Teachers, Caring More is Not the Answer
On the last day of a recent virtual workshop for educators, a passionate teacher asked, “But what about my students who I know have hard lives…what about them?”
I took a deep breath to let her words sink in. A half a dozen of my former students flashed into my mind’s eye. Antwan’s story jumped out amongst hundreds of positive student testimonials from the youth version of the very same workshop I was wrapping up that evening with this group of adults.
Then I realized, this was an opportunity for me to show the power of a dispassionate teacher.
My name is Ambrose WB. Most of my clients and students call me “Coach.” I believe everyone deserves someone to help them reflect on where they came from, understand where they are now, and coach them to get to where they want to be. As a Performance Coach, I focus on two main aspects of performance – mental and physical – from a spiritual lens, including our emotions and social connection.
You may not call yourself a coach. That’s okay. If you call yourself an educator, mentor, parent, or teacher, we’re doing the same thing.
I’m here to support you, the teacher.
You don’t have to worry about me making this into another professional development session. You have heard all of the buzz terms like “modeled behavior” and “stress-buffering.” While they both have positive effects, I’d rather introduce something old, in a new way.
At the end of this post, I’m going to share a practice (with a link to the audio, guided version) that may sound counterintuitive. Still, I promise it will leave you feeling calmer and focused to show up to do the work you are (or were once) passionate about, education.
This may be just the thing you didn’t learn in school.
There is a lot of content around “compassion” and even more about “passion.” When I searched for “dispassionate teacher,” not much showed up. Google tried to help me by asking, “Did you mean passionate teacher?”
No Google, I’m searching for the dispassionate teacher. Let me tell you why.
Compassion or the skill “to recognize the suffering of others and then take action to help,” in educators is a no brainer. It’s the foundation that allows us to believe and feel a strong passion for what we do.
Do our students need us to be compassionate-passionate teachers?
I’d argue, yes. I want my teachers to be compassionate and passionate, but only if they can also practice dispassion.
Let me tell you why:
Please reference the definitions as a reminder or new learning.
I’m sure you have heard about “burnout” (BO), the cumulative process of emotional exhaustion and withdrawal that comes with increased workload and institutional stress. Burnout is NOT trauma-related.
Have you heard about “compassion-fatigue” (CF)? CF, also called “vicarious traumatization” or “secondary traumatization,” is emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events.
BO differs from CF, but they can co-exist.
The way I see it, when we feel others pain too much, help others too much, and believe too much, we end up hurting ourselves. When we hurt or do not care for ourselves, we can not show up for those in our care as our best selves.
As I write this, we are living and working through many crises (pandemic, recession, unrest, and climate change).
We were talking about burnout in schools during professional developments before this confluence of crises. Compassion fatigue has been talked about in most mental health and illness spaces I join. But, with schools reopened, during these stressful and traumatic times, are you talking about the teachers’ mental health, yet?
I hope you are. If you are not, I hope this serves as an entry point.
- More than 50% of teachers were making less money than before the coronavirus pandemic.
- More than 40% were experiencing food insecurity.
- 85% worried that children would come to school sick (only about half more than half are worried that they will have to go to work while sick).
- 1 in 5 spent their own money on supplies (not pencils and paper, but cleaning supplies and face masks)
- Near 40% reported clinically relevant signs of depression.
The data from this survey proves what we already know: teachers care more about their students than themselves.
Not only do they have to deal with their stress and trauma, but they are also taking on additional stress and trauma as they support their students.
Everyone, no matter how passionate, has a breaking point.
The last line of the report sums it up, “These challenges, if unaddressed, will have long-term implications for these teachers, for the children they care for and educate, and for society.”
While smaller (Google) classrooms, more pay, and the best professional developments may help, I’m going to share something for you, the teacher. It does not involve your students or even your school. It doesn’t cost you any money, just a little bit of your time. And if you enjoy it, I’d be happy to share more with you, your colleagues, and your school community.
This does NOT minimize the real challenges our teachers face or replace the efforts some school districts have taken, like virtual support groups facilitated by mental health professionals or self-care days. It is in line with the recommendation that teachers set boundaries between their personal life and work.
