Prinz (2011) describes empathy as “a vicarious emotion one experiences when reflecting on the emotion of another” (p. 1). Compassion fatigue has been defined as “the cost of caring” (Hamilton, 2008, p. 10) and used to describe the emotional reaction of a helper to another person’s trauma. While there are defined differences between the concepts of empathy and compassion, for the purposes of this discussion, the negative effects of each will be considered the same.
A great deal of research exists on the problem of compassion fatigue among health care givers (Winch, Henderson, & Jones, 2012), social workers (Newell & Nelson-Gardell, 2014), school counselors (Wardle & Mayorga, 2016), and teachers (Abraham-Cook, 2012). Little research exists, however, describing incidents of compassion fatigue on school administrators and the effects of that fatigue on their health and job performance.
While school administrators are often considered disciplinarians, they may frame their work and decisions through what Starratt has described as ethics of care, critique, and justice (1994). The first focuses on compassion, the second on concern for social justice and marginalized groups, and the third on legal strictures.
School administrators regularly work with people in crisis. These events may include staff, parents, and students, and often present the school leader with challenging and emotionally charged ethical dilemmas. These serious events may include deaths, even suicide, of staff, students, or other members of the school community. Student discipline issues may culminate in arrests and school expulsions. Instructional and non-instructional staff sometimes commit infractions that threaten their employment.
When school leaders critique the shortcomings of teachers, other staff members, or even students, such criticism can have a palpable effect on the emotional, psychological, and physical health of both the administrator and other participants. Even if the principal believes the criticism is accurate, and sanctions or punishments justified and necessary when measured through his various ethical frames, his or her application of power and authority may have serious mental and physiological effects (Malen, 1994; Bryk & Schneider, 2003; Cosner, 2009). Bagi (2015) describes a similar phenomenon, leader burnout, as “a point at which the person’s ability to function is severely impaired” (p. 263). He cites research exploring leader burnout, with significant consequences, including exhaustion, cynicism, inefficacy, anxiety, depression, and a host of physiological maladies. Bass has described similar effects of anxiety on school leaders (2008).
Malen notes that interactions regarding traumatic events can be “a major source of stress for principals and a force that has organizational effects” (Malen, 1994, p. 159). It is vital, therefore, to understand the lived experiences of school leaders in order to better understand their decision-making and therefore improve the educational experiences of their students.
While serving for more than 17 years as a middle school administrator, including 10 as a principal, I worked through many incidents similar to those referenced above. One student died through a grisly decapitation when he attempted to drive his four-wheeler under a barbed wire fence. A teacher lost her son from an aggressive brain tumor weeks after diagnosis. Beloved teachers died through illness. A seemingly exemplary teacher was arrested for engaging in an extended sexual relationship with a minor. One teacher, who had been a principal and superintendent in another state, was forced to resign after pushing an especially difficult student. Many students were arrested for various infractions, including drug possession to weapons charges to assault and battery. Many were recommended for school expulsion.
Although these and other experiences were emotionally taxing and ethically challenging, the most wrenching and perplexing for me personally were situations in which staff members seemed to systematically self-destruct. Despite repeated personal discussions, interventions, and warnings, I witnessed adults at several levels of the professional hierarchy – custodians, teachers, and administrators – continue to repeat behaviors that resulted in the termination of their job. In each case, the individual blamed me for his or her professional demise. Leaders owe allegiance first to the students in our charge. That does not inoculate us, however, from applying an ethic of care as we work with them, sometimes in vain, to save them from themselves.
Most school administrators can draw from similar experiential reservoirs. Research shows that such seminal experiences can create physical and emotional duress, leading to compassion fatigue. Effects can include extreme depression, physical illness, relational breaches, and even separation from the profession. Each of these stories shares rich data that can contribute to the knowledge base for preparing ethical school leaders.
I encourage educational leaders to share their own experiences. By studying their insights, current and future school administrators may better understand their approaches to similar events. This may help them better understand the phenomenon of compassion fatigue. This understanding may enable them to retain better emotional, mental, and physiological health and therefore be more effective in their work, better serving parents, staff, and students in their charge.
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