It may be tougher than ever for teachers to be kind to themselves. The pressures and expectations teachers face today have only grown with the increasing needs of struggling students who’ve lost serious socioemotional and academic ground during the COVID lockdown and subsequent recovery. Under such conditions, there are often mounting feelings of frustration, inadequacy and overwhelm in trying to meet the needs of administration, students, family, and self. While trying to accommodate the legitimate needs of others, many teachers inadvertently neglect self-care and kindness to themselves—which can lead to prolonged stress, exhaustion, and occasionally burnout.
This first article in a series on “Kindness in the Classroom,” explores self-kindness practiced and modeled by teachers. Why start here? Because teachers set the heartbeat of the classroom.One study showed that teachers’ commitment to intentional mindfulness and kindness to self was linked to stronger emotional wellbeing and decreased likelihood of teacher burnout. But equally encouraging, these practices of self-kindness increased teachers’ tendency to exhibit feelings of compassion toward others. In other words, the study suggests that when teachers are kinder to themselves—they have more kindness available to extend to their students. It creates a ripple effect.
Caregiving professionals (including teachers) often neglect to include themselves in the circle of compassion they innately extend to others. Here are some ways teachers can begin to build mindful self-kindness in their daily lives:
- Recognize that the struggles and challenges teachers face are normal for caring people under pressure. When teachers encounter feelings of overwhelm or inadequacy, they can stop and recognize that their struggles are completely normal for any caring person facing such weighty demands—and that a number of the obstacles they face are systemic challenges beyond their control. Keeping things in perspective, can help teachers reduce stress, frustrations, and any negative self-talk that might occur on those tough days, when they feel like they’re falling short.
- Reframe the way teachers respond to their own shortcomings. Teachers can be exceptionally adept at restorative words and actions when students face failure, make a mistake, or are unable to meet an expectation. The challenge is to respond to themselves in this same way—as if they were coming alongside a friend or student. If teachers can first stop and imagine how they would respond to anyone else they cared about, self-kindness can begin to grow more naturally. This can be as simple as stopping to ask themselves, “What is causing you to be afraid, angry, frustrated? What do you need right now?” Over time, teachers can gradually become more aware of the impact of their own thoughts, words, and actions upon their wellbeing.
- Replace the inner critic with the voice of a caring friend. In The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, Dr. Kristen Neff set out guidelines for adopting phrases meant to be spoken internally as one would speak to and encourage a friend. According to Dr. Neff, kind self-talk should be:
- “simple, clear, authentic, and kind,” just as a good teacher would speak to a struggling student who needed guidance.
- spoken lovingly as one would speak to a friend – and received as if a caring friend were speaking.
- reinforcing good intentions, not denying reality. For example, “I can grow stronger and healthier,” rather than “I am not sick.”
- affirming emotional freedom, and not imply any expectation to feel a certain way.
Classroom culture, expectations, and norms begin with the teacher. Students can either learn that they need to come into the classroom armored up, or arrive with expectations of kindness to themselves and each other, largely based on the teacher’s social cues. The re-shaping of expectations begins with a kinder inner voice. “With the burnout issues teachers face today, taking care of themselves through work/life balance…isn’t enough. Teachers need to give themselves permission to be self-compassionate for the stress they’re under,” encourages Dr. Kristen Neff. Over time, as teachers develop the habit of being kind to themselves, they reduce negative emotions and can keep their emotions in balance even when navigating tough situations.
The Lincoln Center for Family and Youth (TLC) is a social enterprise company serving the Greater Philadelphia Area. Among its five divisions, TLC offers School-based Staffing Solutions, Mobile Coaching and Counseling, and Heather’s Hope: A Center for Victims of Crime. These major programs are united under TLC’s mission to promote positive choices and cultivate meaningful connections through education, counseling, coaching, and consulting. For more information, go to: TheLincolnCenter.com/
About the Author
MaryJo Burchard (Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership) is co-founder and principal of Concord Solutions, a Virginia-based consultancy firm focused on helping leaders and organizations thrive while facing major disruption. Concord Solutions offers consulting, coaching, training, research, and keynote speaking surrounding trauma-informed leadership and assessing and building change readiness, trust, and belonging.