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Vicarious trauma in the teacher: preventing empathy from leading to burnout

Teaching is a profession that requires a lot of empathy. Accompanying someone in difficult situations can lead to "compassion fatigue", a phenomenon increasingly recognized among teachers. Here are 4 recommendations to prevent vicarious trauma from turning into burnout.

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Any teacher will tell you, the satisfaction of seeing that a student has understood and the feeling of having made a difference to the young people in their class is a feeling that is energizing and rewarding. This is called compassion satisfaction, responsible for the well-being felt, for example, when we see our loved ones happy with the gift we have given them, or the help we have given them. 

On the other hand, accompanying someone in difficult situations, whether by supporting them, listening to them, accompanying them in their search for a solution or simply by witnessing their difficulties, can lead to compassion fatigue. The compassion fatigue, often called vicarious trauma, is an absorption of the distress of the other where the worker himself feels this fatigue. This is well known among frontline workers (police officers, nurses, firefighters, psychologists and therapists, and even among veterinarians). 

Vicarious trauma is, however, less well known in teachers, although recognition is gaining ground. Teaching is a profession that requires a lot of empathy and a significant bond of trust with the students. It is not surprising that teachers, through their proximity, accessibility and trust, are often the first to whom students confide (in class or online) in the event of a problem.

With the pandemic, times are more difficult for all. Students are more likely to experience situations of domestic violence, of drug or alcohol use, to be around people who suffer from Mental Health (and suffer from it themselves) and situations where parents find it difficult to keep calm around them. The increase in these difficulties turns into an increase in the distress reported to teachers.

We should rejoice in those students who seek help, support and services by referring a teacher. As we cannot, and we do not want, reduce the number of students who confide, Astrid kendrick (Ph.D Education), in an article by The Conversation, proposes to implement solutions to help teachers in this situation in order to prevent a vicarious trauma from turning into professional burnout.

To this end, it makes the following four recommendations: 

  1. School culture. We all know how much a negative work environment can have an impact on morale. Therefore, a positive work environment, having empathetic colleagues, time during the work day to take care of yourself, positive and supportive leadership from management, are all beneficial.
  2. Support from the community. The closure of schools in March 2020 made it clear that society needs teachers. This relationship is two-way, and teachers need society just as much. Recognition of the work of teachers is significant in a healing process. This recognition is experienced on several levels; all can help overcome compassion fatigue. For example, parents who take a few minutes out of their busy day to thank the teacher make a big difference! The community implications are also significant. Every measure that aims to reduce the difficulties, trauma, violence and neglect experienced by students is also a measure that helps teachers to do their job in better conditions.
  3. Take care of yourself. Adopting healthy lifestyle habits, doing activities with children, connecting with nature, are ways to take care of yourself.
  4. Professional support. Vicarious trauma is very real and should be treated seriously and professionally like any other mental health problem. Professionals (psychologists, doctors or psychiatrist) have the skills to help when needed. Support from superiors and colleagues is also important. The majority of school service centers offer employee assistance programs. These programs allow you to consult a professional quickly and in complete confidentiality. 

It is by helping each other and taking care of oneself and one's colleagues, as we already do for students, that we will be able to make a difference to those around them.

To go further, we can find government resources here. Also, Info-Santé 811 offers a free and confidential consultation service, offered 24/7 (even on statutory holidays).

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About the Author

Mrs Prof
Mrs Prof
She holds a bachelor's degree in education and is currently a candidate for a master's degree in education. She is involved with various organizations in order to equip teachers and improve the various facets of teaching and learning in Quebec.

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