EPISODE 13: THE STORY ABOUT

Compassion Fatigue

with Dr. Cheri Sizemore

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What we’re facing right now is obviously bigger stress, more struggle, more problems than we’ve ever imagined that we have to deal with. And the thing is, right now, this may be one of the most important things I can say: you can only control what is basically inside your house and what is basically inside yourself.

Jamie
Social media feeds are currently consumed with videos of teacher car parades for social distancing, while teachers grieve the loss of time with their students. I’m Jamie Hipp, and this is Teaching Trailblazers a show about teachers, artists and leaders in arts integration and STEAM. On today’s episode, we visit with Dr. Cheri Sizemore, retired secondary math teacher and middle school principal, who continues to work preparing new teachers and encouraging veteran educators. She has authored the book To Love to Teach Again: Ten Secrets to Rekindling Passion to Keep You in the Classroom. Dr. Sizemore, we’re thrilled to have you on the show.

Cheri
Thank you for having me. I am so excited to be here with you.

Jamie
How are you currently spending your days? Are you in self-isolation? Are you in quarantine? What does it look like in the Fort Worth area?

Cheri
Well, I am pretty much stay at home. Um, stay at home anyway, because I’m retired. But I do have four children here that all live close by. And we’re all staying away from each other, which is killing me because I have four grandkids. But, um, I have a firefighter, a nurse and a train conductor in the family. And so they also like, they’ve got to stay away from us. So, yeah, we’re staying pretty isolated. I kind of like being a hermit anyway, because being a writer and researcher, I like to be by myself anyway, so…

Jamie
I have seen much evidence of great parental teaching all over social media recently. And because I’m spending more time on the Internet during this pandemic, I keep seeing a phrase being used over and over in posts about education, the phrase being compassion fatigue. I understand that you research this concept. Can you tell our listeners what it means and why it seems to be happening?

Cheri
Compassion fatigue is a form of burnout. It’s like a precursor to burning out. Fortunately, if compassion fatigue has identified early, it is something you can get over; whereas burnout, once you hit that stage, it’s very hard to go back and to reverse it. Uh, compassion fatigue is felt by anyone who experiences first hand trauma through someone else, like in hurricanes or earthquakes or fires or anything like that, where you get involved with taking care of someone else or your heart goes out to them for what they have lost, what they’re dealing with and so compassion fatigue, as it says is you start to care so much for somebody else who is in so much pain, you start being able to not have the ability to care as much as you usually would, and that’s basically it. And when it comes to teachers, I don’t think that teachers have been recognized with compassion fatigue for a long time, and I felt like they’d been ignored. The study on compassion fatigue started basically with health professionals and first responders who are on the scene, and they see traumatic events, and there’s a lot of research on that, on doctors and nurses and who are in such close contact. But I think the teachers have kind of been overlooked and possibly ignored. I’m gonna back up and just say students come into classes with baggage. So much baggage that is invisible, such as poverty and hunger and abuse and neglect and violence, and illness and divorce and death and homelessness, and so much more, that a teacher doesn’t even see that backpack of problems when those kids walk in the door. But they… over time, because teachers spend so much time with their kids, they get to know them and they become their own kids. And so they get to know these kids. They find out what their problems are, and they take those home with them sometime, and they worry about them all the time. So the over time… here’s the difference and health professionals and first responders, they spend a certain amount of time with their patients, and they move them on to another location, of course, they have others that follow them. But with teachers, they have those kids for nine months. Sometimes they spend more time with those kids than their parents do. And over time, like I said, they do become like their own parents. And because of that, over time, when you’ve got 25 kids in a classroom, or if you’re a secondary teacher, you might have as many as 150 kids, and you get to know those kids, those burdens that those kids come in with become your burdens too, and over time, teachers just get to the point where they cannot… They don’t have the ability or they cannot take care of themselves, much less their kids.

Jamie
So Dr. Sizemore, even though most of us are not face to face with students currently, is compassion fatigue still happening while we’re distanced from our students?

