Compassion Fatigue and Teacher Burnout

It is no secret to educators that teaching is an occupation of high stress.  A Johns Hopkins University study ranked teaching as the 4th most stressful job of all occupations.  Educators know that the job is stressful, but sometimes it helps to put a name to something in order to help us cope.  Sometimes, it is enough to know that others are going through what we are going through in order to come to terms with our own feelings. Recently during a webinar workshop from “Right to Play,” the facilitators referred to what some educators are experiencing right now as “compassion fatigue.”  I had heard of this phenomenon relating to emergency response occupations, but I had never really thought about it in terms of education.  What we may consider “stress” in the teaching profession may be explained in better detail by examining compassion fatigue.

According to Joanna Krop, author of  “Caring without Tiring: Dealing with Compassion Fatigue Burnout in Teaching,” compassion fatigue “is a form of burnout characterized by extreme mental, emotional and spiritual exhaustion, and it’s an occupational hazard in the caring professions.”

Teacher burnout is not something new.  Recently, however, there have been a number of articles written on the topic of teacher burnout.  A few days ago, the CBC released and article with the results of a survey completed by 2,000 teachers about the pressures in education. One third of the respondents are thinking about retiring or seeking a new career.  One third.  Some educators cite that the pressure and stress is coming from trying to maintain the best educational experiences possible for students while also trying to adhere to pandemic rules and guidelines.  Teachers hold themselves to a high level of integrity and service in their work, in addition to wanting to help their students and their families.  Then add a global pandemic on top of the regular burnout reasons.  As if that wasn’t enough, there are so few teachers available for daily occasional work that teachers feel more guilty than ever when they need to take time for their health.  For many educators, teaching isn’t the only thing that is leading to that compassion fatigue as many teachers have the added pressures of taking care of children and/or aging parents. The most challenging aspect of burnout is that what seems to be the biggest factor in burnout is dedication to the job.  The more dedicated the teacher, the more apt they are to experience burnout. Teachers are burning out because they care.  Hardly seems fair.

The question becomes then, how do we counteract compassion fatigue and burnout? From what I’ve researched, it is all of the things that we know are good for our mental health:

  • figure out what you can control and what you can’t and focus on what you can control
  • temper your expectations of yourself and your work (remember that we are in the middle of a global pandemic and the circumstances are different)
  • small steps towards getting outside, eating betting, exercising and doing creative things
  • surround yourself with supportive people and trusted colleagues
  • be aware of toxic positivity or the rabbit hole of complaining about things
  • show your true self to your students, be authentic so that your students have permission to be authentic too
  • quiet time for yourself and for being mindful

All of that sounds wonderful.  All of it sounds like common sense.  However, it isn’t as easy to put into practice as all of the research makes it sound.  This can appear of just another long list of things to do added to an already long list of things to do. Sometimes burnout can get to a point where you feel immobilized or you may even be at the point that just getting through the next breath is all that you can plan.  As someone who generally plans the menu of meals for our family a week in advance so that we can do our groceries, I know the chaos I feel with uncertainty.  Right now my plan is to try to be patient and gentle with myself.  Everything is going a hundred miles an hour and I keep thinking that I have to keep up or somehow I’ll miss the bus.  However, I also know that if I get to the point of exhaustion, I become less self aware and I’ll end up getting run over by the bus and won’t be good to anyone.

It feels like an impossible task to willingly accept less of myself than I normally expect.  I feel like I will let others down.  However, if I don’t temper the expectations that I have of myself and my work I’m going to have tire tracks on my back and that won’t be good for anyone.

Inspiration During the COVID Crisis

I know that as I write this, I speak from a fortunate position. We are working safely from home and all of us are still healthy.  Other than not being able to see extended family and friends, having some aches and pains from being in front of the computer and get out to the hair dresser, my family is coping pretty well with isolation.  While so many are suffering it has been humbling and inspiring to witness the resilience, creativity and kindness of those around us.

Music is everywhere.  Concerts on television bringing Canadian artists from their living rooms to ours, live Facebook concerts of our favourite Canadian musicians, and videos from friends and family sharing their music.  This week I joined a virtual Ukulele play and sing along with the Bytown Ukulele Group from Ottawa.  I played and sang along with people from British Columbia, Ireland, Nova Scotia and here in Peterborough!

