Personal Wellness Resources
- Because we’re better in the work when we’re better to ourselves.
- Because science tells us we are smarter when we have enough sleep.
- Because changing the world can feel hard and frustrating and lonely.
- Because there’s much to do and never enough time.
- Because it’s not all your job, it just feels like that sometimes.
- Because running on adrenaline 7 days a week doesn’t mean you’re doing good work.
- Because self-compassion is not the same as self-indulgence.
- Because breaking bad habits shouldn’t break the bank.
- Because it requires more self discipline to take a break now than ever before.
- Because your self worth isn’t measured by how busy you are.
- Because we want a movement that builds us up, instead of burning us out.
- Because it’s okay to talk about how you feel.
- Because bubble baths, chocolate and drinking alone are not a long-term solution.
We have to create our own stop signs.
How Self-Compassion Can Help Prevent Teacher Burnout
Tips for keeping cool and being kind to yourself, even in the midst of a stressful situation.
By Vicki Zakrzewski
“You people, I hate your guts!” And so began the school year with Stephen, a student in my 3rd/4th grade classroom whose frequent outbursts usually included more colorful and sometimes more threatening language.
It wasn’t until April that we finally managed to get Stephen the psychological help he had so badly needed for years. By that time, though, my nerves were frayed. Every night, I fretted about what more I could do to help Stephen, and I constantly beat myself up for not being able to establish a classroom where all students felt happy and safe.
Without realizing it, I was on the road to burnout.
Teacher burnout is almost epidemic in this country and is one of the causes of the 17 percent annual attrition rate amongst educators. Scientists have found that teachers can burnout from the negative emotions and inefficacy they feel around the challenges of managing their students.
Thankfully, science has also found a positive way to deal with these emotions through something called self-compassion.
Kristin Neff, pioneering researcher and author of the bookSelf-Compassion, believes the practice can greatly benefit educators.
“With the burnout issues teachers face, taking care of themselves through work/life balance is important, but it isn’t enough,” says Neff, “Teachers need to give themselves permission to be self-compassionate for the stress they’re under.”
She describes the practice as a way of reining in our inner critic, replacing it with a voice of support, understanding and care.
The potential benefits of self-compassion are huge. Neff has found that people who practice self-compassion experience fewer negative emotions and stay emotionally balanced in difficult situations—both of which, according to a study on emotional exhaustion among teachers, help prevent teacher burnout.
Neff says that the first component of self-compassion is self-kindness, or treating ourselves with the same care we would give a loved one. As teachers, we care for our students every day but often forget about caring for ourselves.
To help, Neff suggests talking to yourself in the same supportive way you would your best friend. So the next time you come home from a rough day in the classroom (one of those that makes you wonder why you ever became a teacher in the first place), instead of berating yourself for every wrong thing you said to your students, try telling yourself something like this (or whatever might feel natural):
I’m so sorry you had a rough day. Even though you may have said some things to students you wish you hadn’t, it’s okay. All teachers do that once in awhile, but the students survive and so will you. I know you care so much about your students and want them to be successful. Teaching is one of the most challenging jobs out there, and you’re doing the best you can.
The second component of self-compassion is recognizing our common humanity. In other words, it’s helpful to remember that we’re all in this together and everyone has to deal with the challenges of life.
“When something bad happens, our normal reaction is ‘this should not be happening,’” says Neff. “The recognition that this is the experience of teaching, that this isn’t abnormal, helps soften some of that resistance.”
Neff suggests having forums where teachers can talk with each other and realize that everyone beats themselves up and feels they’re a failure sometimes. “Just knowing you’re not alone can be very freeing,” she says.
The third and final component of self-compassion is mindfulness, the moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts and feelings. Research has suggested that teachers who practice mindfulness are less likely to experience negative emotions and depression and more likely to enjoy a positive state of mind.
By practicing mindfulness during difficult times, Neff says we can “notice” our negative emotions without getting caught up in them, which then allows us to comfort ourselves with compassionate understanding.
Neff has created exercises to help people practice self-compassion in the quiet of their own home; however, she believes teachers can also benefit from knowing how to practice in the middle of a hectic day in the classroom.
“In the heat of the moment,” says Neff, “self-compassion gives you the calm and clarity you need to get through a tough situation emotionally and do your best—a win-win situation for both teachers and students.”
Here are two of Neff’s “in-the-moment” exercises for teachers:
1. Self-squeeze. Wrap your arms around yourself or fold your arms in a non-obvious way that mirrors a hug. Just as you would hug a friend who’s having a rough day, this physical gesture of self-compassion is an easy way to soothe and comfort yourself.
