This post is from Daniela Gutierrez Lopez, the CITL’s DEIJ Graduate Assistant. See below for Daniela’s bio.
Does anyone else feel like we’ve been stuck going around a revolving door between online and in-person instruction? Sometimes it spins faster, sometimes slower, sometimes we’re in the space by ourselves and sometimes more people jump in, cramming into the space with us. Can we all fit or, more importantly, if we should fit? Is it safe for us to fit, or if it’ll all break down? Will someone, will we, get hurt?
Maybe as children these revolving doors were fun to play in. I know for me I loved having the choice to not move in a direction I wasn’t supposed to. Revolving doors in those cases gave us the chance to use objects for their unintended purpose. As such, we got to practice divergent, creative thinking that many of us lose as we grow up (Robinson 2010). That type of divergent thinking is precisely what now makes us great critical thinkers, researchers, professionals, and innovative educators.
But, now, the revolving door between online, synchronous, asynchronous, hybrid, in-person instruction, and back online is not likely to stop any time soon… and it is not our choice. If anything, there’s no denying that throughout the pandemic these shifts continuously reduced student and faculty wellbeing, as we’ve tried to sustain “the work.”
It may be that at this point many of us “have gotten used to” the constant and abrupt changes in national and international health guidelines. That means that as educators we may have almost also gotten used to their corresponding effects on modes of instruction. But for some of us it’s just scary to think that, as the spring semester ramps up, the imminent threat of the revolving door and the strain of the past 22 pandemic months will inevitably put additional pressures on educators and students’ mental health. This includes, for example, continued physical and mental illness, financial stress, new childcare and/or elder care responsibilities, and, of course, ‘compassion fatigue.’
So fear, anger, and confusion are not only valid but understandable emotions when we begin to feel the need to sacrifice our lives and wellbeing for our labor. If you’re feeling like this, know you’re not alone! Of course without our labor many of us couldn’t take care of our basic needs in the first place. Still, these pressures are certainly not things we should just be getting used to.
As we continue to overcome the isolation that characterized 2020 and 2021, I propose we try to reach out from the feelings of stagnation and take this as an opportunity to build a culture of care on campus. Returning to campus we can build networks of support in which faculty, students, and staff alike –among and across these circles– can take advantage of the university/classroom space to collectively prioritize our own and each other’s healing.
“Do I Have Compassion Fatigue?”
Faculty and instructors more often than not got into the profession to make a difference in the world and empower students. Day to day we serve as student advocates, especially for those in marginalized communities. However, faculty and instructors’ passion, especially for those who are a part of those same vulnerable communities (Hayes 2022), and especially during the pandemic, has required us to deal with the pain and trauma that students have been experiencing during Covid. Taking care of them has been a priority, but it possibly came at a price.
Feeling exhausted? Having trouble sleeping? Suffering from anxiety? Experiencing constant “[…] headaches, stomach upset, irritability, numbness, a decreased sense of purpose, emotional disconnection, self-contempt, and difficulties with personal relationships” (“Compassion Fatigue” Psychology Today)? You may be struggling with ‘compassion fatigue.’
Compassion fatigue is a deep emotional and physical type of distress in which a person vicariously experiences someone else’s pain. It wears people down over time, because folks are unable to stop to refuel and renew (Figley 1995). Compassion fatigue can then lead to burnout and even to secondary trauma. In extreme cases, secondary trauma can also cause PTSD.
People in helping professions, caregivers, are more likely to suffer from compassion fatigue. This includes medical professionals, social workers, and, of course, educators. According to Françoise Mathieu, author of The Compassion Fatigue Workbook (2012), even though people are not in danger themselves, people can absorb that secondary pain from exposure to retelling, readings, watching, or engaging with any type of details, like news coverage, of traumatic details. As educators, we absorb students’ pain and trauma as we interact with them in classes and office hours, etc.
The solution is not necessarily to stop caring or to quit our jobs–although sometimes we are left with no other choice to protect ourselves (see McLaughlin 2022). It is simply important for us to touch base with ourselves, take stock of our own mental health, and set boundaries –learn to say NO, even to ourselves-, so that we can be the best teachers we can be.
Why (do we need) care?
