When I was still in teacher training, I had an instructor who said to our class: “On a bad day, when everything goes wrong, make sure to go home, grab a whiskey, and think ‘All right. What could I have done better?’ But, on the good days too, you need to go home, grab a whisky, then ask yourself that same question.”
At that time, she was speaking about doing self-reflections on how you conducted your lessons that day, which is an important practice for teachers. But, what was not mentioned was how difficult that can be if you have the tendency to be very critical (like me!) of your really bad days. I have had several occasions where I tried to apply this self-reflection practice, but ended up sitting on my couch thinking about how my timing was off, how my explanations were confusing, etcetera, etcetera. Then on my good days, I couldn’t even do any self-reflections because I knew I was going to end up being highly critical of myself again. Maybe you’ve experienced something like this. For me, it ended up being an activity that drained me more than being helpful.
It wasn’t really until my Master’s program that I found that applying self-compassion along with self-reflection can not only dampen that critical voice in your head, but also have a great impact on your students. Looking back on myself now, I sometimes wonder why I didn’t even think of doing this before. But, as a new teacher, sometimes just finishing the day was a challenge, and if your mind is on a million other responsibilities, then you’re not always going to think of the obvious. Applying compassion in our classes towards our students comes easily. But self-compassion, less so. Now, you may be thinking: “if I’m already compassionate towards my students, how does self-compassion also help them?” Well. Allow me to share what I know with you.
Compassion versus self-compassion
The Cambridge dictionary (2023) defines compassion as: “A strong feeling of sympathy and sadness for the suffering or bad luck of others and a wish to help them.” Other definitions about compassion include having overall feelings of warmth, kindness, and generosity. I think in terms of this paper, it’s easier to think of “compassion” as an umbrella term for three aspects that are involved when one is fully compassionate. Those aspects are: compassion for self, compassion from others, and compassion for others (Gilbert et al., 2011). These three factors are connected to each other and can influence each other, but they can also work independently. In fact, what is interesting (but not very surprising) is that people tend to have an easier time with compassion for others compared to compassion for self and from others. Even more thought-provoking, self-compassion and compassion from others tend to be viewed with fear (Gilbert et al., 2011).
These fears question whether the kindness to oneself or from others is genuine or deserved, or if being too self-compassionate would lead to a reduction in personal standards (Gilbert et al., 2011). While the study I read did not explain why or how the fear of compassion for self and from others originates, I think it’s safe to say that past negative experiences with people are the likely cause. Sometimes it is difficult to tell the intentions behind a person’s actions. As for personal standards, they are important to maintain, but it can also be difficult to have a balance between upholding standards and having some flexibility. Self-compassion, for anyone, can be a difficult concept to practice. But, when it is fostered and encouraged, it can lead to very positive outcomes that extend beyond a single person.
Better relationships with self-compassion
Compassion in the classroom can foster good teacher-student relationships. So does building an environment where students feel comfortable and happy. Studies have even found that when a teacher is perceptibly happy, then the students can feel it and are also happier themselves (Moskowitz & Dewaele, 2021). The opposite can happen as well. When teachers are feeling burnout or are upset, it can also be felt by the students, which leads them to feeling more anxious and stressed in class throughout the day (Moskowitz & Dewaele, 2021). If happiness or burnout can be perceived by students, then so can compassion towards students. However, when teachers are truly exhausted, students will still perceive and feel the teacher’s stress, no matter how much compassion the teacher puts towards their students.
This is why fostering self-compassion is so important. When a teacher works to become more self-compassionate, they not only reduce their own stress but student stress as well. That is what Matos et al. (2022) discovered with K-12 public school teachers. When those teachers used specific strategies to develop their self-compassion, they reduced their stress and burnout and their students also felt less stress in class, creating a stronger teacher-student relationship. Now, this study was done with public school teachers, but I would argue that we would have the same results with ESL teachers as well. The study mentioned above by Moskowitz and Dewaele (2021) was conducted in ESL classrooms, and if those students can feel teacher happiness and stress, then it makes sense that they would also feel the positive effects of a self-compassionate teacher.