Art is everywhere.  People are painting anything and everything!  From rocks to sea shells to paint nights with friends.  There are sketches and sculptures and pottery being made. From digital art to creating sketches from tutorials with famous artists; people are creating all kinds of beautiful art.

Dance is everywhere.  There are Tik-Tok videos of dances making teenagers get up and move and follow along.  Dance studios are going online to continue extra curricular dance lessons.  30 second dance parties are happening in my living room whenever we need a break from the computer screen.  Thankfully, none of that is being recorded!

There is culinary prowess being celebrated.  Yeast and flour are hot commodities right now because people are trying their hands at baking bread.  People are posting meals they have never made before and swapping recipes with friends.  People are growing things on their windowsills and in their backyards for the first time.

Innovation is everywhere.  People are trying their hands at DIY projects and coming up with innovative ways to connect online.  Teachers are learning digital tools they have never used before in order to connect with their students. We’ve been participating in online trivia and poker nights.  My son plays Jackbox party games with his friends while also chatting online or streams a movie together.

Most of all, I have witnessed incredible kindness.  I joined a Facebook group called Peterborough Shares.  At first it was mainly to communicate where to find particular grocery items and post information about shopping etc., It has since become a forum of connection where people ask for help and others respond.  From a new mom recently unemployed to a family who lost their home to fire, people are answering to the calls for help.  Something as simple as finding left handed scissors for a child to complete schoolwork or finding a hand crafted Mother’s Day gift, people are coming together to share that information and supporting one another in an unprecedented way.  More than ever, my city feels like a community.

I know I am in a fortunate position.  I am grateful every day that we took my 87 year old mom out of her retirement home when this all began and that she has remained healthy.  I am grateful that my 16 year old son has friends he connects with, teachers who care and a love of artistic things that feed his soul.  I am grateful that my husband and I can work from home and that he goes out and bravely gets the things we need.  I am grateful that in the middle of all of the chaos, in the middle of the grief and sadness, there is hope.

Mindfulness in Education

There is a significant amount of research about the benefits of mindfulness in education.  Much of the research shows that consistent mindfulness practices in classrooms lead to lower stress levels and higher test scores.  It is a hot topic and wanting to to do the best for students, we are seeing more of it in schools. There are all kinds of books and videos on breathing and mindfulness exercises for reduction of stress for kids.  I have learned to practice meditation myself and I have used some mindful practices with my students and believe that at the right time and in the right circumstance mindfulness practices can be powerful.  I am left wondering, however, if the practice of mindfulness in some cases is becoming routine or something to check off on a plan and not truly ‘mindful’ at all?

Let’s take yoga for example.  Yoga instructors go through intense hours of study in order to practice and teach others.  However, teachers pop on a kids yoga YouTube video and we’re “being mindful”.  I’m not being critical.  I have done it myself!  My question or wondering is; what are the implications of these actions on a broader level?  Yoga is about mind and body.  My worry is that we are literally “going through the motions” with students and not really giving them a true mindful experience.

How about a timed meditation?  Everyone drop everything and take part in a guided meditation right now!  I understand the idea behind this strategy; the whole school is engaging in the practice at the same time. However, isn’t the idea that students will learn to develop mindfulness skills to help them in stressful situations? It is a starting place, but hopefully there is more in-depth practice and explicit teaching happening.  Otherwise isn’t it more a kind of fast-food approach to mindfulness?

Mindfulness needs to have an environment that is conducive to practice.  Norms and expectations need to be established and there has to be “buy in” from the students. Students require a variety of skills in order to truly practice mindfulness and they need to be explicitly taught so that students can use what they know in order to transfer the knowledge into other situations.  Finally, it has to be modeled by the adults in the room.  If there is mindfulness being practiced, everyone should be doing it and debriefing the experience and learning together.  If a teacher is busy organizing the classroom library while the students are being mindful, it won’t demonstrate that mindfulness is valued.

We can’t be experts at everything.  We can’t always have a certified yoga teacher come into our classroom.  Whatever we are teaching it must be done with intention, done explicitly and through modeling.  Going through the motions out of habit and routine may do more harm than good.



