design, curriculum development, and professional learning. A passionate educator, Fisher's work is dedicated to impacting professional learning communities and nurturing the knowledge and skills of caring teachers and school leaders so they may help students improve their learning and attain their goals and aspirations.

Fisher is a member of the California Reading Hall of Fame as well as the recipient of an International Reading Association William S. Grey citation of merit and Exemplary Leader award from the Conference on English Leadership of NCTE. Previously, he was an early intervention teacher and elementary school educator. He has published numerous articles and books on literacy and leadership, teaching and learning, and improving student achievement.

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