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U of C professor finds high levels of compassion fatigue and educator burnout in Alberta

By Nazeefa Ahmed, November 8 2022

As principal educators of Alberta’s youth, teachers and other educational staff support children through their emotional development and traumatic life events, in addition to their learning. They were foundational in creating a safe and supportive environment for children during the socially isolating pandemic. As schools return to pre-pandemic systems and routines, it seems that teachers may be as vulnerable as the students placed under their care. 

In an interview with the Gauntlet, University of Calgary professor Dr. Astrid Kendrick described the findings of her research, Compassion Fatigue, Emotional Labour and Educator Burnout. Phase one of her study found 50 per cent of the survey respondents experiencing compassion fatigue, and 80 percent experiencing educator burnout.

Kendrick emphasized that educator burnout and compassion fatigue were not brought about by the pandemic — rather, the pandemic exacerbated already existing problems. The research began in January 2020 when Alberta Teachers Association (ATA) partnered with Alberta School Employee Benefits Plan (ASEBP) after noticing educators were calling in with higher levels of distress. 

“While what has happened over the last three years had an enormous impact on educational workers, the signs of stress and distress in people’s mental and emotional health predated it,” said Kendrick.

The study describes two symptoms among educators: compassion fatigue and educator burnout. Compassion fatigue is a result of the crisis work that teachers often must do in the classroom. Children often tell teachers about tough events in their life, such as a parent’s divorce or the loss of a pet, and teachers often must recognize and empathize with their feelings. 

“Educators are also doing a lot of crisis work, which is when the educator and the children are going through a traumatic event together,” said Kendrick. “For example, educators were still teaching children during the Fort MacMurray fires in 2016 as the whole place was burning down.”

Educator burnout, however, is the long-term emotional toll that the teaching profession has had recently on teachers. This school year, the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) welcomed 5,886 new students, while the annual CBE budget remained the same. This could lead to increased strain on the system, further exacerbating the symptoms seen in Kendrick’s report. She describes how the pandemic only exacerbates existing flaws in the system and increases burnout. 

“Educator burnout is a slow erosion of a person’s ability to be fully present within the classroom,” said Kendrick. “Particularly because of all the disruption that has happened over the last few years, it’s this perfect storm of terrible that is impacting teachers.”

Kendrick describes how the combination of compassion fatigue and educator burnout cause teachers to lose passion for working with kids because they feel they no longer make a difference as an individual. Due to the emotional burden, these teachers may be irritable and lose interest in their work due to a lack of perceived impact. 

“Burnt-out people may simply be there for the paycheck which is extraordinarily difficult while working with children and youth because they need you to provide that safe and caring and warm environment,” she said. “What this can create within the educator is a feeling of moral distress. They have a vision of the type of educator they want to be. They may have a memory of being a really good teacher, but because they are physically, mentally, and emotionally tired, they can no longer put in the time and energy.”

This has led to a trend of educators wanting to leave the profession altogether. A survey conducted by the ATA found that 37 per cent of teachers may leave the profession in the next five years, though the data was disputed by the government due to it not being a random sample. 

Regardless, systems-level changes need to be implemented to help teachers. In her concluding remarks, Kendrick pointed to decreasing class sizes as a possible and necessary solution. 

“Class sizes are a huge problem,” said Kendrick. “If you have a class of 25, teachers have more time to pay attention to each of the students. When you get to a class of 35 to 40 students, teachers are unable to have conversations and are doing some kind of triage. If a student says that their parent is in the hospital with [COVID-19] and another’s pet just died, a teacher may be forced to focus on the first student and forget about the second even though both are grieving. The quieter children may fall to the bottom of the triage and not get any attention at all.”

Those interested in understanding ways to combat educator burnout and compassion fatigue can visit the HEARTcare Planning website by Kendrick. Phase two of the report can also be found here.

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