Daring Classrooms

I state the obvious when I say that teaching is a demanding job.  If you are reading this, you are most likely a teacher and this is not news to you.  I’d like to highlight a resource that feeds the soul of a teacher (and quite frankly a human being) while also providing some strategies for integrating that soul feeding into your classroom practice for your students.  Wait, what…that exists?  It is a website from Brene Brown called Daring Classrooms.  If you haven’t heard of her yet, you can find “The Call to Courage” on Netflix and/or her Ted Talk on Vulnerability.  She is inspirational in leadership, in life and in work.  Here is a snippet from her #DaringClassrooms website:

“Teachers are some of our most important leaders. We know that we can’t always ask our students to take off the armor at home, or even on their way to school, because their emotional and physical safety may require self-protection.

But what we can do, and what we are ethically called to do as teachers, is create a space in our schools and classrooms where all students can walk in and, for that day or hour, take off the crushing weight of their armor, hang it on a rack, and open their heart to truly being seen.

Teachers are the guardians of spaces that allow students to breathe and be curious and explore the world and be who they are without suffocation. Students deserve one place where they can rumble with vulnerability and their hearts can exhale.

And what I know from the research is that we should never underestimate the benefit to a child of having a place to belong—even one—where they can take off their armor. It can and often does change the trajectory of their life.

Teachers: Everyday should be Teacher Appreciation Day. I am so grateful for you and your willingness to show up and create brave, safe spaces where our children can learn, grow, and be seen.”

Some of the short (8-12 minute) video resources from Daring Classrooms include:

How do we avoid the pressure to please?

How do teachers manage oversharing?

How do we help parents understand failing as part of the learning process?

Does the word “disappointed” shame students?

In addition to the video resources there are free downloads for resources, parenting the classroom and daily life.  There are pdfs that you can print out for working with students.  My favourite one is the list of core emotions.  Sometimes when students have triggers they can’t always name or explain the emotion that caused the trigger in behaviour.  Being able to learn about the names and the definitions of core emotions is helpful for students to self-regulate.

Every year in a classroom brings new challenges.  In fact, every day in a classroom will bring on a new challenge.  I hope that as you lead your own #DaringClassroom you will find this resource helpful and that it may feed your teacher soul.

New Ideas and Connections

This year has certainly been full of unknowns.  We are working with an expired contract.  Reorganization happens with my board late in September.  Just as I successfully created a smooth flow and eager learning with my students, my assignment was jostled around.  As a teacher, I’m flexible with changes. As a human I struggle with change.

As my grade 7/8 class finished handing in their Cell and Ecosystem models, I was moved to a different teaching assignment.  The Cell and Ecosystem unit was completed after students learned how to complete timelines, flow charts and word webs.  These graphic organizers were used as the research component for building their models.

Barrie Bennett has conducted some thorough research about different types of graphic organizers and written the resource, “Graphic Organizers”.  This is a useful tool to help students develop their research skills and present their understanding in an organized in depth way. Many of my science ideas were gathered from teachers at ETFO’s Summer Academy and NSTA annual presentations.  Some of the resources I gathered and continue to draw my instructional ideas from, are designed and written by ETFO teachers. “Take a Closer Look, A Media Literacy Resource” and “The Power of Story” are both excellent resources with lessons which can be easily adapted for todays quickly changing world.


I am now using my mental health and wellness skills and knowledge to provide support in other areas of the school population. One of the wonderful resources I am using is the fiction story, “Blue Gold” by Elizabeth Stewart. This story brings many areas of social justice to the forefront.  While introducing curriculum content of Language Arts and Health, research and discussions are easier when students can connect to life stories of youth from around the world.

To compliment this with local stories, I have introduced, “Speaking the Truth. A Journey of Reconciliation”. While I am becoming educated around indigenous issues I have found myself reflecting and relating to many important issues. Monique Gray Smith presents a fantastic tool for these learning purposes. The joy of teaching for me is also learning and adapting my lessons in an engaging way.


Mindful Pause, with or without Technology?

Everywhere I turn I see the effects of our technologically advanced world. Gains have been made in medical research, communication abilities, and advancements toward an easier life?
Some of the effects on individuals are now coming to light. Many people are connected to the internet 24/7. This is causing sleep disturbances, eye issues, addiction behaviours, and other physical ailments.

