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Understanding Empathy Fatigue

Teachers supporting pupils with SEND/SEMH are very likely to experience empathy fatigue (sometimes referred to as “compassion fatigue”) at some point. Empathy fatigue is the exhaustion of the teacher’s heart muscle created by caring so much for so long about the needs of the pupils they work with.

Special education teachers do not grow tired of caring. They grow tired from caring. 

Recognising Empathy Fatigue

There are signs that a special education teacher is suffering from empathy fatigue. Often, these signs are seen as indications that the teacher is in the wrong profession. Instead, they are signs that the teacher is good at their job.

Physical fatigue – Emotional fatigue takes a toll on the body beyond the exhaustion of the heart. You think that your tiredness stems from lack of sleep or exercise (which do play a role) but because the heart is a muscle, caring as much as you do burns calories and wears on the body.

Decreased empathy – One sign of empathy fatigue is that teachers see themselves as caring less. This is a protective measure. If it hurts to care, caring less means there is less pain.

Decreased job satisfaction – A teacher who notices a decrease in empathy will almost immediately feel a decrease in job satisfaction. Caring is such a large part of being a teacher; it is why so many teachers get into the field. Caring less will certainly decrease job satisfaction. It will also lead to…

Questioning their employment decision – A teacher experiencing empathy fatigue will eventually come around to wondering if they are in the correct field. In most cases, suffering empathy fatigue is a sign that the teacher is doing their job properly because caring is one of the most necessary job skills. But, suffering any sort of pain as a result of caring is likely to make a person wonder if they shouldn’t be working in some other field.

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Difficulty sleeping – It is possible a teacher might suffer from sleep deprivation because they care so much about their students. But they can also lose sleep from the pure exhaustion of caring. Millions of people have suffered sleep deprivation from overexhaustion. And, once you fail to get a good night’s sleep on Night One, it becomes a point of concern as you go to sleep on Night Two. It becomes a self-fulfilling problem.

Increased cynicism – In the face of a continuing difficulty, it is human nature to believe the problem cannot be solved, and that no progress is being made. Cynicism is a human response to stressful situations, but for special education instructors, it can feed off of itself and get worse over time.

The Need for Resilience

The issues arising from empathy fatigue are perfectly human reactions. They do not reflect a failure on the part of the educator. Rather, it reflects on the level by which that educator is perfect for the job they have undertaken. Empathy is an important trait for teachers.

Our next blog will go into detail regarding how to battle the problems listed above, and how to remain useful in a classroom of students when your body, heart and mind are struggling with empathy fatigue.

But know this: a person would need to be superhuman NOT to suffer from empathy fatigue at some level in the special education field. It is no different than physical labour. At some point, the human body and the human psyche wear out and need time to recover.

Empathy fatigue is not a sign of failure. It is a sign of value.

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