2. Breathe-in, breathe-out compassion. Based on a Buddhist meditation method, this practice can easily be done when faced with a challenging student or situation. Very simply, you breathe-in compassion for yourself and breathe-out compassion for the other.
Another benefit of practicing self-compassion in the classroom is the potential soothing effect on students. According to Neff, when we give ourselves compassion, our faces will subtly show it—and students can pick up on this change, helping to calm and soothe them as well.
Teaching will always be a hard job. But self-compassion is a great way for teachers to bounce back from challenging students, bad days, or lessons that fall flat—plus it feels good, says Neff.
“One of the most powerful things about compassion,“ she says, “is it makes you feel safe and calmer. Instead of just feeling empathy for your students—which is essentially feeling their pain—self-compassion allows you to embrace that pain with loving-kindness, which makes it bearable.”
The activities and exercises listed below are aimed at maintaining your physical health, decreasing stress, increasing relaxation and equanimity, and managing some challenging emotional situations (including work situations). We also suggest that you read the Developing Your Support Systemwebpage for information on nurturing your relationships and enhancing your social support network, and peruse the Inspirational Materials and Self-Care Readings webpages (and the UBLearns “Self-Care for Social Workers” website) for resources you can use to enhance your spiritual, emotional, and intellectual well-being.
The sections below are divided by topic, though there is overlap among them. Read the link headings and then click on the materials you wish to review and use.
Healthy Eating. One important way to maintain and enhance your physical health is through healthy eating.
Physical Fitness and Immunity. Getting regular physical exercise and taking steps to protect yourself from contracting colds and flu bugs are fundamental aspects of self-care. Tips for Increasing Physical Activity includes ideas for boosting your overall level of physical activity as well as incorporating exercise into your daily routine. Strengthen Your Immune System offers pointers to keep your immune system strong and your body healthy.
Reducing Stress. There are many ways to begin reducing your stress and some of them only take a few moments. Look over the suggestions in Some Simple Ways to Relieve Stress to see if there is something you can do right now (and do it!) and also make a note of the other activities you can incorporate into your daily life from now on. For specific suggestions on how to lower stress while you are at work try 21 Ways to Reduce Stress During the Workday.
Another technique that some people employ to deal with their stress is to try to understand and address the factors that contribute to it. Practicing Stress Journaling can be useful in this regard.
Time Management. One of the most common complaints associated with feelings of stress is, “There’s no time!!” Use the tips provided in Time Management to help you prioritize your time, schedule your time, set goals, and end procrastination.
Relaxation. Learning how to relax is vital for self-care. Fortunately there are a number of well-developed techniques you can use. Step-by-step instructions on how to use progressive muscle relaxation and visual imagery to ease tension and increase relaxation are included in Effective Methods for Relaxation. For other ways to achieve (or return to) a more peaceful state check out the exercises described in Energy Management For Care Providers and Creating Your Special Place. Additional techniques you might consider are yoga, Tai Chi, and massage – for online resources and local practitioners consult the Online and Other Self-Care Resources webpage.
Mindfulness. When we feel stressed and overburdened, it can often seem like we’re living on “automatic pilot,” disconnected from the here-and-now and our present experience. One remedy for this ismindfulness, which involves direct and nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. You may have heard of mindfulness as a form of meditation, but it can also be a general orientation to your own experience. “When you are mindful, you are awake to life on its terms – fully alive to each moment as it arrives, as it is, and as it ends” (Sanderson, nd). For an introduction to how you can become more mindful, read through Mindfulness and then begin to practice what you’ve learned. One simple way to start is to learn mindful breathing as it is described in Meditation Poem - On Breathing. (As with many of the materials listed in this section, these materials may be helpful for your clients as well.)
Avoiding Compassion Fatigue. Compassion fatigue can develop from a combination of burnout (feelings of hopelessness and difficulties at work or in doing your job effectively) and secondary or vicarious traumatization (from exposure to the traumatic life experiences that your clients report). The page Ways to Avoid Compassion Fatigue lists key elements to enhance your resilience in the workplace.
Assertiveness. Learning to be assertive (rather than unassertive or aggressive) is a tremendously important skill for your emotional well-being – one that can positively impact your life both personally and professionally. Assertiveness enables direct and honest communication and important boundary setting, and it can address some of the situations that add to feelings of stress. Read over Assertiveness and Nonassertiveness to begin to learn and practice the skills.
Be Good to Yourself. Much of what we have described in these Student Self-Care webpages (and more), is summed up on a handy single page, Tips for Vitality and Serenity. Check it out (and keep it handy) and be good to yourself!