STOP and SLOW: Self-Care and Compassion Practice for Educators
Below is an excerpt from Self-Compassion for Educators: Mindful Practices to Awaken Your Well-Being and Grow Resilience, by Lisa Baylis, MEd.
The past year through the COVID pandemic was the most challenging year of my career as an educator and school-based counsellor. I found myself at the end of the school year wiped out and needing more time than usual for recovery. Now with the imminent return to school, I have had to really prepare myself both physically and emotionally for being ready for another school year. And I know I’m not alone.
Teaching in our current school system is hard work, especially after riding the waves of the current pandemic and social movements. There has never before been a time when educators are expected to take on so many roles, with more expectations and less support. As many teachers are heading back to schools after a summer break, they may be feeling less ready to tackle another school year. Does the thought of going back into your classroom give you a bit of panic or worry? What has helped me manage these overwhelming feelings of stress, worry and fear is my practice of self-care and self-compassion.
Educators are often told to manage the stress of the job by leaving their work at school. We are encouraged to draw clear boundaries between students and ourselves and to not let students’ problematic emotions affect us. However, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been able to just leave my work at school. I think of my students in the evenings, on weekends, on holidays, and sometimes even in my dreams. In addition, educators do much of their planning, marking, and correcting at home.
We’re also advised to alleviate burnout by practicing a variety of self-care strategies, such as:
- Eating well
- Spending time with friends and family
- Getting a massage!
While self-care is essential, there are limitations to these strategies. The most significant barrier is that self-care tends to happen off the job and doesn’t help us in the moment when we’re in the classroom and super stressed. We can’t say to a student, “Whoa, you’re freaking me out. I think I’ll go get a massage!”
Self-care can also be a frustrating message to hear when you’re working hard to support your well-being, but the system is doing very little to assist you. Many of us find ourselves challenged by aspects of a system that we have little control over, so it can be very insulting to be told, “Just care for yourself,” as if that’s how we will all be okay.
The ultimate act of self-care is a self-compassion practice. “Self-compassion” means meeting ourselves during difficult and stressful times with the kindness and tenderness that you might offer to a dear friend or a small child. Kristin Neff suggests, “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, whoever said you were supposed to be perfect?”
If we want to change a system to support us, we need to care for ourselves to make changes. You can’t have one without the other. When we strengthen our resilience, we strengthen the collective, and together we can create systemic change.
So instead of fighting the things we can’t change now, what if we gave ourselves permission to tend to our well-being and discover ways to be gentle and kind amongst the struggles?
Here’s where compassion (especially self-compassion) has a role. When we have compassion, we are moved by another’s suffering and experience the desire to alleviate and prevent that person’s distress. Although compassion is related to empathy, there is a difference between the two. Empathy is the ability to feel what another person is feeling, whereas compassion involves the willingness to relieve another person’s suffering. Compassion is empathy in action.
As an educator, perhaps you feel that you sometimes have too much compassion for your students and that you are experiencing compassion fatigue. Perhaps you struggle when your students struggle because you can feel their pain. Ironically, although we often use the term compassion fatigue when we are depleted and exhausted, what we need is more compassion—not less—to alleviate the fatigue that comes from caring too much for too long.
Finding ways to support all these aspects of well-being in your life is the key to staying well. All these dimensions are interconnected and important to a well-rounded and balanced lifestyle. If you are struggling to productively handle the daily stressors in your life, it is possible that you may be focusing on one part of your well-being but not on others. For example, maybe you’re doing a great job looking after your mental well-being, but your physical well-being needs some attending to.
Now, even though I just wrote about the importance of maintaining a “balanced” lifestyle, I will admit that I’m not a fan of the term balance. I think it’s a fallacy that doesn’t exist, and yet we are all constantly striving for it. And it’s actually in our attempts to achieve balance that we push ourselves beyond our capability instead of being compassionate with ourselves.
I believe life is a little more like a symphony. We can’t allow all aspects of our life to sound off at the same time, or it will sound (and feel) terrible. In trying to achieve balance, we attempt to give the same amount of attention to each part of our life. This just isn’t possible. Like a symphony, sometimes we need to turn down some parts of our life to hear the other parts that need attention. Sometimes we need to turn down the trumpets so we can hear the strings.
Therefore, the trick is not to achieve balance but, more so, to discover a rhythm. Using our mindful awareness, we can find more profound wisdom that enables us to notice when some part of our life feels out of tune. It is then we again ask ourselves the compassionate question: “What do I need right now?” Our answer helps guide our rhythm and our wellness wheel. And therein lies the goal of sustainable well-being: (1) to know when you’re under stress or suffering (mindfulness) and (2) to respond with care and kindness (self-compassion).
So let’s not strive for balance. Instead, let’s lean into this new school year clearly hearing what parts of our lives need to be turned up or turned down.
Teaching is a caring profession. Caring too much can have its problems, as can not caring enough. Somehow we need to find the capacity to care without burning out. If we want to sustain our well-being, we need to put ourselves first. And that doesn’t mean we need to live the epitome of health and well-being. It does mean we need to have enough in our wellness tank to be present in the world. This is how we will manage this coming school year. We need to stop, slow down and recognize what it is we need to truly care for ourselves in a loving and kind way.
So let’s talk about educator well-being and resilience. Let’s bring the discussion to the foreground. Let’s remind people that if we want our students to be well, we need our educators to be healthy, present, open, and well. As educators, we model and inspire our youth, and when we do it from a place of kindness and compassion, we will all grow to be healthier and happier human beings.
The STOP and SLOW Practice:
One of the easiest ways to calm and recenter yourself amid a stressful situation is to simply stop and slow down. The STOP acronym helps you remember to incorporate a brief mindfulness practice throughout the day, while the SLOW acronym is a great reminder to arrive gently into your body. Both take just a few seconds. Try each of them now.
Stop what you are doing.
Take a few breaths.
Observe your emotions, thoughts, and body sensations.
Proceed with what you are doing.
Soften your jaw, your eyes, and your face.
Lower your shoulders.
Open your breath to your chest and belly.
Wiggle your toes and feel your feet on the ground.
You can use STOP and SLOW before or after entering the classroom, before having a challenging conversation with parents, and during any other stressful situations. It gives you a little space and attention to be mindful and self-regulate.
About the book:
There has never been a time in history when educators have felt such overwhelming levels of stress, burnout, and exhaustion. Still, we depend on teachers to be a positive guiding force in our children’s lives – often playing simultaneous roles as educator, parent, mental health counselor, and caring friend. For educators to fulfill these vital roles, it’s abundantly clear that they need to develop resiliency both inside and outside the classroom.
Written by educator and MSC Teacher, Lisa Baylis, MEd, this book provides educators with simple, accessible, and easy-to-use practices that will inspire them to care for themselves – instead of adding to their chaos – so they can continue doing the profession they love.
Within Self-Compassion for Educators, busy and overwhelmed teachers can learn how to:
- Reduce feelings of shame, criticism, and self-doubt
- Anchor themselves to the present moment
- Develop greater compassion for themselves and others
- Mitigate the effects of chronic stress and develop resilience
- Cultivate a sense of gratitude
- Practice self-care routines that create sustainable well-being
- Avoid exhaustion and burnout