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Unappreciated Factor in Teacher Turnover

The daunting task of recruiting and retaining teachers in inner-city schools is now so well known that it seems little more can possibly be said. At least that's what I thought until I read about compassion fatigue. According to the American Nurses Association, it is "a combination of physical, emotional, and spiritual depletion associated with caring for patients in significant emotional pain and physical distress" ("When Nurses Catch Compassion Fatigue, Patients Suffer," The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 3).

What struck me were the parallels between teaching in schools serving poor students and caring for patients in hospitals. Both teachers and nurses often feel unable to help those in greatest need. Although compassion fatigue would appear to be more acute among nurses, I don't think its presence among teachers is properly appreciated. Poor students bring to class all the signs and symptoms of physical and psychological trauma. As serious as the former are (e.g. malnutrition, asthma and tooth decay), they are no less threatening than the latter (e.g. abuse, abandonment and alienation).

Like nurses, teachers confronting these pathologies are forced to perform triage. But teachers still have to somehow find the time and energy afterward to teach the subject matter they were hired to do. The debilitating effects on them are cumulative. It's little wonder, therefore, that teachers in inner-city schools have a higher rate of absenteeism and turnover than their colleagues in the suburbs. It's also not at all surprising that teachers who are faced with the challenge often find themselves drawing away from their students. The same sadness and despair that nurses report also affect teachers.

It's here that the bashing of teachers becomes intolerable. No matter how hard they try to compensate for the deficits that their students bring to class because of chaotic backgrounds, teachers find themselves fair game for scathing criticism. It's interesting to note that when nurses (and doctors) can't help sick patients, they are judged by a completely different standard than the one used to judge teachers who can't help disadvantaged students. We understand that health care professionals are not miracle workers, but we expect teachers to be.

Just as post traumatic stress disorder among combat troops was slow to be recognized and treated, so too will compassion fatigue among teachers. The percentage of students living in poverty is now 20 percent and likely to grow ("Putting Poverty on the Agenda," The Nation, Jan. 16, 2011). It stands to reason that teachers in schools serving these students will be increasingly stressed as they attempt to deal with their problems. That's why workshops, retreats and counseling should be part of an overall intervention strategy.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
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