Is self-care taboo for teachers in the UK? – Natalie Cotterill

Four in 10 new teachers quit within a year

If there ever was a reason to look into the necessity of self-care for teachers, the numbers in that article make a pretty damn good case. I was aware it was rough for teachers in the United Kingdom, but I didn’t realize it went this far.

I first learned about the stressful conditions from my dear friend, Natalie Cotterill, when she thanked me on a few occasions for adding links and blog posts to the Self-Compassion for Teachers Facebook page. In need of support, she even added the inspiring picture you see below to the Red Thumbs Around the World collection. After reading the above linked article, I wondered how Natalie was still teaching!

I knew we had a lot to learn from her, and I am thankful she graciously offered to answer the Teachers Talking About Self-Compassion series’ questions about her teaching history, her strategies for self-care, and why self-care is important to her as a teacher.

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I have taught in South Korea and the UK. I’ve taught English language as a foreign language and English literature and language in the UK. This is my sixth year of teaching in the UK, I’ve moved this year from Secondary School (11-18) to a Sixth Form College (16-19).

When I was training to be a teacher, I had one lecture in which we were given the advice to, ‘hold on to your own professionalism.’ This, to me, meant determining for myself what successful teaching and learning looked like. It meant finding my own way to work and holding true to that, whilst taking advice and honing my skills. This is impossible almost everywhere in state education in the UK at the moment. New initiatives (which are often, in fact, regressive) and course changes are now the norm and many teachers, myself included, have only ever known life under a Conservative government. Teachers are encouraged to compete to mark the books more than others, to work longer and longer hours and to relish more pointless administrative work such as data entry, all of which takes us away from our own and our students’ learning. The competitive environment leads to teachers and students punishing themselves and feeling that whatever they do is not enough. I know that feeling only too well. I’ve witnessed colleagues and friends become ill with stress as the pressure mounts to meet the ever-changing standards.

Natalie grading papers

Natalie grading papers

Earlier in the year, I started attending a Yoga group locally. We practice Yoga Nidra, which involves group meditation for around two hours at a time. There is no physical exercise involved as the focus is on connecting will, mind and body. I stopped attending when my workload became ‘too great’ in the summer term. Looking back, it was then that I needed Tuesday nights to myself the most. The busier I am, the more important I think it is to find time to meditate, even for one minute. This is my way of being self-compassionate, but I often forget to look after myself in this way.

As a teacher in a very large London school,  with constant government-led changes to policy and a culture of fear (with initiatives like Performance Related Pay, which means teachers’ salaries are now linked to examination results), it’s so easy to lose sight of why you got into teaching, and to lose sight of who you are as an individual. A frantic, fear-driven environment is not conducive to learning or, most importantly, happiness. Your health can become bottom of the To Do list. I would go from coffee to keep me awake all day to wine to help me sleep at night. This is a cycle that becomes self-perpetuating.

It’s no wonder that the average length of career for teachers in the UK has dropped to ten years and is dropping every year. Self-care has almost become a taboo in UK schools, with teachers feeling that they have to agree to do anything of Ofsted or Senior Management tell them to, lest they be accused of not putting the children first. We need to change this and recognise that a work-life balance is not a luxury, that looking after yourself is not an indulgence.  You have to put your own oxygen mask on first, or you can’t help anyone.

I’m about to start teaching in a new environment, at a Sixth Form College in West London. I’m feeling anxious about getting everything ready for the term ahead and also excited. I’m hoping I’ve found an environment where self-compassion can not only be possible for me, but central to my life. Fingers crossed.

Creating a Space for Self-compassion: Rose Bard

About three years ago, my concept of teacher development completely changed. This is when I became a member of the online community, International Teacher Development Institute (sign up here to become a member of iTDi). Here I met teachers from all around the globe with an immense passion to learn and to grow by sharing their ideas, fears, and hearts. One of these teachers is Rose Bard.

Rose’s generosity of heart comes through the words she writes for her blog ELT Diary. Among many thoughtful topics, she writes about global citizenship for language learners, and about creating a supportive dialogue of learning between her and her students. This dialogue also extends to her teaching community, and Rose’s desire to add her story to the Teachers Talking About Self-Compassion series is another examples of this big-heartedness.

In what country or countries do you currently teach or in what countries have you taught?  What subject or skills do you teach or have you taught? 

A lot of people when they read my name assume I’m a foreigner, but I’m actually Brazilian. I lived in England for 5 years though and when I came back to Brazil, I was offered a job in a language school. After taking the proficiency test and going through an in-service training, I was hired full time. That was in 1998 and I’ve been teaching English ever since.

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

Being kind to myself is recognizing everyday that a human relationship is a complex one, and yet the most marvelous. Every interaction might be filled with assumptions about ourselves and others and I learned through the years that we need to be patient, but above all, love with all our heart, soul and mind. I’m a follower of Jesus and I take his words very seriously. Reading his words and the words of inspiring people helps me care for myself and exercise self-compassion. I know I can count on others to help in the way and that keeps me going.