Cheri
You know, I think so. Partly because, even though this is nobody’s fault, no teacher’s fault, no school district’s fault, nobody’s fault. But because of it, I think teachers probably feel a little guilty because they know that it’s their responsibility to teach these kids. They know they have certain standards that they’ve got to meet. Fortunately, they have, at least in Texas, they’ve decided not to give the standardized test this year, and I think that’s pretty much nationwide. And honestly, I’ve already seen teachers say, can we not do this for two more years and just not have tests? And I’m seriously thinking that they’re gonna have to relook at everything about education. But yeah, I do believe that the teachers are still… they’re still taking on those burdens because one, they know that a lot of those kids still go home hungry. I know a lot of the kids are still facing abuse at home. You know, that’s why… I worry about that as much as anything… that kids who are already been abused and now their parents are responsible for their teaching and their learning, and now they’re with them 24/7. And that could be a problem. Some of their children are homeless, and, you know, how do you, how do you isolate when you don’t have a home? So, um yeah, I know that they’ve got to be feeling somewhat responsible for those kids. And every one of those teachers are probably doing every single thing they possibly can, but long-distance, to help the kids.

Jamie
Indeed. Now, this is a very heavy conversation, but a vital one. So I have to ask you, How might a teacher know they are experiencing compassion fatigue? Are there any look-fors?

Cheri
Yeah. You know, teachers are by nature, compassionate. I mean, you don’t get into teaching to make money. There’s got to be another reason there’s gotta be a mission. And when teachers begin to start feeling overwhelmed with the compassion that they feel like they have to share with all of their kids, some of the things that they might look for, in normal times too, is starting to feel anger. Start to get angry more easily. The anxiety, just feeling more anxious about things than normal. Avoiding people, avoiding crowds, staying in your classroom way more than you ever did. Just chronic exhaustion. Now I know teachers, having been there. I know chronic exhaustion for nine months is normal, but I’m talking about when you really just feel like you cannot put one foot in front of the other and you just feel like I can’t get up today, a disconnection, fear, guilt as we talked about, hopelessness, hypervigilance, inability to embrace complexity, inability to listen, which is what good teachers do. And when they start just, it goes in one ear and out the other, then that should be a signal. You know what’s going on? Loss of creativity. Of course teachers are all creative, and when they start to realize that they can’t even come up with a simple activity, that could be another sign. Poor self-care – if they get up in the morning… I mean, and some of these things are things that administrators, their coworkers, their friends, their family can all be also watching, not being able to sleep and just constantly thinking about their kids. Basically, they’re in survival mode. So those are some of the things that in normal times, and now too, you see those. But I think more people are feeling all of these anyway.

Jamie
Oh, and like you said earlier, in some states, school has been canceled for the remainder of the school year. I’m sure this can lead to prolonged stress and probably already has. Are there any long term effects of prolonged compassion fatigue?

Cheri
Oh, definitely. Long term effects of compassion fatigue are gonna be burn out. And like I said, if we can identify compassion fatigue early in the stages, you can see that there are things that you can do to flip that to reverse it so you don’t get swept down in the drain, you know? But if it is prolonged, like I am afraid that you know this could be this, this could cause a lot of problems for teachers and for children. But for teachers, especially. It could lead to burn out and burn out could lead to other, more serious things. I mean, I’m sure that suicidal thoughts come into play. I’m sure feeling like I can’t go back to teaching. I have to quit. I can’t do this anymore. If this is gonna be the new normal, I can’t do this. I worry about the education departments and colleges, because if you’re preparing for this field and all of a sudden you’re facing this right now, I am sure there are a lot of students in the back of their minds that are thinking I didn’t sign up for this. I don’t get paid enough for this. Also, my daughter in law is at the point right now where she’s finishing up her coursework and hoping to start her student teaching in the fall or in the summer. And she’s already so concerned because she’s like, what if they don’t let us finish? So you know, that’s another problem is you’ve got student teachers that are ready to start student teaching, but they may not get that and they may lose a year. Now, I’ve already said it very well may be this, this may be the one year where schools of education may say, you know what, we prepare them as best we can, we send them out and we make him full-fledged teachers next year. Because I can guarantee you we’re gonna have a teacher shortage.

Jamie
Okay, now that we’ve heard the symptoms, we need a prescription. Could you share some strategies teachers could use to combat compassion fatigue?

