Published: Jan. 13, 2022 By , , ,

As we embark on a new semester in the wake of the devastating Marshall Fires, a new wave of Covid variant, and myriad other challenges facing our students, our loved ones, and other members of our community, many of us are experiencing some level of compassion fatigue. And, yet, we still rise each morning expecting to show-up for family, friends, colleagues, students, and work. For many, this is getting really hard to do.

Compassion fatigue, according to the American Psychological Association, is “the burnout and stress-related symptoms experienced by caregivers and other helping professionals in reaction to working with traumatized people over an extended period of time." Our team at ASSETT has been reaching out to our faculty colleagues to learn about the ways that they are managing their own compassion fatigue, as well as searching for ways to navigate compassion fatigue in the classroom using simple activities and technological tools.

We asked Raichle “Rai” Farrelly, Director of the TESOL Program and Teaching Associate Professor in the department of Linguistics to share how she’s handled empathy and compassion in her classroom in recent months.

"I am a relationship-building professor and I don't have a great power distance between myself and my students. I seek connections with them and that demands my care and concern. These connections open the door for honest and heartfelt communication about their needs and what I can do to support them in difficult times. 

The way I've tried to respond to the emotional, physical, spiritual and social needs of our students is to simply take time, check in, and listen. I also try to help them find connections with one another in the classroom. In my classes on pedagogy, we discuss the value of ice-breakers, turn-and-talk moments (using prompts such as: share something that surprised you this week; share your plans for the upcoming holiday; share your favorite way to de-stress), and routine check-ins as a way of building community, assessing background knowledge, and creating space for learners' lives and interests to be part of the class. So, in most of my classes, I incorporate opportunities for students to simply be with each other. In my Introduction to Linguistics class, with 100 students enrolled, I'll invite them to turn to a partner and share their favorite place to eat in Boulder. No, it has nothing to do with class content. I also created a class Padlet so they could share and connect around other interests, such as languages they are learning, hiking spots they frequent, and whatever else they'd like to add! 

Recognizing my own stress, anxiety, self-care practices, and resilience has helped me respond to the needs of my students. I regularly find myself thinking about what really matters. Is it the end of the world to give an extension on a quiz, to remove an assignment altogether, to repurpose a teaching day so students can catch their breaths? Of course not. It's humane given all that the students are facing right now.”

Do Rai’s words resonate with you? Are you wondering how you can possibly forge ahead this semester all while teaching a full course load and supporting your students? 

First, you are not alone and you can rely on available services at the university. The Center for Teaching and Learning has compiled a student support kit that can help you find resources for struggling students, as well as other campus support resources. We’ve also compiled five things you can do, for yourself and your students, to help navigate compassion fatigue this spring. The first three suggestions come from Emily and Amelia Nagoski, co-authors of the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle

  1. Relieve stress with physicality. Whether on Zoom or in the classroom, invite your students (and yourself!) to de-stress while talking through a brief exercise of tensing, and then releasing, muscle groups “one-by-one”. For example, make a fist and then release your hands and shake them out or lift your shoulders to your ears, release them and roll them back and forth. This physical experience can enable more focus in you and in your students.
  2. Relieve stress with rhythm. Get to know your students a little better by inviting them to add their favorite uplifting dance song to a class playlist. As students drop into Zoom, or a physical classroom, play a new song at the beginning of each class. Shared rhythm increases connectivity and lowers stress levels.
  3. Relieve stress with creativity. Set an example and enact self-care by being the first to post a creative piece, such as a sketch, a picture of something you knitted, a short poem, or a photograph of the sunset over the Flatirons, to a class in Canvas by adding in a Padlet or Google Jamboard. Then, invite your students to do the same. Creative expression can have a similar effect to taking action which soothes stress and anxiety.
  4. Relieve stress with reinforcement. In addition to quizzing your students on course content, try regularly polling them about the activities that energize them using clickers or Answer Garden. Sharing the results back with your students and even trying a few of the suggestions can reinforce (and inspire) that they themselves have inner resources and activities available to them that can help relieve anxiety and stress. 
  5. Relieve stress by turning off. Technology, that is! Closing your laptop or turning your phone off for a few hours allows you to turn your attention to self-care. Encourage your students to do the same — and to share examples of what they do to restore: Take a walk in a natural setting, stretch and breath, cook, or connect with friends and family, in real time, if possible. 

Want to take a deeper dive into navigating compassion fatigue in the classroom? Join us at the Inclusive Community of Practice (ICoP) from 12-1pm on Wednesday, January 19, 2022 for a facilitated discussion on this topic among your colleagues and friends.