Teachers Talking about Self-compassion

Today marks the launching of the #RedThumbForLove series, Teachers Talking about Self-compassion. Teachers from all over the globe will graciously recount their self-compassion stories and strategies by answering the three questions offered below. I’m excited about this series because I want to learn from teachers as much as I want to support them. Through this exploration, we will learn how we can bring a bit more self-compassion and self-care into our lives. If you would like to tell us about your strategies, I’d be delighted and honored, to present them here. Just leave me a note at the end of the post.

To kick off the series, I describe the idea behind each question, and further below, I answer them myself.

The questions

1. In what country or countries do you currently teach, or where have you taught?   What subject or skills do you teach or have you taught? I ask this question because I want to help create a connection between teachers in all countries and across all disciplines. The premise here is every teacher can benefit from self-compassion, and it is in sharing a bit of our backstory that we start creating a connection to this premise.

2. What strategies do you use to practice self-compassion/self-care? 

3. Why is self-compassion/self-care important to you in terms of the work you do as a teacher?

In the above questions, I use the terms self-compassion and self-care. I offer both these terms because one of them may speak to you more than the other. Ultimately, both these terms refer to offering yourself kindness and support when you need it.

To clarify self-compassion, I use Kristin Neff’s definition (click the link to read more from her research):

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.

For self-care, the Student Health Center at North Carolina State University provides a helpful in-depth definition and description (click the above link for more details).

Self-care is an approach to living that incorporates behaviors that refresh you, replenish your personal motivation, and help you grow as a person. It’s the equivalent of keeping your car filled with gas so that you are ready to motor any time.

My response

I’ve been teaching English as a foreign language to learners of various ages and backgrounds in Daegu, South Korea for over ten years. During the last five years, I worked with Korean teachers of English in an in-service program focused on helping them with their English proficiency and their approach to language teaching. I will continue working with teachers in a TESOL certificate course. Working with teachers brings me great joy. I easily get wrapped up in self-doubt and self-criticism, so it’s important I do something to get out of that pattern of thought. My go-to strategy for giving myself a bit of compassion is journaling. I generally follow an informal reflective process, where I try to describe my rumination, and then I analyze my reaction by tapping into the feelings it brings up. I also try to uncover the needs that underly my reaction. This type of journaling is informal in that it is a stream of consciousness. However, in that stream I always try to hit those three points: description, feelings, needs. For example, if I notice I’m blaming myself for a “mistake” I made, I might write what I hear the inner critic saying: “Why did you do that? You should have known better…” Then I try to empathize by writing until I identify feelings. In this case it might be that I feel anxious or scared. Finally, I look at the needs behind this reaction. Maybe I feel anxious because I don’t want to be seen as incompetent. I value my job, and I want my colleagues and my students to know I tried my best. The big need here might be for understanding: understanding from myself, and maybe from others as well. Perhaps I want to be seen for my effort and to know my mistakes don’t define me. I’m imperfect and that’s simply fabulous. It’s important for me to identify my needs because this is when I begin getting distance from the rumination and my reaction. If I just stay in the description, I notice the self-defeating story seems to stick around much longer.

Self-compassion helps me practice openness and curiosity. (click to tweet)

I go through this process because I am aware of how unhelpful it is to remain in the headspace of self-criticism. It takes away my energy and my creativity, and these are essential criteria for me as a teacher. Without these, I can’t teach the way I want to teach: from a place of openness and curiosity. By being curious about what goes on in the classroom, I am more open to growth, both in myself and in the learners. It helps me stay open to the different dimensions of a moment. For example, through the lens of curiosity, the “mistake” I mention above becomes a learning moment. I can’t see this when I am wrapped up in blame and shame.  Self-compassion helps me practice openness and curiosity. And because this is the type of learning space I want to create for my learners, I know I need to cultivate it in myself.


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