Cheri
OK, some of things that, before COVID, some of things that I did suggest were be kind yourself. Don’t blame yourself for what’s going on. Don’t think that you are incompetent or that, uh, you’re not doing a good job because of the way that you’re feeling. Talk to yourself. You know, tell yourself you’re a good listener. You care about kids, and it’s because of this because you listen and you care so much, that you’ve placed yourself in a position of just having the fatigue where you feel like you can’t care for anybody, much less yourself. But during these times of this crisis, I call it compassion fatigue on steroids now. And you know, the thing is, we’re talking about teachers, but I honestly think the whole world, all of humans are gonna be feeling the same things. So what I’m about to say is gonna be good for anybody. What we’re facing right now is obviously bigger stress, more struggle, more problems than we’ve ever imagined that we have to to deal with. And the thing is, right now, this may be one of the most important things I can say. You can only control what is basically inside your house and what is basically inside yourself. And so what I want teachers to do is to think, Okay, I do what I can for my kids. I do what I have the ability to do for my administrators and all the paperwork or whatever they need to do, which I feel for them in that too, because that takes a lot of time. But they do what they can. They do their best and then the let it go, because they can’t do anything outside their house. They can drive by and wave at the kids. You know, in a teacher parade which I think is awesome. But that’s for 30 seconds. You know, it doesn’t last very long. It helps, but there’s just only so much they can do right now, so they’re gonna have to let things go. First and foremost, you must take care of yourself. Your life has an impact on so many others both at home and at school. I’m using an acronym to give you a blueprint of some things you can do to take care of yourself. And this acronym is SELF. And I woke up this morning because I really thought about this a great deal yesterday because I’ve been trying to move into my new house and get settled. And I have projects, you know, home projects and writing projects and all kind of things I want to do. But when this hit, it kind of hit me hard that, you know, what I am researching, what I’m writing about is so needed right now. And so I really thought about it, and I wanted to keep it simple. But I also want to try to give some things that I think really be something that anybody can use. So the acronym is SELF. The S stands for solitude and self-awareness. Uh, when I talk about that, I talk about meditating, and, you know, I only started doing meditation, serious meditation, about five years ago. If you don’t do it, you need to figure out a way to at least isolate yourself. There’s that word, but isolate yourself where you’re alone with yourself, and I know that so hard. I know, I had four kids of my own. I know what it’s like when you are stuck in the house with kids. To find a place that’s just your place is very difficult, but it could be a chair. It could be a corner. It could be a closet, but find a place where you can get away and everybody else is safe. Dad’s watching kids or whatever, but you need to go into yourself, and you need to really analyze what you’re thinking. I suggest journaling. I am a huge journaler and have been all my life. Just start writing down your thoughts, your feelings, your concerns about what’s going on and ideas. I promise you that ideas are gonna start rolling because we’re now separated to a point where we have to think… our brains aren’t going to stop and we’re creative beings by nature, teachers are… so those ideas are gonna keep flowing. Well, I truly believe things are gonna be different when we get out of this, for all of life, for all of human life. But I think for education too. And it could be one of the teachers who is isolated right now may come up with a great, innovative plan that might come out on the other side and be a whole new way of doing education. Read. And when you read, read uplifting literature, listen to music, good music, spa music. Repeat affirmations to yourself. Tell yourself you love yourself. Even if you feel like I can’t love myself right now and during compassion fatigue, you feel that you cannot love yourself, Look in the mirror and say, I love you, you matter. You’re a good person. People depend on you. And so I love you too. Um, and also allow your mind time to just go where it wants. Keep it positive, but let your brain just go. Just a few minutes a day if you can, if you can. at first, in this first early time of this, find an hour to do a little meditation. It just gives me a way to make my mind stop for a few minutes and just really concentrate on me. And that’s what we have to do right now. I know there are 1000 things going on in that household, and I feel bad for those who have kids. But if the teacher mom does not take care of herself, she’s not gonna be able to get through this and through the summer and then go back to schoo next year.  The E is embrace change. So S was solitude, E is embrace change because it’s gonna happen. We cannot, we can’t do anything about this now. The only thing we can do is stay isolated for the time that we need to to stay apart so that we don’t give these virus hosts to get into, to keep multiplying. So we’ve got to stay apart and everybody has to do their part. Also, the sooner we accept that this is our new normal… I read a lot of Facebook posts and I look at a lot of different things and I see people just like I’m ready for this to be over. This has got to be over now. And I don’t think that’s the way it’s gonna be. I mean, some schools around here, have already closed ’til the end of the year. And so it’s not gonna It’s not gonna reopen. It’s not gonna be the same in two or three weeks or two or three months, even. So, the sooner that you can accept the fact that okay, this is the new normal. The sooner you’re going to be able to get beyond that feeling of despair and anger and frustration and just go beyond that and become more positive about, you know, what can I do to help myself? Uh, don’t dwell on the past. Don’t dwell on Oh my gosh, I didn’t do enough for my kids this year before I saw them for the last day. You know, I did not get Joey up to the grade level reading that I need to, I needed to get him. You gotta let go of those things because there’s nothing you can do other than give that parent some good advice or some good techniques, things that they can look at. They need to use, like I said, use this time to think about how things should change in schools. Um, I mentioned the test. I think this is a great time for us to pause and say, what’s really important? What do we really need to focus on? Is that test really that important? And I think we’re gonna come out so much better on the other side.