I see the energy and joy in first and second year teachers. I don’t know what happened in that third year, but I felt it. This is when I decided to get serious about my self-care and practicing dispassion. Otherwise, I was going to burn out or worse – become apathetic.
The work we need is holistic because we are seeking to be whole. Another word for “whole” is well.
When we are teaching, we can integrate the mind and body. In latin it’s “sens sana in corpore sano,” or “sound mind in a sound body”.
With children, it’s easy. They are in the habit of learning, and they love to play! With adults, I get to practice what I’m sharing with you today – passion, compassion, and dispassion.
When you hear “dispassion,” you may feel and think of its negative connotation. Before you do, let me give you an analogy.
Let’s say you have a significant, life-threatening surgery coming up. Who do you want? The compassionate surgeon, who is also highly susceptible to the stress and trauma of his patients and his work? Or do you want the dispassionate surgeon? She’s the one who doesn’t get caught up in her feelings and can remain calm, relaxed, and collected under pressure.
Now think about your life-time partner. Someone you will spend the rest of your life with. You probably want someone who can show you how much they care and love you.
Are you getting the picture?
We need more teachers to be like surgeons. Remember, I’m not saying one is more important than the other. I want to learn from someone who is on fire and cares for me. I also want that person to be able to manage their emotions and be aware of their prejudices.
Finding a balance between caring and not caring too much is like a mental tug of war—a battle in the psyche.
Instead, think of it as a cycle.
Now that you are aware that only passion or compassion can lead to burnout and fatigue, you may be open to the alternative.
Dispassion is the opposite of passion. In this cycle, a series of events are regularly repeated; compassion is in the middle.
Too much from “I care” (passion) to “I don’t care” (apathy) is dysfunctional and serves no one.
Here’s where my spirituality, as a practicing Buddhist, comes in. In Buddhist philosophy, you are encouraged to practice the mindset of “detached concern.” It’s a way of being that is not emotionally tied to the outcome.
I’m not saying you should not care-I’m glad you do! What I want you to put your attention on is how you care. The following is a self-care technique that I hope you incorporate. You can call it “detached awareness.”
- First, incorporate your body with some type of physical movement. This could be a full-blown workout if you are a fitness enthusiast, or it can be a quick series of your favorite stretches.
- Secondly, relax your body with some deep breathing. There’s nothing fancy or impressive you have to do. Just imagine your stomach getting “big” as you breathe in and “small” as you breathe out. As little as six breathes or two minutes is enough.
- Next, invoke mental imagery, or think about the person or situation you are emotionally tied to. The twist, watch them from a distant perspective. Witness it as if you are watching a movie, also called “third-person.”
- Now, as anxiety or negative emotions come up (and they will), stop the visualization and return to your deep breaths (at least six or until you feel calmer).
- Repeat this for a desired, reasonable amount of time.
The idea is to create enough emotional distancing, with engagement, without being carried away.
Many times, when we’re in the moment or lacking awareness, it’s easy to become wrapped up in negative emotions and thoughts. However, when you can practice intentionally when you feel safe and in control, it’s a powerful process.
With self-compassion, you will become more understanding of yourself, especially when you fail, feel inadequate, or suffer, rather than ignoring your pain or flagellating yourselves with self-criticism. Over time, you will be in charge of your caring instead of letting your caring cause harm to yourself, and possibly those you care for.
Teachers, I hope you continue to care, but in a healthier way that doesn’t negatively affect your well-being.
Click here to listen to a Guided Breathing Meditation – Detached Awareness
Ambrose WB, is a Mental Performance Coach and Founder of MISPIBO Fitness, and holistic lifestyle brand focused on improving human performance through exercise, nutrition, and mental performance coaching. He’s also a Social-Emotional Coach and Milwaukee-Area Director of SKY Schools, a national nonprofit with youth curriculum and adult workshops that teach techniques and tools they can use inside the classroom and at home to practice self-care so they can manage their stress and negative emotions.