Compassion fatigue, AKA Secondary Traumatic Stress or vicarious trauma, is a real problem for music teachers.
Aren’t we supposed to love our students? And if we love all of them, we take on their stress. We sometimes absorb their trauma. It weighs on our hearts to care so much for so many people who have so many of their own traumas. Sometimes also called “compassion fatigue”, this trauma that seeps into your bones can be the result of being constantly exposed to your students’ trauma: poverty, violence, racism, etc.
Secondary Traumatic Stress can manifest as anxiety, over-worrying, perfectionism, irritability, insomnia… all sorts of things that make being a great teacher (and a happy person) more difficult. If you find yourself frequently breaking down while thinking about keeping your students safe, you might have compassion fatigue.
Music Teachers & Secondary Traumatic Stress
Music teachers are unique because we often have the same students year after year. As a result, we become a more familiar adult presence in their lives, which can be fantastic. That also means we can become their sounding boards — or dumping grounds — for their stress, fears, and anxieties.
It is a great practice to be able to listen carefully and without judgement when our students come to us with problems, big and small. But it’s not easy to let those harder conversations roll off your back.
If you’re having a hard time after a student reveals their traumas to you… that’s normal. You should have some sort of emotional reaction because you’re a human! But if that emotional reaction is making normal life difficult, it’s time to seek additional support.
What can you do about it?
If this resonates with you, first know that you are not alone. You aren’t doing anything wrong. It is extremely common for teachers to feel the burden of having to “love” every single student. As arts teachers, that can mean dozens or hundreds of students at a time! It is not wise, nor even possible, to really love that many people at the same time.
You will need some help to work through this in order to avoid burning out, or other long-term effects of carrying unaddressed trauma.
There is a difference between caring about your students and loving them. You don’t need to give them your heart. This stress doesn’t have to be a part of the teaching profession.
Therapy helps! A professional can help you work out those emotional boundaries. You can also advocate for yourself and your coworkers for more school/organizational support. That could mean getting involved with your union, lobbying for more mental health services for teachers, or advocating for health and human services for your students.
Here are a few articles if you want to read more (all about a 5-10 min read each):
‘I Didn’t Know It Had a Name’ (NEA.org)
When Students Are Traumatized, Teachers Are Too (Edutopia)