When Teachers Experience Empathic Distress

An excerpt from When Teachers Experience Empathic Distress by Rebecca Alber​​

In my years teaching in urban public schools, I saw many students experience extreme stress from living in poverty and also in gang-affiliated neighborhoods. The children I taught had frequent food and housing insecurity, and were exposed to multiple forms of violence—on the streets, at school, and in their homes. As The Atlantic reports, location, income level, and race can determine how often children experience crisis and violence.

Teachers, particularly those working in schools located in communities with high poverty, often find themselves overburdened and under-resourced to help their students (and their students’ families) who are experiencing routine and extreme trauma.

I first heard the term empathic distress from Dr. Joan Halifax, an anthropologist, educator, and pioneer in the field of end-of-life care. 

She uses the term to describe what happens when someone is exposed repeatedly to the trauma of others.

In terms of those who work in service professions like emergency medicine, teaching, and hospice care, Halifax finds it more accurate than compassion fatigue. And I agree—the term struck a deep chord in me when I first heard it. “Yes,” I remember thinking, “that’s it.”

Most weekends I was able to put all that I knew about my students’ lives on hold, be with friends and family, and relax. But then there were Saturdays that would go into Sundays when I couldn’t shake a foreboding, nagging feeling of despair. I couldn’t stop thinking, for instance, about the 16-year-old student in my fifth period class who shared with me that she was by far in the best group home she’d been in but that her belongings were constantly being stolen by other girls.

For teachers, that feeling of deep empathy for a student, coupled with knowing that you’ve done all you can do—and the child is still perhaps still suffering—can cause considerable distress.

First and foremost, we need to come to an understanding and a place of acceptance that we have a limited area of influence and reach when it comes to the healing journey of our students who have trauma. We can’t save anyone but ourselves. We know this. But that helplessness that teachers feel, that is not a sort of fatigue—it’s distress. So how do we address that distress?

The goal of the practice of compassion is to nurture kindness, compassion, and love, for oneself and for others. Cultivating this compassion and good will in our lives can serve as a salve for feelings such as empathic distress.

What does compassion practice look like? Similar to mindfulness, you can be seated, standing (eyes opened softly or closed), or walking slowly, and then one way you can practice it is by repeating to yourself (how many times, and for how minutes is up to you) the phrase, “May I be safe, may I be healthy, may I be happy, may I be at ease.”

You can simply stay with just the phrase for yourself, or you can move to the next phrase, imagining someone you would like to wish well who is struggling or in pain—a student, a family member, a colleague. Then repeat the following phrase, “May you be safe, may you be healthy, may you be happy, may you be at ease.”

Next, move to thinking about a group whom you are connected with—a classroom full of your students or your family—and repeat the phrase, ​

“May we be safe, may we be healthy, may we be happy, may we be at ease.”

In a study, those who engaged in the practice of compassion for seven weeks reported a noticeable difference emotionally—an increase in gratitude, contentment, hope, and joy, and a decrease in anxiety and stress. (You can also try an audio-guided practice for compassion.)

As teachers working in difficult and challenging settings, the way to survive and thrive isn’t just about taking action for ourselves (going to an exercise class, say) or our students (staying after school to listen and comfort, or advocating for additional counseling services). I propose that it also requires we spend time routinely going within and tending to our own distress with intentional care and compassion.

Full Article:

When Teachers Experience Empathic Distress

 BY Rebecca Alber

Alber, Rebecca. “When Teachers Experience Empathic Distress.” Edutopia, George Lucas Educational Foundation, 18 Apr. 2018, www.edutopia.org/article/when-teachers-experience-empathic-distress.

Account Associate

Rachel Wixey & Associates


I chose this article because it is important to understand that everything going on in students' lives not only affects them, but their teachers as well. Teachers are caring people who have a heart for their students, so knowing that some students are still suffering after a teacher has done everything in their power to prevent it can be draining. With everything students face on a daily basis, it is crucial to be empathetic while taking care of your own mental health.