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Why self-compassion is important for teachers

Teaching is, in its essence, a caregiving profession. We all have that one teacher who inspired us to aim higher, choose a certain career path, or simply discover our passions. This role comes with many satisfactions, but also the pressure to hold yourself to a higher standard.

The responsibilities of teachers only increased during the pandemic as remote class management came with its own hurdles. On top of this, teachers had had to show compassion for students and parents — often without expecting the same treatment.

That’s why it’s so easy to think of teachers as selfless people that give it all for future generations. However, where does that leave them?

Educators are taught to do many things, but their education is usually lacking in addressing the emotional problems of being a teacher. One of these aspects is self-compassion.

Let’s do an exercise, shall we?

  1. Take a piece of paper or open a virtual note. Now write down all the things that you have criticized yourself for in the past year (school-related or not). You don’t have to show this to anyone. It’s just for you. Go to step 2.
  2. Ready? OK. Look at your list and answer this question: Would you say these things to a friend if they were standing now in front of you?
  3. Do you notice a difference between the way you talk to yourself and the way you’d speak to a friend? If yes, then why?

In doing this exercise myself, I noticed that I had a long list of criticisms to address. One of those was my failure to make my online presentations as enjoyable as possible for my students. It took someone else to point out that it was a trial and error kind of situation. There will be awkward silences in online classes — and that’s OK.

Later, it turned out that other teachers were having problems as well. I had zero reasons to feel so isolated in my experience. What I needed was more self-compassion, which can prevent burnout and support effective class management.

Why self-compassion is important for teachers

According to Dr. Kristin Neff, a lead researcher in this field, “self-compassion is simply compassion directed inward.” In other words, it’s about showing yourself the same care and understanding that you’d typically show students or other people in your life.

Before we dive in, I think it’s important to discuss what self-compassion is not:

  • Selfishness — you’re more likely to empathize with others and understand their perspective if you practice self-compassion. Putting your oxygen mask on first before helping others to put theirs is the best metaphor to describe it;
  • Self-pity — you’re not feeling sorry for yourself. You’re giving yourself space to process and understand that you’re not alone in this experience;
  • Self-indulgence — self-compassion isn’t a free pass to indulge in things that aren’t good for you, such as procrastination. On the other hand, self-shaming does more harm than good, and self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation.

Self-compassion has been a popular research topic, with many applications in various fields, including education. Some people have more self-compassion than others, and working towards achieving more of it can help you in all aspects of your life, not just as a teacher.

Let’s explore the three main components of self-compassion and how they relate to teaching:

Self-kindness vs. Self-judgment

What distinguishes self-compassion is that it goes beyond accepting
our experience as it is and adds something more—embracing the experiencer (i.e.,
ourselves) with warmth and tenderness when our experience is painful. (Source)

Being a teacher comes with so many expectations and responsibilities. In theory, nobody’s perfect, but there’s immense pressure to be a good role model, educator, mentor, etc. The inner critic has so much more “material” to work with when you’re in front of a class.

It’s no wonder that in stressful situations, it’s harder to control your self-talk. The first thoughts that come to mind are automatic, repeated thoughts that you’ve probably cultivated over many years. For example, if you fail to upload a lesson on time, your inner critic will jump at the chance to say, “you’re so forgetful, I can’t believe you did this.”

The antidote is self-kindness. Practicing it is similar to talking to a fellow teacher who struggles by saying things like, “Things have been stressful lately, and failing to do this one thing doesn’t say anything about you as a teacher or human being.”

Of course, self-kindness takes work and patience. The most challenging hurdle, in my opinion, is to let go of the idea that self-judgment is a good motivator. For example, if I punish myself even mentally for missing a deadline and I meet the next deadline, negative self-talk must work, right? Yes, in theory, it works in the short term, but it’s toxic for our well-being in the long run.

Telling the inner critic to give you a break, especially during high-stress situations, is a skill that’s worth including in Professional Development or teacher education programs.

Read more:
Teacher PD training: Should self-care be part of it?

Common humanity vs. Isolation

This means accepting the fact that, along with everyone else on the planet, we’re flawed and imperfect individuals, just as likely as anyone else to be hit by the slings and arrows of outrageous (but perfectly normal) misfortune. (Source)

The truth is that we wouldn’t dream of talking like that to a partner, a child, a student, or a peer. We accept that everyone makes mistakes, especially students, as they learn something new. So, why don’t we apply the same principles to ourselves?

When we feel stressed, we’re less likely to be mindful of the context. Thoughts like “this can’t be happening to me” or “this only happens to me” really put us in an egocentric position. In this way, we don’t see ourselves as we see others, although we share the same experiences. In other words, we feel isolated from the rest of the world.

Learning how to connect can help in these situations. Instead of pretending that everything is fine, sharing your experiences — good and bad — can be very cathartic. Just the fact that you’re allowing yourself to acknowledge your feelings is a step in the right direction.

The thing to keep in mind is that all teachers share the same struggles. Even the most experienced teachers that everyone loves have made mistakes (and still do). In fact, if they’re teaching veterans and still haven’t burned out, they’re probably practicing self-compassion most of the time.

Mindfulness vs. Over-identification

We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. At the same time, mindfulness requires that we not be “over-identified” with thoughts and feelings. (Source)

Self-compassion requires a good deal of sitting with your feelings and allowing them to exist without judgment or avoidance. If you’re avoiding them, they might come up later when you least expect them. If you’re overthinking every little detail, they’re going to be blown out of proportion.

That’s what mindfulness is. Mindfulness leads to a more balanced and healthy approach to negative emotions.

Another component is the tendency to over-identify with these thoughts and feelings. This over-identification is in many ways harmful because it causes us to overreact.

For example, saying something in class that you now regret doesn’t define you. Plus, you won’t feel the same about this situation after you’ve had some time to reflect on it.

However, at the moment, we might be exaggerating by thinking, “I was a failure today” or “I ruined the entire lesson.” It’s classic confusing what we are with how we behave. We’re not defined by a handful of moments in which we said or did something wrong.

Wrapping up

It’s no secret that teachers are usually under a lot of stress. A part of the solution can be incorporating self-compassion into teaching. According to Dr. Kristin Neff’s research, self-compassion has three components: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

Learning how to use them on a daily basis can enhance job satisfaction but also has a rippling effect on student well-being.

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