As a new teacher in South Korea, I remember how I got so exhausted, and a student pointed it out in class one day. I didn’t know then about practicing self-compassion like I do now, and those classes were challenging because my students were as unenthusiastic as I was. I didn’t even realize that they were reflecting my own mood, and potentially also dealing with stressors at their homes that I didn’t know about. By contrast, now I have strategies that I use before, during, and after class to regulate myself and reduce any burnout. And I’ve noticed a significant difference in my students’ moods. While my lessons are far from perfect, and rarely go according to plan, I have a level of engagement from students that I didn’t experience at my old school and my students seem happy. I still can get tried and burned out, but it’s amazing how taking care of myself and practicing kindness towards myself has made such a difference in my classroom.
Self-compassion strategies can be useful to change your outlook on yourself and may lead to a more positive, caring classroom environment. The strategies listed below are just a few suggestions to help with developing self-compassion. They may not be suitable for everyone, so I do encourage you to look outside this list of ideas if you don’t find anything that resonates with you. That said, you can also think of the following list as a starting point or a point to experiment with until you find something that works for you.
Looking back at Matos et al.’s (2022) study, they listed a few of the strategies teachers learned about and practiced that led to a reduction in stress, anxiety, and burnout. The most helpful ones were:
Mindfulness in particular can be very useful, since meditations, body scans, and breath work can be done in any quiet areas. It is also possible to conduct class meditations that only take a short amount of time. So, not only do these practices help the teacher to decompress at home, but it is also possible to adapt them to include them in your classroom, too. I personally like to do breathing techniques during the day at work, but meditations less so. While I haven’t had the chance to try any classroom techniques, I have heard from coworkers that they are beneficial in reducing student stress.
But, specifically for helping educators, there are many more activities you can use too! Catherine Moore from PositivePsychology.com wrote some suggestions in her article, (2019) and most of the strategies are derived from Compassion-Focused Therapy and Compassionate Mind Training. For example:
- doing a mindset shift (treat yourself like a friend; recognize that you are human and mistakes are okay; reframe statements towards yourself to be self-accepting)
- do writing exercises (journal prompts like: What does compassion mean to you? What are you grateful for today?)
- self-compassionate mindfulness (practicing yoga, breathing, meditations)
- For this strategy, you can also look into writing yourself a letter, focusing on kindness and gratitude
From this selection of strategies, I tend to journal frequently to release any stressful emotions from the day. But the most useful strategy for me was the mindset shift, realizing that I could only do so much during the day and to be okay with my mistakes. That shift was also one of the hardest practices to achieve, and it has taken me a long time to get to the point I am at now. However, it creates a far more relaxing day for me when I sit back and go: “Okay, there were some good things today, and some mistakes, but I did the best I could and tomorrow will be another day to improve.”
Taking away the stress of being self-critical by being kinder and more self-compassionate has really done wonders for me in creating a calmer classroom and helping me feel less stressed. And, based on what the studies I used in this paper mentioned, other teachers have found it helpful for themselves and their students, too. However, there are plenty of other practices an educator can do. As long as you are taking care of yourself as best you can, and taking steps to be a little kinder to yourself, then I think you are already completing acts of self-compassion. If you have noticed that being self-compassionate has brought about a nicer day, then I’m sure your students are feeling that kindness, too. Then, instead of having a whiskey and criticizing yourself, you can have it to enjoy the moment!
Compassion.. (2023). In Cambridge Dictionary. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/compassion
Gilbert, P., McEwan, K., Matos, M., & Rivis, A. (2011). Fears of compassion: Development of three self-report measures. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 84(3), 239-255. https://doi.org/10.1348/147608310X526511open_in_new
Matos, M., Palmeira, L., Albuquerque, I., Cunha, M., Lima, M. P., Galhardo, A., Maratos, F. A., & Gilbert, P. (2022). Building compassionate schools: Pilot study of a Compassionate Mind Training Intervention to promote teachers’ well-being. Mindfulness, 13, 145-161. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-021-01778-3
Moskowitz, S. & Dewaele, J. M. (2021). Is teacher happiness contagious? A study of the link between perceptions of language teacher happiness and student attitudes. Innovation in Language and Teaching, 15(2), 117-130. https://doi.org/10.1080/17501229.2019.1707205
Kate Piatkowski is a language instructor at the University of Hyogo. She has been teaching ESL for the past 8 years in both South Korea and Japan. She obtained her Masters of Education year ago from the University of Ottawa and enjoys researching topics related to Social and Emotional Learning (SEL).