Why self-compassion counts

Why self-compassion counts
Date28th Feb 2022AuthorHannah DunnCategoriesTeaching

This piece was previously published in the ATP Today magazine, the magazine of the Association for the Teaching of Psychology, in its February edition.

I am a teacher of psychology and have been for nearly two decades. For the most part, I have loved it, but at times really struggled to find that elusive “work-life balance”. I find myself counting down the days to the next half term, at which point I would feel burnt out, stressed, devoid of energy. In lessons I operated on autopilot, not really being present or mindfully “there” with my students. I realised I was beginning to lose my love of education, and I noticed that fellow colleagues and students were feeling the same. This led to my discovery of positive education: the application of positive psychology to promote flourishing schools. I have since qualified as a positive education consultant, fallen back in love with teaching and developed a Positive Education toolkit of workshops and activities that I use to boost the wellbeing of my students, which in turn has helped buffer me against burnout. The toolkit has proved popular, and is a strategy that I am pleased to say is being trialled across the college I work in.  

There is no doubt that teaching is a skill that takes mental flexibility, emotional agility, and resilience. As teachers we need the ability to quickly gauge the appropriate responses to large groups of students, whilst simultaneously differentiating to suit each learner (Tandler et al, 2019). In addition, we often find ourselves acting in loco parentis, promoting the development of personal, social and health education, engaging in complex administration and grade monitoring, whilst also delivering passionate and motivating lessons. All of this is undertaken in a target- and assessment-focused workplace. Add fluctuations in government policy, changes to education pedagogy and a few hundred teenagers, and it is easy to understand why a third of newly qualified teachers decide to leave after their first five years, reporting feelings of burnout (Teacher Wellbeing Index 2020). I strongly believe that choosing to be a teacher should not come at the sacrifice of happiness – the need to develop effective coping strategies to buffer against this is clear. One such strategy I have discovered is the practise of self-compassion. 

Why is self-compassion beneficial?

Self-compassion can be defined as compassion turned towards the self (Neff 2003) and has three polaristic components:

  1. An expression of self-kindness, rather than self-criticism and judgement. 
  2. A perception of common humanity in the recognition that failure and inadequacy are a part of shared human experience, as opposed to feelings of isolation. 
  3. A mindful ability to keep our suffering and emotions in balance, rather than unhelpful rumination or suppression. 

Research details how self-compassion is associated with positive emotion (Neff at al, 2007), resilience (Neff & McGehee, 2010), higher levels of wellbeing, and lower levels of stress (Stutts et al 2018). 

How is self-compassion beneficial for educators?

  1. The first benefit is the development of mindfulness in teachers. Research (Zarate et al 2019) has suggested that training in mindfulness amongst teachers produced reductions in stress, anxiety, burnout, and depression. Adopting a mindful approach is perhaps a particularly useful skill for teachers, whose minds are constantly planning the next lesson or set of marking deadlines. Adopting mindfulness may act as a reminder to live in the moment when teaching, savour a joke shared with a student, or bask in the reflected glory of a student’s lightbulb moment of understanding. It is possible that mindful awareness may offer the perfect antidote to a busy teacher brain. 
  2. Research (Allen and Leary 2010), suggests that the practice of self-compassion has the potential to increase resilience and encourage positive adaption to difficult situations. This resilience proves useful when faced with the demands of a heavy marking workload, or a busy week of teaching, opening evenings and parent calls. 
  3. Yarnell (2013) found that those higher in self-compassion feel less turmoil when dealing with social conflict. This comes in handy when we are dealing with behaviour management issues within the classroom, mediating between students and parents, or negotiating with senior leadership. 
  4. Self-compassion may also be of use when you consider the performance pressure that teachers face, to make lessons fun and engaging. Experimental studies (Breines et al 2014) reveal that participants who were higher in self-compassion showed lower physiological stress markers when asked to give an unexpected speech in front of an audience. Given the performance element of teaching, this seems like it would have a similar benefit when faced with the pressure of large new classes of expectant faces, or a whole school assembly to take.

The overall conclusion that can be drawn from these research studies, is that the practice of self-compassion might act as a buffer against stressors that are specific to the teaching profession: self-compassion will be a useful tool in the teachers’ wellbeing toolkit. 

Whilst it is tempting to get drawn into these shiny health benefits of self-compassion practice, the research itself doesn’t always translate well to the real world of the classroom. After all, how many teachers do you know that have the time for mindfulness training and reflective self-development in their working day?

I wanted to know how the benefits of self-compassion practice could be put to practical use, without it needing too much time or effort. My research involved interviewing several experienced teachers, asking about how they understood, used, and developed self-compassion. Getting a first-hand account of their personal experience was not only a pleasure and a joy, but it uncovered some nuanced and useful insights into self-compassion strategies that I have summarised below. 