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

Another struggle of human dimension is the fear of failure, and mistakes are often magnified by this fear. It’s common for someone learning a foreign language to feel odd trying to make new sounds, figuring out things they never heard or seen before. It’s hard to find a learner who doesn’t have this awful frustrating feeling of not knowing. Especially when we become more self-aware of things around us and about us, not knowing something leaves us with this uneasy feeling. Being aware of this as a language learner myself, I bring to class this topic and reflect with learners. Group work I feel my job nowadays is to support them more than anything by creating an environment where we focus on doing what is good for learning. Therefore, I want this space not to feel threatening so they can exercise self-compassion for themselves (click to tweet) and compassion to others. By creating this space, I’m also exercising self-compassion for myself because most of the struggles we have as teachers is related to the relationships we build inside the classroom while dealing with learners expectations and beliefs about themselves and others.

Making errors is an important part of the learning journey and we make many while trying out something until we can learn to do it well. Making sure that learners understand that is paramount for a fruitful life as lifelong learners. My goal becomes to inspire them while they learn from me, with me and others. And by being kind to their peers, they also learn to practice self-compassion and I see this as key for personal development as a language learner.

Kristin Neff’s definition of self-compassion is a perfect one for me.

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.

Seeking that for our own lives eventually becomes part of our own practice as a teacher. Knowing that others need it as much as we do, makes the whole world to be seen differently.

Pause, Recognize, Name: Chaz Burton

The Teachers Talking about Self-compassion series is a place to learn about self-compassion from teachers around the world. And today, I am excited to present the first guest, Chaz Burton.

I first met Chaz in 2009 at our Nonviolent Communication (NVC) practice group where for a few treasured years, a group of dear friends used to meet once a month to practice this form of compassionate communication. I have learned a great deal from Chaz about empathy (a core teaching in NVC), and was grateful he agreed to answer the series’ three questions so you could learn from him as well.

Teaching photo

In what country or countries do you currently teach?  What subject or skills do you teach?

I currently teach high school English in Jinan, China. Living in China in many ways requires a lot of self-compassion, for it can be quite difficult to live here, due to language barriers, inconsistent and restricted internet, some of the worst pollution in the world, crazily crowded and noisy streets and the difficulty in finding healthy food.

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

Through the teachings of many practitioners of NVC and other teachers, I have gained some specific attitudes and strategies that help me extend self-compassion when challenges arise. The main one is to pause for a moment, recognize and name that I am being challenged. The next step is to take a deep, conscious breath, and remind myself that I am a human being, that all human beings experience challenges, and virtually all go through cycles of self-criticism and blame. (which is most of the time then projected onto others) These strategies are very significant steps in offering myself compassion.

…pause for a moment, recognize and name that I am being challenged. (click to tweet)

Beyond this, I remind myself, that I was, and am, doing the best that I could or can. This often takes some time, as the “jackal voices” – the voices of self-criticism – are trying to drag me down into the morass of self-blame and condemnation. At this point, if I am conscious (or maybe just lucky) the words of one or more of my “teachers of compassion” arise in my mind, such as “May I give myself the kindness and compassion I need right now,” or “I’m doing the best I can right now and I give myself full permission to really be with, without judgement, whatever I am feeling or need to feel.”

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

The axiom that actions speak louder than words is certainly true for my students; they learn as much or more from what I do than from what I say.

Just like me they make mistakes all the time in their struggle to identify and fulfill their potential. Having taught in Asia for six years, I find this particularly true of Asian kids; there is so much pressure for them to “perform” that it is easy for them to get caught in self-condemnation and lack of self-confidence.

The more I can model self-compassion, the more I can be compassionate with them, and the more they learn it, implicitly and explicitly.

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In addition to being a teacher, Chaz is also the founder of the Terra Promus project. Terra Promus helps him — and leads participants — to keep hope for a loving, just and sustainable world, which he admits is increasingly difficult to do. Follow the important work Chaz is doing by subscribing to the Terra Promus website, and following the Facebook page.

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The beginning of the #redthumbforlove project

“Teaching can be a lonely profession. Often, we don’t have anyone to turn to who understands the challenges we face. Self-care may be the only strategy we can turn to when the job gets too hard. When you feel overwhelmed, this little self-compassion reminder may just be the thing to bring you a little ease. Each time you look at your coloured nail, check your state of mind to see if you’re in your old pattern of blame or shame, and remember that you are doing the best you can at that moment. Acknowledge what you are feeling: don’t push it away and don’t dwell in it. Just feel it.”

Read the rest of the post, Teacher Self-Compassion #RedThumbForLove – Compassion Training 3, on my blog, Throwing Back Tokens.

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