As a previous mental health professional I look at my present vocation in Education with that type of lens. I have practiced and taught Mindful strategies for many years now. I see the benefits of technology in the curriculum. I also observe the negative effects. I have noticed some educators looking for a researched solution to help calm, focus and ground their students. Some are now turning to all the apps, and internet connections to provide a quick and easily guided mindful activity. I think this may be counter productive to being present and in the moment. We are seeing the effects of this new age world and the fast pace it is changing. As educators we are up to date with the many changes or apprised to avenues in which to guide our charges.

When I guide a group through a mindful experience I eliminate as much technology or other electrical sources as possible. I then guide students into focusing on being present in their own body and mind through the use of many verbal scripts vocalized in a relaxed, quiet voice. These moments of taking a pause are valuable. We live in a busy, stressful society where a pause can assist in a healthy balance to our daily lives.


Mindfulness Meditation: Guided Practices

School year start up

Well we are already four weeks in and hopefully it has been a great start of the school year for everyone. I am now teaching a grade eight class, teaching math, science, history/geography, language, art and drama. I was overwhelmed at first thinking about all of the subjects I would be responsible for but I have such an amazing grade team so I am truly thankful for all of their support and activities that have been shared.

September is an important month to get to know your students for not only their likes and dislikes but just honestly, do they enjoy school? Every student has their ideas of teachers, rules, subjects, reading, the list goes on and on. Just listening to them talk to other students during class teaches you so much about their interests and about how they have been affected by various things in their past school years. By grade eight students either LOVE or HATE being in a school. I am now faced with the task of continuing to develop that love or trying hard to turn around the hate.

I have been looking at new apps, reading exciting activities for my class to try, looking at fun trips, trying to think of new clubs/teams and I am hoping that I will engage some students who have been disinterested in the past. It is definitely a year long task to try to engage and involve all students so I hope to continue on that journey each day.

On a personal note, as teachers we often feel many emotions at the end of each day. There are questions we ask ourselves and things we always wonder. The one I have been asking myself a lot lately is, “Did I get to everyone?” I feel that is the hardest thing to go home with at the end of each day. That is why I am trying this year to make a few notes on who to go to first the next day and then actually following up on those plans. I am fortunate to finish early at the end of my school day so I can finish all my school work around 3:30/4:00 pm. That gives me roughly six hours of “me” time! That time is so important for our mental health and it is something I am also hoping to focus on this year. Shopping. stair climbing, doing the laundry, making a fun dinner, watching an episode of my favourite show…just a few examples of things I can do each night to stay positive and enjoy each day to the fullest.

I am hoping to talk to my students tomorrow about how to use our after school time wisely to better ourselves and to really add to our day. Our day isn’t over after school and we should really do our best to enjoy the time we have to keep ourselves positive and to make the most of our day.

These are just a few things I have thought about as summer ended and our school year begins. These four works have not been the easiest as being permanent now full time in a very different setting has made me think differently but I am staying positive and really reflecting on the good at the end of each day and looking forward to working on new things the next day.

I am looking forward to posting every few weeks about exciting ideas that occur in my class as well as all the ways I am staying positive and making the most of each day!


Happy New Year

As a parent and educator this time of year is a transition back into a regimented routine. It is the New YearNew Year, for my child entering grade 3. New Year, for myself with a traveling (on a cart) assignment, Grade 5-8 Math and Self Contained Class coverage.

Preparation for this New Year celebration spans through the summer.  Beginning in June by sorting and putting away this past year’s materials. I’m always thinking about what the New Year will hold.  When I’m shopping and something catches my eye, I think, “Is it useful to me and my charges? Can I afford it? Will I use it?” As I unpack my storage areaZ, I find all kinds of collectables there.  I started teaching at the beginning of the technological age of the education system.  I still have materials necessary before the use of technology. This year, I found a grade 3, “Word Wall”. My child’s Grade 3 teacher, inherited this and a box of books for this level. whether she uses them or not, I feel great about the possibility.  Sharing with others brings me joy.

