I’m sure we have all heard a flight attendant tell us at the beginning of a flight that if the oxygen masks fall from the compartment, put the mask on yourself before helping someone else put his/hers on. The obvious lesson is you won’t be much help to others if you can’t breathe, so take care of you first and then worry about others.
Albeit trite, these important instructions extend in usefulness way beyond the flight scenario. As educators, we have an enormous capacity to care for our students. Some would say helping children is their calling, their passion. It’s all they’ve ever known and what they feel compelled to do. This seems like a very noble cause: to give and give and give. But here’s the problem…what happens when you have no more to give? What happens when you’re tapped out? What happens when you have nothing more to give? What happens to anything if there is only output, but no input?
In all cases, it results in an imbalance. For teachers, this giving, giving, giving often results in irritability, a sense of depletion, overwhelm, anxiety, and in extreme cases burnout which could result in leaving a beloved profession because of exhaustion or complete shutdown.
It doesn’t have to be this way…
Many teachers I talk to (and myself included for many years) believe that this foreboding need to take care of students coupled with less time and more expectations is the recipe that must be followed to be considered a good teacher. These feelings of busyness and overwhelm are often equated to doing meaningful work. It’s what we are accustomed to. We believe it’s what’s expected of us. Our jobs, we imagine, couldn’t be done any other way.
I want you to consider just for a moment that your job could be done another way. It is simple, but it probably is not going to be easy. There’s no simpler way to say it: you’ve got to put the oxygen mask on yourself first. You’ve got to let go of expectations of perfection and meeting each student’s needs 100% of the time. You’ve got to try practicing some self-compassion.
What is self-compassion?
Self-compassion is extending the same care you would give to someone else, to yourself. Most people would agree that teachers have the capacity to be very compassionate to his/her students. Self-compassion is extending that same understanding to ourselves. According to Dr. Kristin Neff, “Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?” Self-compassion is not letting yourself off the hook for less than ideal behavior, but rather accepting your humanness in spite of things not being perfect. When we accept life on life’s terms we can stop living in the past and emerge with our feet planted in the present ready to create a different future. But we can only do that when we accept ourselves just as we are.
Why can self-compassion practice benefit educators?
Many teachers have a tendency to put pressure on themselves to do everything perfectly, be able to help every student, think there is something inadequate about them if they can’t reach every student or harbor immense feelings of blame when the lesson (or school year) doesn’t go as expected. These expectations can be premeditated resentments. Simply put if we have expectations of ourselves, our students, our classrooms and our school year, we may create unintended hostility and resentment when things don’t turn out as we planned. In some cases, this resentment can become cyclical and we can become cynical, stressed, depressed and eventually, burnout.
This is why self-compassion can be so helpful. It can benefit teachers by helping us reaffirm our humanness…simply put, we are not perfect (surprise…nobody is!) and when we stop putting so much pressure on ourselves to be perfect we may feel less resentful. When things happen and don’t go as planned, we can practice self-compassion and let go of our expectations more easily. This may result in less cumulative stress, anxiety, and ultimately burnout. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
What are easy ways to practice self-compassion into a school day?
Just as we’ve talked about mindfulness practice being simple, but not easy. Self-compassion holds the same distinction. They are simple practices but the benefits will really start to occur over time. This means that if you want the best results, you need a plan of how you’re going to try to implement the practices into your school day.
Here are some suggestions….
So if you are ever feeling a little overwhelmed, anxious or stressed, try adding some self-compassion exercises to your daily routine. They take only a bit of time but their benefits are far reaching. Modeling these kinds of practices will not only help you but also demonstrate healthy behaviors for our students. It’s a win-win for everyone!