Caring Relationships in School Staff: Exploring the Link Between Compassion and Teacher Work Engagement


Source: Teaching and Teacher Education Volume 59, October 2016, Pages 126–136


Compassion in the school setting traditionally defines students as the recipients. Teachers, on the other hand, have yet to be studied as such. This study examines the effects of compassion expressed by teaching colleagues and school principals on teacher school engagement and subjective well-being at work. A sample of 226 teachers from 5 different high schools in Israel filled out a questionnaire in which they rated the amount of compassion received from their school colleagues and principals, as well as their job satisfaction, organizational commitment, emotional vigor, and burnout.


Multi-level modeling analysis techniques showed that expressions of compassion from teaching colleagues and principals related positively to teachers’ sense of emotional vigor, organizational commitment, and job satisfaction, but negatively to teacher burnout; this relationship was mediated by teacher positive affect (PA). Furthermore, there was evidence for the role of compassion in coping with the stressful teaching conditions inherent to the profession. The mediation relationship through teacher PA as moderated by student-misbehavior stress was strongest when student-misbehavior stress was high, and provided teachers with the ability to cope with the stressful condition and maintain work outcome levels (emotional vigor, burnout, organizational commitment, and job satisfaction). These findings emphasize the crucial role of compassion in the workplace, and suggest it should be targeted by principals and other educational decision makers.


Practical implications and conclusion

The findings reveal how fundamental needs and affective experiences at teachers’ workplace - such as being cared for, compassionately supported, and openly heard - are ultimately associated with improving teachers’ school outcomes. Moreover, our findings reveal that the affective expressions given by school colleagues (peers and superiors) can be viewed as representative of the overall school culture, thereby contributing to the teachers’ sense that they are, in fact, supported by the school system and setting as a whole. These findings are important for policy makers and educators because they indicate that compassion has an important impact not only on students but also on teachers. Rather than seeing compassion as peripheral to teacher outcomes, this study establishes it as paramount to them.


Thus, the implications are straightforward: expressions of compassion and emotionality toward teachers can be a useful managerial tool and a key concept in building vigorous relationships with teaching personnel, and may overlap with principals’ objective of improving teacher outcomes and school performance. Moreover, the study’s findings send a pivotal message to management: expressions of caring, tenderness, and affection by school authorities are by definition a strength and not a sign of weakness or dependence, we argue that school principals can be more powerful and impactful when they begin considering teachers as a whole person - heart and mind as one - with feelings, needs, and concerns.


The phenomenon of compassion has a very long intellectual and moral history as it “lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves” (Armstrong, 2011, p. 6). This study maps the contours of workplace compassion for teachers, provides evidence of its powerful consequences, and opens a horizon of new research questions. Although the study of compassion at the workplace lacks roots in educational domain, the current study clearly reveals that it has an educationally promising and significant future. The study’s findings indicate that acts of compassion are moments of everyday human behaviors at work; these moments promote feelings which generate teachers’ attitudes and school outcomes. Studying compassion at the workplace may seem strange within the contemporary competitive and individualist nature of society; however, according to the present study’s results, the existence of compassion in the routine workplace life of the school is significant, mainly because it presents the heartwarming sides of human experiences at teachers’ workplace. This study sets a milestone as far as workplace compassion’s existence among teachers and opens new frontiers of insight on the intervening of compassion in the fabric of the working lives of teachers.

Updated: Jun. 22, 2016