New Year is a great celebration, ringing in the new, decorating for the season, preparing for a fantastic time, thinking of all the details, and knowing that an unpredictable event will happen and I will have to adapt and be flexible to smoothly slide through it. As Educators we have a multitude of talents. We are planners, organizers, predictors, caregivers, decorators, researchers to name a few.  With all celebrations we plan and prepare well before the event. It is exciting to watch, assist and create space for the New Year.  It is exciting to meet the new educators, children, and families whom will help with the growing and learning for all.

During the summer, usually a few weeks before the New Year, nightmares enter my dreams which include, “I’m lost in the school. I’m late getting there. I forget the most important item of my plan.” My mother has been retired from teaching for over 20 years and still has these dreams/nightmares just before the New Year. I wake up in the night thinking about plans and details. I jot notes in preparation for the celebration back, then convince my brain to slow down and return to a resting place.

The preparations as an Educator include more than the New Year celebration.  These include preparing yourself and others for a change in routine. My child has appointments through the week.  I have to plan my life around these and my own appointments too. I have to prepare for travel to and from, meals to eat, clothes for the changing season and the New Year.  I have learned to slowly slide into these practices beginning before the New Year.  This gives my body  a chance to adapt to the earlier start times, bed times and daily expectations.  I began teaching later in life and my body and mind thank me, when I care for them.  Preparing for the New Year must include self care.  I have made realistic goals to care for myself, so I can continue to celebrate the New Year with the many people I affect.

As you prepare for your New Year events, be mindful of yourself and flexible in all the change that will happen during these times. Smile, walk proud and be kind is my continuous reminder every moment of this New Year celebration.

Kimberley Cousin


Building Connections with Students

Be Authentic

The video of a teacher giving each of his students a “just for them” handshake each morning upon entry has gone viral.  His efforts to connect with students have been applauded.  I think that this is a wonderful way to create a bond between teacher and student; for THAT guy.  I know that this is not “my thing”.  If I were to choose to try this at the beginning of a new school year, it would not be genuine and it just wouldn’t feel right.  I’ve also often wonder what happens when a parent wants a word in the morning, or someone forgot their backpack on the bus, or there is a class trip leaving 5 minutes after the bell.  There are many ideas for connecting with students online, but you need to do what is genuine for you.  Otherwise, you won’t sustain it and the students see right through it.


During the first few weeks of school I try to stay in my classroom while the kids eat lunch.  I will often eat my lunch at the same time as my students so that I can have the other half of lunch to relax, visit with colleagues or do some preparation.  I choose to do this for the first couple of weeks to make sure that the routines for lunch time are established and students understand my expectations around cleanliness, behaviour and technology use during lunch.  There are often different teachers on lunch duty, so it is helpful for them if the regular classroom teacher is in the room until they become acquainted with the students. When I take the time and effort to do this at the beginning of the year I find that there are less issues throughout the school year at lunch time.

Circle Chat

No matter what grade level, I have always started of my day chatting with kids.  In a circle format the students can share something, check in, ask a question or some days they pass (I will personally check in later to make sure everything is ok).  Sometimes we have topics, sometimes we have to discuss class updates but no matter what, we’ve connected in some way.  Yes, it takes instructional time.  Sometimes it takes up a LOT of time.  But, in my experience, it builds relationships with your students and saves time in the long run.

Front End Load Communication

Parents’ concern for the well being of their children seems to be at its highest point at the beginning of the school year.  It may be a new school, a new teacher, academic concerns from previous years or peer group concerns.  Taking the time to communicate during the first week of the school year by phone, note or at least a personal email in addition to class updates on websites or newsletters home will pay off during the rest of the school year.  The more you assure families that you are accessible and concerned about their child, the more supportive they will be if an issue arises.  Find the good in each student and make sure that you communicate it to families.  For the students that have academic or behaviour concerns, meet with families face to face as soon as possible.  Do not leave it until report card time.  I often start those conversations by asking them to voice their concerns, as well as asking their goals and hopes for their child for the school year.  Those positive and proactive attempts at communication at the beginning of the school year will go a long way with families and ultimately will benefit the student.

Take Your Job Seriously; Don’t Take Yourself Seriously.