Make the most of the micro-moments

The teachers I interviewed made an effort to find their own personalised, quick, and effective ways of developing self-compassion throughout the day. This is not about laborious, time-consuming practices, but rather finding small micro-moments of mindful awareness and self kindness in the day, and purposefully tuning into them. It’s about having a stretch whilst you are at the photocopier, really taking a moment to savour the cup of tea at breaktime, or pausing to take some lovely long breaths before entering the school building.

Find out what small habits you can create to reduce your stress – don’t underestimate the power of micro-changes to your daily routine; lots of small steps can leave a big footprint.

Ask – was it worth it?

The teachers defined self-compassionate teaching as the ability to find the delicate balance between effort and payoff. Self-compassionate teaching involves asking yourself the question “Was the effort worth the benefit?” It’s a simple but often overlooked question (when I was training to be a teacher, I don’t recall ever being asked this). 

Accept help and pass on your skills

Kindness and compassion were clear character strengths of the teachers I spoke with. Take full advantage of the help and advice that is offered and know that it is not a sign of weakness to ask for it. Research shows that using our own unique character strengths at work boosts happiness levels (Linley 2004), so in asking for help you might well be boosting the wellbeing of other teachers, by giving them the opportunity to help you.  

Change the internal narrative

A common barrier to developing self-compassion is a perceived rhetoric, normalising overwork and self sacrifice, which is wrongly promoted by the wider school culture: the “I am not doing enough” feeling. Challenge this narrative when you find it popping into your head; challenge it amongst your co-workers too. As a teacher it’s important not buy into these “overwork is normal” messages. Don’t be tempted to try every education pedagogy fad or advice that gets thrown your way when training season comes around. You do enough, and it is ok to leave work on time. In fact, by looking after yourself you will have more energy and head space to cope with potential stress.

Choose your words wisely

The worrying finding that teachers experience crisis points brought about by toxic school cultures serves as a stark warning signal for current school leaders, and a call for action to help prevent this in the future. If you are part of the senior leadership team ,the language you use can help to develop a culture which values healthy, self-compassionate, teaching narratives, as opposed to praising teachers who promote self-sacrifice, hailing this as the gold standard within the education system.

Invest in social connections and don’t be afraid to make mistakes

Social relationships sit at the centre of classroom compassion. Focusing on developing social connections with students is the starting point for developing compassion and builds trust. This makes room for a safe classroom, where mistakes can be made, and risks taken – both by the teacher and student. After all, teaching ideas don’t always work the way you’d like! Accepting this, being vulnerable, and admitting mistakes you make with the students models self-compassion and acts as a blueprint for their own self-compassion practice. This provides opportunity for the creation of compassionate micro-communities, which have the potential to accumulate and cascade through the school, creating a compassionate shift within the school culture. 

Overall, what I learned from my research is that self-compassion counts in a classroom, and that it doesn’t have to be time consuming, or another thing to add to your to do list. It can be a way of being rather than doing: an implicit practice that is brought to the classroom with relative ease. It involves prioritising classroom relationships, making the most of micro-moments of self-compassion, shifting our teaching mindset to adopt self-kindness (I am doing enough), working smart, normalising mistakes, and tweaking language to promote a healthy self-compassionate working culture amongst ourselves, our colleagues and our students. 

I hope this article has given you some food for thought and I wish you luck in your journey of self-compassionate teaching practice. 

Hannah Dunn is a teacher of psychology at Scarborough Sixth Form College, a CPD trainer, a Positive Education Consultant, and an Edexcel Psychology Tutor. 

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Allen, A. B., & Leary, M. R. (2010). Self-Compassion, Stress, and Coping. Social and Personality Psychology Compass4(2), 107–118. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2009.00246.x

Breines et al (2014) Self-compassion as a predictor of interleukin-6 response to acute psychosocial stress. Brain Behaviour and Immunity 37:109–14

Department For Education (2020) Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PHSE) Education. Personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

Education Support (2020). Teacher Wellbeing Index. https://www.educationsupport.org.uk/resources/research-reports/teacher-wellbeing-index-2020

Linley.A. (2004). Average to A+. CAPP Press.

Neff, K. D. (2003). Self-Compassion: An Alternative Conceptualization of a Healthy Attitude Toward Oneself. Self and Identity2(2), 85–101.

Neff, K. D., & McGehee, P. (2010). Self-compassion and psychological resilience among adolescents and young adults. Self and Identity9(3), 225–240. 

Neff, K. D et al. (2007). An examination of self-compassion in relation to positive psychological functioning and personality traits. Journal of Research in Personality41(4), 908–916. 

Stutts et al. A (2018) A longitudinal analysis of the relationship between self-compassion and the psychological effects of perceived stress, Self and Identity, 17:6, 609-626

Tandler, N et al  (2019). Is there a role for mindfulness and self-compassion in reducing stress in the teaching profession? Minerva Psichiatrica60(1), 51–59. 

Yarnell.L., Neff.K.D., (2013) Self-compassion interpersonal conflict resolutions and well-being. Self Identity 12:146–59

Zarate, K et al. (2019). Meta-analysis of mindfulness training on teacher well-being. Psychology in the Schools56(10), 1700–1715. 

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