Professor Snape and Compassion Fatigue, an illustrative example from fiction

Ahskendrick/ June 17, 2022/ HEARTcare

For the past seventeen months, I have been investigating the scope of compassion fatigue and burnout in Alberta’s educational workers. Through three online surveys with over 4000 respondents and 53 interviews, the findings have been clear. 53% of respondents were experiencing compassion fatigue and upwards of 80% had two or more symptoms of burnout.

Compassion fatigue is the cost of caring, or the emotional and mental exhaustion experienced by a caregiver who deals with students who have experienced a traumatic event. Burnout is the result of long term, unmitigated stress, and both mental health problems are occupational hazards in caregiving professions. As educational caregivers, teachers and other educational workers, are expected to provide the emotional labour necessary to ensure that their classrooms and schools are safe, happy, and caring environments for students regardless of their own emotional or mental state.

But I kept coming back to the question, “so what?”. Why should parents and other community members care that educational workers, like teachers, principals, and educational assistants, were experiencing mental health distress? After all, most people were suffering from a variety of problems through the COVID-19 pandemic, so why should educational workers be any different?

My answer: No one should want their child to be taught by Professor Snape.

Snape Syndrome: When compassion fatigue and burnout collide

Professor Snape, of the Harry Potter Series, is a fictional caricature that is a good metaphor for the collision between compassion fatigue and burnout. As a result, he causes far more harm than good for his students.

From the first interaction between Snape and Harry described in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, until almost the final chapter of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the reader believes Snape to be a cold-hearted, sneering villainous teacher with no care for anyone but his beloved Slytherin.

“At the start of term banquet, Harry had got the idea that Professor [Snape] disliked him. By the end of the first Potions lesson, he knew he’d been wrong. Snape didn’t dislike Harry – he hated him.” (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, p. 145)

But, the reader understands Snape through the eyes of a child, and only near the end of the Harry Potter series, do we realize that Snape’s response to Harry was a trauma response. His cold-hearted, seemingly malicious character was his maladaptive coping strategy to his own lived trauma. From seeing Lily fall in love with James Potter, his childhood tormentor, to calling her the racist epithet “mudblood” which led to the destruction of their childhood friendship, culminating in his inability to save her life from Voldemort, Snape carried destructive trauma that devastated his ability to provide the necessary calm, caring, and compassionate emotional labour that builds successful classroom culture.

Tears were dripping from the edge of his hooked nose as he read the old letter from Lilly…Snape took the page bearing Lily’s signature, and her love, and tucked it inside his robes. Then he ripped in two the photograph he was also holding…throwing the portion showing James and Harry back on to the floor… (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, p. 562).

His cruel interactions with Harry stemmed from his lived experience with trauma, a risk factor for compassion fatigue, and were heightened by the lack of acknowledgement, a symptom of burnout, that he felt by Dumbledore’s reluctance to promote him to his prized teaching assignment: Defense from the Dark Arts.

His classroom culture was built on fear, favoritism, and, despite his history of having been a victim, bullying. Rather than using his lived experience to help his students thrive, Snape perpetuated the very trauma that broke his heart in the first place.

But, what if, Dumbledore, McGonigal, or another trusted character had intervened earlier with Snape? What if he had dealt with his own compassion fatigue and burnout before he met Harry? Could he have been a more effective teacher?

Preventing Snape Syndrome: HEARTcare Planning for Educators

One of the findings of my research study is that compassion fatigue and burnout can be both prevented and treated through several interventions. The key interventions are related to building a positive school culture, prioritizing wellbeing by system leaders and policy-makers, implementing self-care strategies by individuals, accessing expert help when needed, and understanding the unique crisis and trauma work provided by educational workers to ensure that action can be taken after a traumatic event.

Dumbledore was well aware that Snape had a history of trauma, yet he did little to encourage Snape to get help. In fact, he used Snape as a double agent with the followers of Voldemort and did little to intervene when Snape set up Harry and Draco Malfoy as enemies. Later, we learn that Snape begged Dumbledore for different assignments and tasks, and yet, Dumbledore insisted that Snape follow his directions. Within such a toxic workplace, Snape took out his anger on his students, acting with malice and disregard for their distress in the same manner that his own distress was disregarded.

On a systemic level, the Ministry of Magic did little to assist Hogwarts once it became clear that Voldemort was back and that the children were in danger. Rather than providing additional supports and resources to ensure their safety, the wizarding government pretended that the emergency did not exist, thereby leaving the children, and their teachers, to figure out what to do on their own. As a result of the lack of direction, Harry took matters into his own hands in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by creating the secretive group, Dumbledore’s Army, and teaching other students the defense against the dark arts.

In terms of individual self-care, Snape appeared miserable and, by the description of his clammy, pale skin, did not care for his nutrition or get nearly enough time outdoors to improve his positive mental health. Further, he appeared to have few trusting relationships and little opportunity to relieve this distress by talking to a trusted friend or colleague.

Snape does not receive adequate professional development or expert therapy to work through his own trauma before attempting to act as a teacher and mentor to Harry. He did not access expert help to deal with his trauma, and only at the very end of his life, does he finally give Harry some insight into the reasons for his cold and mean demeanor.

By this time, of course, it is too late.

The lack of system, school, professional, and individual interventions for Professor Snape meant that he did not get the relief he needed to be a good teacher. Instead, he perpetuated the cycle of violence within his classrooms by being emotionally distant and mean.

What he needed, back on the night that Lily was killed, was for someone to ask him, “Are you okay? How can I help?”, and provided the access to therapy, kind colleagues, and time to recuperate before he was put in a position of power over children and youth. Of course, Professor Snape is a fictional and purposely villainized character needed to keep the plot line going. But, he does provide an extreme example of why it is important to be concerned about educator compassion fatigue and burnout.

Students are impacted by the mental and emotional health of the adults in their lives. Keeping teachers and other educational workers positive, caring, and compassionate through a supportive community and government policies is the best way forward.