About 10 years ago I picked up a pair of absolutely crazy novelty sunglasses.  No matter the weather, I wore them in the morning when I picked the students up at their bus lines and I wore them when I walked them out to their buses in the afternoon.  There were always comments from the students (and sometimes parents) and it was often a conversation starter when I could see that kids needed to be checked in on first thing in the morning or at the end of the day.  I began to get crazy sunglasses as gifts.  I now have about 60 pairs and wear different ones depending on my mood.  My staff humoured me and each wore a pair in the staff photo for the yearbook.  This might be something that you try in your classroom, I’m happy to share, but make sure it is something that suits you.

I remember being told by a colleague at the beginning of my career that you shouldn’t smile at your students during the first few weeks or even until Christmas.  I didn’t follow that advice, because it wasn’t genuine and authentic for me.  The way I see it, if you aren’t smiling at the beginning of the year, you can pretty much be guaranteed that you won’t be smiling at the end of the year!  Students feed off of the mood of the teacher.  Ultimately, the teacher makes the weather in the classroom.  There are days when I have to apply the “fake it until you make it” strategy and I smile until I really feel like smiling.  I also highly recommend a morning music mix for the way to work.  Put together 5 or 6 songs (or more depending on the length of your commute) that really motivate you, make you bouncy and make you smile.  On the days where I know I’m tense, in a mood or haven’t slept well I put this on during my drive and usually by the end I’m singing along and feeling better.  Then, I slide on those crazy sunglasses and I’m in tip-top teacher mode ready to greet every student with their name and a smile.  I may not have individual handshakes ready to go but after 23 years…I still start the year off smiling.



My Yearly Notebook

Each summer I buy a brand new spiral bound notebook.  Not the skinny ones that you get in the 3 pack from Hilroy with the flimsy cover that rips within a few uses. I am particular about my stationary.  It may be a kind of a problem.  I get the 8 1/2 by 11 solid cardboard spiral bound notebook.  It is where I keep my lists.  Lists of things to buy for the classroom.  Lists of things I want to change in the physical space of my classroom.  Lists of books I’d like to read or add to my classroom library.  Lists of things to get done before September.  Lists of the curriculum topics I’ll be teaching and in what months I plan to teach them.  Lists of special events each month that I might highlight or celebrate with my students.  Lists…of lists.  I use that big notebook all school year long to add notes from meetings, professional development sessions and of course, more lists.  I have many already filled spiral notebooks of new ideas that I’d like to try over the school year on my shelf in my office.  This summer I realized something.  After the school year is over I have NEVER opened those notebooks again.  There are lots of great ideas in there that I didn’t implement and then I feel guilty about that!  Teacher guilt never seems to stop, unless of course, I choose to stop it.

This summer I quickly read the book, “Ditch That Textbook; Free Your Teaching and Revolutionize Your Classroom” by Matt Miller. It has fantastic teaching tips for technology integration in the classroom.  Although I do not have the desire nor the access to the 1:1 technology to go completely paperless, I found a lot of wisdom and great teaching tools in Matt’s book.  I have also provided a link to Matt’s blog.  Matt helped me to break a cycle.  I haven’t bought a spiral bound notebook this summer and I’m not planning on buying one.  Among many pieces of advice in the book, Matt suggests picking two new things that you are really excited about to add to your teaching practice, being clear about your intention for using those practices and following through.  I’ve been guilty of overdoing the professional learning to the point that I overwhelm my students by doing a whole bunch of new things all at once and then don’t end up sticking to any of them.  I also get overwhelmed by the many great ideas out there and wonder if I do something else, what I’ll have to give up doing.

I’ll admit that I’m already kind of cheating.  Instead of just choosing two teaching practices I’m also choosing two new technology platforms to learn about for next year.  One of the practices that I would like to get in the habit of doing is adding more descriptive feedback to assignments that students do online and have multiple opportunities for the students to respond to that feedback and re-submit assignments with changes.  The second thing that I would like to do is educate parents on how to leave constructive feedback for their students online rather than a thumbs up or “Good job!”  I plan on exploring the video and audio creation tools, WeVideo and Voki.  I may explore more than these but these are the ones that I am committed to doing.  Since I have written my commitment here on the blog, I also commit to sharing what I thought about those tools in a review format.  If you get a chance to read Ditch That Textbook, I highly recommend it. It is a quick read with great already-made lists and hey, it made me “Ditch That Notebook”.