Stock image of scrabble tiles spelling out the word "Dignity".

It’s May…. in nature, the season of renewal and regrowth; for many teachers, the season of exhaustion. I remember the panicky feeling of wondering if I would make it to June, in the years when I taught in our public schools. I liked my work, so the exhaustion wasn’t from hating my job; instead, the panic was about the pace and intensity of the expectations as I headed into the final stretch.

The demands felt like they came from all sides. There were, of course, the demands of the curriculum but more exhausting to me were the emotional ones. There is an unwritten but understood expectation that teachers offer out a lot of compassion. As a teacher, part of my job was to look for the best in every student, even as their flaws and challenges walked in the door with them. I was expected to be compassionate to the parents of my students, to understand that they are doing the best they can to send the best they have. I was even asked to show compassion to the school system itself, which is often cumbersome and reflects the (often conflicting) values of the larger culture.

But no one taught me how to generate this compassion. In my current field, as a therapist, this topic is taught and discussed as part of our training. It is understood that if you want to continue to offer compassion to clients, you better know something about where compassion comes from and what to do when, as they say, the well is dry.

Therapists are taught that part of the price for compassionately showing up day after day for others can be exhaustion and even a numbing to the very feelings and people you are trying to serve. We learn to not judge ourselves when this happens but instead to be self-aware and deal skillfully with these feelings so that we can continue to give our best to our clients.

I wish someone had suggested these same ideas to me back when I was a novice teacher. The professions are strikingly similar in the amount of emotional energy output required to do the job well. I wish I had understood then that you can’t genuinely offer compassion until you fill up with it first. I’ve seen too many teachers trying to be kind when they are exhausted and full of resentment. I’ve been this teacher, at times. And there’s no integrity to the kindness. The students smell it, the parents feel it, and the system steamrolls right over it.

In a profession that focuses on attendance, I did not understand as a young teacher that it matters not just that I show up in my classroom but how I show up. If I was tired, resentful, frustrated and didn’t have the skills to notice or tend to these feelings, my students would have to fight through all of this to access any curriculum that I was trying to teach.

Looking back now, I wish someone had helped me see that self-awareness and the ability to compassionately care for my own needs was not only ok but critical. I think I had some vague notion that attention to these things would be selfish, that I should stay focused on my students, not myself. Only now do I realize that these skills were a prerequisite for all of the other things that I was trying to do. “Put on your oxygen mask first,” as the saying goes, “or everyone ends up gasping for air.”

In my work now, I talk with teachers (and others) about the critical skills of self-awareness and compassion. I try to help teachers recognize compassion fatigue (without judgement) and encourage them to take care of it. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture (even learning some breathwork can be hugely helpful), but the essential shift is the inward focus. We need to help educators see this shift, not as selfish but as skillful. We need to acknowledge and provide support and attention to the humanity of the teacher, just as we ask them to do the same for their students.

I think we should be asking teachers questions like: How do you acknowledge and take care of a bad mood? A frustrating day? Fatigue? A student who just pushes your buttons? What restores you when you are depleted? What routines help you to keep going? Who can you trust at work to help you when you make a mistake? And then supporting them in finding some answers to the questions. My theory is that as teachers can more openly and skillfully answer these questions, our systems will become healthier. They will become systems wise enough to value the dignity of their people as much as any other standard measure.