3 Tips to Combat Teacher Empathy Fatigue

Create awareness, facilitate collegiality, and develop staff members’ social-emotional learning.

Topics: Social Emotional Learning, Health and Wellness, Mental Health and Safety

Empathy fatigue is what happens when someone cares too much about too many people and becomes emotionally depleted. Anyone can get it, but it is more prominent among those who work in caring professions like health care. But empathy fatigue also occurs in education, and teachers are especially susceptible to it.

Teaching is a remarkably rewarding profession, primarily because of the deep connections between teachers and students—relationships that are intentionally cultivated by teachers and principals. But this deep connectedness can have a downside. Sometimes students share their traumas and we embrace their pain in a way that can be exhausting, resulting in empathy fatigue. And in a school, empathy fatigue is rarely contained. It is contagious and spreads from person to person, teacher to teacher. If left unchecked, empathy fatigue will have a negative impact on faculty morale.

To countervail the likelihood of empathy fatigue, principals must take three steps to educate and prepare faculty members: create awareness, facilitate collegiality, and develop staff members’ social-emotional learning (SEL).

Creating Awareness

Be explicit that while empathy fatigue stems from the care and effort that makes a difference for students, it carries a negative cost, and the goal is to help people recognize and avoid it, not to inure themselves by reducing their care or effort. Talking about empathy fatigue cannot be a one-time event; the issue is too important to be addressed and buried. Rather, we must periodically revisit it during the school year to help teachers and administrators maintain their balance and ensure they know they have our support. That means being present for teachers, giving them time, listening to their frustrations, and letting them know that we care. The principal must be the CEO, the Chief Empathy Officer.

The context in which we introduce empathy fatigue is key to presenting it as a solvable problem and ameliorating defensiveness. Educators increasingly recognize the value of SEL in preparing students to succeed in life, and this extends to staff. A logical and effective way to begin the dialogue about empathy fatigue is by viewing it within the context of SEL.

Self-awareness and self-management are two of the key components of SEL, so staff members should view stepping back and govern their own emotions in the same light that they teach their students how to do so. For example, when teachers foster grit in students, it’s essential that they understand “smart grit” and recognize when it is appropriate to quit. Likewise, in developing their empathy, students—and staff—must know it is possible to be too empathic. Teach students empathy and help them understand others’ perspectives and feelings, but don’t let it become debilitating or pernicious. That’s also true for adults. This realization can help teachers reflect on the empathy they feel for their students and the impact that it has on them.

Facilitating Collegiality

Just as students learn more when they are known and understood, faculty members’ participation in a collaborative and supportive team is an antidote to empathy fatigue. Unfortunately, many schools are educational silos; teachers work next to but not collaboratively with their peers. That’s not only a lost opportunity for teacher growth, but it also sets the stage for empathy fatigue. Feelings of disappointment and under-appreciation are more likely to occur when working in relative isolation.

Like most good things, faculty collegiality doesn’t happen without intent and design. Collegiality is built upon congeniality, so it is important to create opportunities for members of various faculty groups, however defined, to connect on a personal level. Allocate a few minutes at the start of every meeting for colleagues to build personal connections. Routinely begin faculty meetings—learning meetings—by organizing teachers into small groups and giving them 5 minutes to grapple with a “big question.” For example, “How should libraries be designed today?” or “To what charity would you give a million dollars?”

Developing Staff Members’ SEL

Student achievement should be the focus of any school, but just as schools want to recognize and support the whole child, the same needs to ring true for the whole teacher. The school year is a marathon, not a sprint, so listen to and encourage teachers so their enthusiasm doesn’t wane, especially during COVID times.

Here are some ways to do that:

  • Encourage teachers to advantage of your school’s health plan. It often provides free counseling services or participation in an employee assistance plan. Present these resources as a kind of optional and confidential support, reminding folks that administrators have no knowledge of usage.
  • Give teachers opportunities to bond. It could mean initiating a monthly employee pot-luck dinner or even starting a faculty book group—even if it’s only a magazine article—to help teachers connect. Make the groups optional and provide the book and some food.
  • Offer afterschool classes for teachers and administrators. Find out teachers’ interests and start there. Set up classes in pottery, yoga, kick boxing, or juggling. It’s a good way to get the community engaged, too. Know a parent who teaches yoga? Maybe they’ll volunteer their services.

As with any significant school endeavor, intentionality and transparency are key ingredients for success, so make sure everyone knows why they’re spending time at the start of each learning meeting by discussing issues that aren’t necessarily pressing or why the opportunities to take a yoga class with peers or learn a new skill is so important to the success of the teacher—and the school.

Empathy fatigue is here to stay, but principals can normalize it and provide the resources and support teachers need so can maintain their energy, care, and enthusiasm the whole school year.

Thomas R. Hoerr led schools for 37 years and now teaches leadership at UM-St. Louis. His recent book is Taking Social Emotional Learning Schoolwide.