People come first. The theme for this year’s celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Social Justice Conference at Indiana University was “A Journey Toward True Education.” During her keynote speech, scholar of education and abolitionist Dr. Tabatha Jones Jolivet taught us that, for her, true education requires love, study, and struggle (2022). She explained her position based on the lessons from the “radical King” that Black philosopher Cornel West speaks of. After teaching her audience about the many Black women from whom Dr. King himself learned –women like Mamie Till, Jo Ann Robinson, Georgia Gilmore, Mattie Howard, Dorothy Height, Daisy Bates, Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker–, Dr. Jones Jolivet revealed to us that Dr. King believed in an education that was both utilitarian and moral. That is, he believed in an education that was rigorous, but that ultimately centered people. The truth is, if our basic needs and our motivations are not taken care of, if our innermost selves, what some call souls, are not prioritized, then there will not be people in the classrooms to teach, regardless of the fields we may be teaching. And, what may be worse, Dr. Jones Jolivet reminded us that, according to Dr. King, the most dangerous person is one with reason, critical thinking, and no moral.
Dr. Jones Jolivet suggested that Dr. King learned that some of the main ways to center people are:
- ‘truth telling,’ as in witnessing and/or recording history;
- working with and not for the people;
- telling our own stories;
- and building power, especially the power of the people.
As educators, in the classroom, 1) truth telling can happen through gestures as “simple” as acknowledging students’ reality, both the broader reality –from the global pandemic and other issues it’s caused, to racism, voting rights, police brutality, poverty, etc.– and their individual experiences. 2) Working with might be asking and listening for student’s needs rather than assuming them. This could translate into considering the syllabus a living document that changes according to your specific students requirements; allowing students to co-create their forms of evaluation, deadlines, etc. 3) Telling our own stories can be educators’ way of practicing vulnerability in the classroom as a way to connect with our students. And 4) for students, building power is realizing that each of them is important, that they come into the classroom with knowledge and expertise and they are worth learning from, that they can learn not only from professors, but from their peers, and that they can forge their own paths through education, where the university is but a tool in that process. Educators, students, and staff can claim what they want from their university experience. Ultimately, building power is acknowledging that care is not an individualized practice, but that we can rely on one another and that that does not make any of us any weaker. It makes us resilient and allows collective healing.
Many IU instructors already practice all of these things and many more. But it is precisely because many are spending so much extra time and energy trying to guarantee both a utilitarian and a moral education that many are getting burnt out. Although we tend to think of social media as one of the primary culprits for compassion fatigue, because it causes ‘emotional contagion online’ (Hayes 2022), in my next blog, I will be offering ways in which social media can actually be used as a tool for education and to reduce compassion fatigue.
Berry, James, H. “Compassion Fatigue in the Time of COVID-19.” 1 November 2021. American Association for Clinical Chemistry.
“Compassion Fatigue.” Psychology Today. Accessed 31 January 2022.
Figley, Charles. “Compassion fatigue: Toward a new understanding of the costs of caring.” Secondary traumatic stress: Self-care issues for clinicians, researchers, and educators. Edited by In B. H. Stamm. The Sidran Press, 1995, pp. 3-28.
Hayes, Denise. “Finding Strength & Reducing Compassion Fatigue.” 17 January 2022. Uploaded 20 January 2022.
Jones Jolivet, Tabatha. “What True Education Requires: Love, Study, Struggle.” Indiana University, uploaded by Group Office of the Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Multicultural Affairs, 20 January 2022.
Mathieu, Françoise. The Compassion Fatigue Workbook: Creative Tools for Transforming Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Traumatization. Routledge, 2012.
McLaughlin, Lauren. “IU School of Education Works to Combat Indiana Teacher Shortage, ‘Great Resignation’.” Indiana Daily Student, 27 Jan. 2022.
Robinson, Sir Ken. “TED Talk: Changing Education Paradigms.” TED Ideas Worth Spreading, Oct. 2010, .
About Daniela Gutierrez Lopez
Daniela’s research investigates the labor that gendered, racialized, and pathologized people (e.g., queer and trans Black, indigenous, migrant people of color) perform at institutions of higher education in order to “survive and thrive” within and outside university systems. She focuses on how they use activist, pedagogical, aesthetic, and (self) care and healing practices to help build more equitable and joyous futures. Daniela is a PhD candidate in Gender Studies and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice graduate assistant at the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning.