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Self-Compassion for Teachers

How is your heart?

Key points

  • K-12 teachers are the most burned-out employees in America.
  • Freud commented that the education of children was one of the three impossible professions.
  • Research shows that self-compassion can help with burnout.

All the teachers I know are feeling exhausted, burnt-out, and stressed. One teacher I work with said yesterday, “We are Covid teachers, and we teach Covid kids. Teachers need to know that they matter, and this country cares about us.” Yes, we have all had a hard time. We have all experienced loss, disruption, and trauma. We are at the end of our collective ropes. It is too much to bear.

Research supports this. A Gallup poll recently reported that teachers are the most burned-out employees in America. I saw a teacher's photo holding a sign that read, “Which of my students should I protect with my body?”

So, while school is now out, teacher stressors and burnout are still in session. Even in good times, the work is exhausting. Freud said that the education of children was one of the “impossible professions.”

The words of the British poet Warsan Shire come to mind in her poem, “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon.”

Later that night

I held an atlas in my lap

Ran my fingers across the whole world

And whispered

Where does it hurt?

It answered




What can help? This short practice is good for energizing, rejuvenating, and sustaining you.

Tending to Yourself

  • Take a moment and find a comfortable seat.
  • Let yourself settle for a few moments.
  • Know that you matter. Take that in.
  • Find your breath. Sometimes we are so busy we don’t realize that we’re breathing. Where do you most notice the sensation of breathing? Focus there and feel the breath move in and out.
  • Let yourself feel one breath fully.
  • Ask yourself, How do I know that I’m breathing?
  • Notice any sensations in your body.
  • What are you noticing? Are you hungry? Tired? What emotions are you aware of? What are you feeling?
  • Let yourself be gently rocked by each in-breath and each out-breath.
  • Let the inhalation and exhalation soothe and comfort you, anchor you.
  • If you like, put a hand on your chest or hands on your chest and belly.
  • Feel the comfort of your warm touch.
  • Let yourself take three breaths. Yes, you have time. You are breathing anyway.
  • Permit yourself to tend to yourself, to be kind to yourself.
  • You spend so much time taking care of others, attending to their needs. Take a moment. What do you need?
  • Permit yourself to see what you need, to tend to yourself. And hold your needs with tenderness.

So often, we are running on empty. We spend our days giving to others and caring for others, managing our jobs and classrooms, our family, our partners, children, and parents. But who and what nourishes you?

Writing Exercise

So, let’s take a few minutes, grab a pencil and paper or your phone, and jot down what comes up for you.

  • Imagine a powerful tree with deep roots and a strong trunk. Notice that the tree branches reach as high as the roots are deep. Let the tree help ground and anchor you.
  • Ask yourself, “What do I need right now?”
  • A question we rarely ask. We often feel that our needs don’t matter. Pause and listen for words or images to arise.
  • Ask again, “What do I really need?”
  • Take a few moments to be open to whatever comes up without judging or censoring your responses.
  • Write down what comes up for you.

Aristotle, the philosopher, once instructed that “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”

And, I can think of no better way to educate the heart than to practice compassion for ourselves and others. And this can be simple. It doesn’t need to be involved, and it doesn’t need to take up hours each day. We can start the day with a simple Intention, which makes explicit what we already do as educators: Our purpose is to be of some benefit to others, to dedicate ourselves to others.

Even when nothing else makes sense, this makes sense. We can always return to this. The most basic motivation is the care we have toward others and the wish to be of service to them.

At the beginning of the day, when you wake up, as you get out of bed, you can set the Intention to dedicate yourself to being generous and openhearted and benefitting others. And at the end of the day, take a moment to renew the activities of the day, saying, “may everything that I have done today, with my skill and good intentions, be dedicated to benefitting others. May my actions in some way be of benefit to others.”

People complain they have no time to meditate or practice–too tired, family obligations, lesson plans, email, phone calls, etc. But, no one is too busy to have a thought in the morning and thought in the evening.

Another practice I like to share with teachers is the "Four Restings." It is an excellent way to nourish yourself so you can care for others and guard against burnout.

This is a Tibetan practice that can call us back when we are challenged, when things are difficult, or we are exhausted.

  • Rest like a mountain, solid and stable, timeless.
  • Rest like the ocean, becoming calm beneath the waves.
  • Rest like the river, observing appearances as they float by.
  • Rest like the sky, vast, open, infinitely spacious.

Let this practice bring you home again.

The words of L.R. Knost, a writer, activist, and parenting expert, can help us find perspective and keep us hopeful. I find them to be a balm in hard times:

Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.

More from Susan M. Pollak MTS, Ed.D.,
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