Compassion Fatigue: Take Care of Yourself

By Melissa Pancake, IPLI Cohort 6 Mentor and Principal at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School

I appreciate having hot water for my morning shower, probably more so than the average person. I grew up surrounded by farmland and lived in a house that required us to heat water for our bath times. On a particular Monday morning, our hot water tank decided it was time to throw in the towel. My mind wondered to those days so long ago when a hot shower was not an option. I took a lukewarm shower and headed off to school.

Before the school day started and while I was supervising students in the gym, I had texts stating four parents were waiting for me. As I am walking towards my office, two students stopped to inform me they will no longer be riding the bus. Their dad was arrested over the weekend. They didn’t think they would be seeing him until he “cleaned things up.”  I listened, then told them to reach out if they needed anything. I hugged them both and told them we (Franklin staff) loved them. They went to class.

Before making it to my office, I stopped by the cafeteria. I was informed that our cook’s ex-husband was the man killed in a car accident over the weekend. Their child is a student in our school corporation.

When I eventually made it to my office, one parent explained she was there to inform me her son was hit by a car over the weekend. He was bruised and sore but thankfully alive! She showed me a video from a neighbor’s surveillance camera that caught the entire event. Sure enough, the boy ran after a ball and was hit by a van.

Another parent explained she was in the middle of a custody battle and dropped off papers from a judge ordering that the child’s father had no right to pick her up from school. This same child begged of me last week not to let her go with her mom because her mom’s friend is “mean” to her.

Afterward, our school counselor informed me that one of our students was admitted to a hospital due to suicidal thoughts. She was calling the guardian who had left a message to keep us informed.

All of this happened before 8:30 a.m. on a particular Monday morning.

As an increasing number of students and staff experience traumatic events, it is important to be aware of our own mental health. Compassion fatigue is no joke. We build positive relationships with kids to help educate them. This involvement makes us susceptible to this “unique form of burnout.”

Thanks to my husband, I had plenty of hot water that evening. For me, it was just what I needed. Find that “thing” that calms or regulates you. Keep your mental health in a positive place. Our students and staff need us!  Here are some resources to assist with that:

  • Figley, C. R. (2002). Treating compassion fatigue.  New York: Brunner/Routledge.
  • Sizemore, C. B. (2016, May 26).  Compassion Fatigue:   The silent thief in our schools.  Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/ascd-express/vol11/1118-sizemore.aspx 
  • Elliott, K. W., Elliott, J. E., & Spears, S. G.  (2018, November December).  Teaching on empty.  Retrieved from  https://www.naesp.org/principal-novemberdecember-2018-safe-healthy-schools/teaching-empty