Teacher Wellness

How Teachers Can Set and Maintain Reasonable Expectations for Themselves

Combat stress and make space for self-compassion by using these cognitive reframing strategies to set realistic expectations.

April 1, 2024
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Many of the highly skilled, passionate teachers with whom I work expect a lot from themselves. They offer compassion and kindness to students, families, and colleagues, but they’re often critical of their own work. 

Below, I offer some ideas regarding how teachers, especially new teachers, can use self-compassion to turn kindness inward, focusing less on perfectionism so that they feel more joy at school.

Turn a mirror on yourself

When you feel like you’re not doing enough, imagine how you'd respond to a good friend in the same situation. Give yourself the gentle, encouraging words that you would offer to that friend. 

When I’ve offered this advice to others, I’ve witnessed a shift in their ability to understand that none of us are perfect. By offering self-kindness, we work more effectively with the tools we have in our repertoire and better serve students. We develop more reasonable expectations for ourselves.

Applying this strategy may mean journaling, leaving encouraging notes to oneself, or identifying cues in the environment that spark a cognitive reframing—like shifting negative to supportive self-talk every time you check email or empty the recycling bin. I put a Post-it note on my door or computer that reminds me of my intention or a meaningful, positive quote. I also try to smile or give myself a high-five when looking in the mirror, just as I would when greeting a colleague or student. Building these strategies into your routine can help to solidify a self-supportive narrative.

Take care of your body in order to feel better emotionally

Step away from work for a few minutes to have lunch. Get some sunshine. Drink water. Get outside for a quick walk, or take the long route when traveling between classrooms. Take a breath.

It is amazing how these short acts of self-care help reset our energy and allow us to be more present with our students. 

Connect with others

Be vulnerable with a friend or a trusted colleague, and tell them how you are feeling.

Soak in their attention and love. Observe others, and notice that you are not alone in feeling like there is so much to do. Doing so can help us feel in community with others, identifying our common experiences. 

One of my continued goals is to be vulnerable while also being aware of when I vent. I strive to not fall into a cycle of negative talk that snowballs and is not productive, because when I do that, I may start telling myself a story based on my take rather than what is really happening. I am working to interrupt my venting to consider what action I can take or how I can examine a stressor as, instead, a “puzzle of practice” to get curious about. 

For example, when I felt tired going into a meeting during a particularly busy time, I talked with a trusted colleague who gave me space to express my wish to show up differently. I came to the conclusion that I would instead take the stance of “curious and compassionate,” meaning I would enter the meeting feeling curious about what I could learn from others and compassionate that we were all tired yet committed to our common goal.

Additionally, I recently taught a lesson that teachers were invited to observe. It wasn’t perfect, and instead of falling into self-doubt and criticism, I was vulnerable with my colleagues and told them how nervous I was. This admission allowed me to set aside my negative self-talk and focus on their feedback, which included many positives as well as many rich ideas for future practice. 

Again, showing up with vulnerability and curiosity helped me adopt a learner’s mindset.

This year, I’ve developed a “WW” mantra. When I feel worried over the weekend, I say, “Work worry” or “Work-related wonder,” and then tuck the thought away (or jot it down to remember on Monday) and move on with my day. 

The reality is that worries are about the unknown, and though they are often valid, we cannot predict what will happen. Instead, I tell myself that I can take time during the work week to be planful and prepared. I can anticipate strategies, questions, and tools that might be useful in a lesson or conversation. I can pause before a lesson to set an intention to slow down, articulate my “why,” and be responsive to the participants’ experiences. I can write a reminder on my plans or my computer to take a breath if I feel stressed. I can tell myself, “This emotion (or conflict) will pass.”

Reflect and journal

Writing helps get to-do’s, worries, and self-criticism off your chest—and it can often help you set negative thoughts aside, at least momentarily. When we do so, we’re able to be more creative and open to new ideas and strategies. 

Reflection supports learning, especially when we consider and envision what we might do differently in the future. If I am being really hard on myself because of a lesson that wasn’t my best or because I forgot something during a professional learning workshop, I imagine how I would “redo” that moment—and then I act that redo out in my mind. 

This strategy helps me to rehearse any language reframes and to choreograph different teaching moves I can make next time. I brainstorm solutions from a positive place of creativity, which energizes my artistic side and provides me with a bank of ideas to draw from in the future.

Setting and Maintaining Reasonable Expectations

When we take time to nurture ourselves, we feel more self-kindness. This allows us to be more present for our students and colleagues, with reasonable expectations of ourselves. It also models for students how they can take care of themselves, which is part of being human and critical to their social and emotional growth.

While many of us are really hard on ourselves, we are also learning to be more vulnerable with each other as learners—which leads to deeper, more connected communities.

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