Compassion and Stress Resilience for Educators

*This blog post connects to our upcoming presentation at the Bridging Hearts and Minds of Youth Conference in San Diego on February 12, 2017. Check out the conference to buy a ticket and learn more!

Many times when we talking about teacher well-being, we get the following response:

                “Well! That sounds like quite the luxury.” 

                “So… you bring wellness techniques we can use for students?”

                “Wow! You push into professional development time to support teacher well-being. Is there enough time? How do they fit it in?”

Kelly, our Executive Director, and I love students (extraordinarily). We taught in public schools in underserved communities in Los Angeles and Oakland for six and five years, respectively. We worked every day with students who face chronic trauma—off the charts on the ACES scale. 

In many of our communities, especially in underserved urban areas, school sites are one of the most stable fixtures in students’ lives. Most pre-teens and teenagers actively emotionally develop by attaching to adults outside their nuclear families. In addition, students affected by autism, homelessness, childhood trauma and the foster care system need stability in their teaching populations at an even higher level. When teachers make vital connections to these marginalized youth and then leave, the students in our public schools are affected emotionally and academically.

Right now, 46% of teachers in America leave the classroom within five years of entering it So, all the time we spend teaching teachers how to create mindfulness and compassion with youth? Every time one of those highly-trained teachers walks out of the classroom, we have to start all over again.

At The Teaching Well, we feel incredibly clear about one thing: we cannot ask teachers to teacher mindfulness and compassion to students without making sure the teachers embody it first. That would be akin to asking a mechanic who doesn’t know about car engines to teach you how to fix yours.

Our goal is to ask teachers to embody self-compassion, mindfulness and resilience so that they can STAY in the classroom long-term and channel well-being to students. Teacher well-being is vital to a compassionate, thriving school environment. Here are two reasons why:


1. Teachers need resilience against Compassion Fatigue.

 In the context of 2016, finding stress resilience in the face of horrifying news has been part of the national experience, from the death of Americans at the hands of the police to the exhaustive conflict in the presidential race. Constantly “holding space” for the painful experiences of others and our communities is real. And, although it might be new for some, this process of being a participant in someone else’s traumatic experience is a normal, albeit uncomfortable, part of being an educator. 

Every day, teachers “hold space” for 20 - 200 wonderful student who come from homes with a variety of experiences. This includes their accomplishments, happiness and growth as humans but also their challenges, anger, home struggles and tears. We support learning through connecting the unique experience of each child, and this includes gracefully navigating many young people’s emotional responses. 

When educators are given space on their school sites to develop collective skills to stay resilient, they are more effective at redirecting students, supporting families and working as a community to raise our next generation.


2. How we treat ourselves is how we treat others 

Through concepts like Mirror Neurons or research like Kristen Neff’s on self-compassion, it is proven that how we take care of ourselves through times of stress accurately depicts how well we can react to others. And when we are stressed, our reactions are often exaggerated. As teachers, we are consistently in high-energy, high-expectations situations. It is integral that we have the tools to decrease stress at high impact moments.

When we speak of self-care at The Teaching Well, we are not talking about adding fluffy stuff to your day to be nice to teachers. We are talking about creating a team that is professionally committed to each other and personally committed their health and wellbeing. And by doing so, we create adult communities that have greater capacity to support students and families. 

As teachers, working with youth is both our privilege and our life’s passion. It is our responsibility to use mindfulness and self-compassion and care practices to ensure that we are able to commit to our professions for the long-run. An education system full of healthy, mindful and compassionate educators is one that can truly bridge the hearts and minds of youth.

Kelly Knoche