Jamie
From your mouth to policymakers’ ears. How about the last two letters of the SELF acronym, the L and the F?

Cheri
The L, I think is really important. I call it Lighten your load and what I mean by that you could do lots of things. At home, you’ve got time to declutter. You’ve got time to throw out stuff that you have not been able to get rid of for years because you never had the time. Clean your house good. Spend some time doing some home management. My first degree was home economics education, so I studied management in the home and how to save time. Start looking at things like that. Do some meal plans. I’m even thinking, you know, if you should get sick, you need to have some plans, some meals planned, or you need to have some plans so that other people can kind of take over if I need to. Also, I’m gonna call it Emergency Plan, and this is like having the fire escape. It’s not necessarily something that you want to think about, but I think it’s something we have to, and I think that is thinking ahead. If you should get sick, if heaven forbid you go in the hospital and you don’t come out, you need things in order. I have done that. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks just starting to get my passwords and my logins and my accounts and things like that. So something happened to me and my kids could pick up a notebook, and it would be very easy for them to take care of all the things that need to be taken care of. It’s not something we want to think about, but I I can tell you I have a peace of mind because I’ve now kind of laid it out, and if something should happen to me, I won’t feel bad from the position I’ll be in, I really won’t care, but I won’t feel bad for my kids to have to clean up my mess. So and finally, the F is, um, focus on the future. And I think that we just, like I said, we can’t do anything about the past. We gotta use this time to prepare ourselves for what’s next. And I think that’s gonna be one of the biggest takeaways from this is that, you’ve got to allow for this to be a transformative time. Think about and you know, I don’t want to lose any teachers. I want to keep every teacher in the classroom that we possibly can. But I think this gives time for everybody to do some really deep diving. Are you doing what you really are meant to do? Are you happy in life? Is there something you would rather be doing that would make you happier? As a friend of mine said, the universe has sent us to our rooms and it says, now go in there and think, think about what you’ve done, and when I feel like it’s time, then you’re going to come out. And if you start thinking those things again, then you’re going back to your rooms, and I think that’s just I think it’s a great analogy. For us to think, okay, we’ve got time to think, we’ve got time to see, is this how we want to come out of this? And is this what we want to do with the rest of our lives? So it’s a great time to do that. The children of the world deserve quality teachers. If you decide that you are staying in the classroom, then spend this time to learn how to be the best teacher you possibly can be. And let this be a time of learning for yourself.

Jamie
To piggyback on your idea of using all of this time to learn a new skill, on the Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM’s website, educationcloset.com, we have a new media library that consists of our brand new video series, Creative Campfire, and you can learn all types of artistic skills, everything from watercolor technique to musical rounds to shadow puppet theater. I’m sure you can think of many more, Dr. Sizemore. So how else can the arts be used to ease compassion fatigue?

Cheri
Well, as I said, teachers are creative. And I think when you get music on that allows your mind to just kind of wander, then your brain, your rights side of your brain takes over and starts being a little more creative than what you feel like it can be right now. You know, a lot of us have hobbies that we did years ago until we got into teaching and then teaching became our full-time hobby and a full-time job and our full time thought process and everything. Now is the time to get out, you know, brush off the piano keys, get back to that piano, those piano lessons that you did so many years ago. Or pull out the paint brush and just start painting. I used to be a sewing teacher, too, so I have actually thought about getting out my sewing machine. I’ve thought about making lots of masks for my families too… home decorating, you’re at home right now, and you know you can still get fabric delivered and just think about all of the… I’m a crafty person so you can see I do a lot of things knitting, crocheting, gourmet cooking. There’s just so much and I think once we do that, we pull our families into those things, too, and we make it a family affair. And so it’s a group effort and everybody shares their talents and so forth. Yeah, I just I think I think what you’re doing and what you’re offering is just exactly what we need right now. We need the inspiration to allow our minds just to be free for a while. And I think the arts allows us to do that.

Jamie
You can find out more about Dr. Sizemore’s work on her website, www.lovetoteach.today. Teaching Trailblazers is a production of the Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM, and I’ve been your host. Jamie Hipp. This podcast is produced, edited and mixed by Jaime Patterson.

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