5 Thinking traps that lead to teacher stress

Do you feel guilty if you take time out for yourself? Do you fall into these 5 thinking traps?

As teachers, sometimes we are our own worst enemy when it comes to the expectations we place on ourselves. We care about what we do, we strive to meet the needs of our students and the job has no end.One of the toughest aspects of teaching are the expectations we place on ourselves to perform, rise above the challenges and support students as best we can. We care so much and try so hard, the tasks required us often seem endless. This is when our thinking doesn’t stop with all the things we have to do. From exploring resources for our lessons, to then planning our lessons, not to mention all the required admin that goes along with that, there is little opportunity for down time.If we do take some down time for ourselves we often feel guilty because we could be working instead. The problem is, feeling guilty only perpetuates the stress and contributes to feelings of helplessness and resentment. Even if we do take some down time, we often find it difficult to switch off this part of our brain.

The antidote to this cycle is self-compassion, ie, nurturing yourself, establishing healthy boundaries and modelling self-care. By cultivating compassion we gift ourselves fresh perspectives on how to solve challenges, think more freely and have more energy to give our students.

Self-compassion requires us to observe and control fearful or negative thoughts and reframe perspectives to acknowledge ourselves as worthy of the same love and care we so readily give to others.

Below are 5 enemies of self-compassion that become thinking traps for teachers. These traps, if unchecked, can become habits that contribute to teacher stress and burnout.

The Enemies of Self-Compassion

When is the last time you taught a ‘perfect’ lesson? In 20 years I don’t think I ever have. I have taught good lessons and had great outcomes from students, but what constitutes a perfect lesson anyway? By seeking perfectionism we are left asking “is this right?” This question only breeds a feeling of failure when our own expectations or vision of perfectionism is not met.  Instead we should be asking “Is this working well?” Let this be your judge as a way to limit the drive for perfectionism. Let our goal be improvement, not perfection.

Shame is the personal name calling we do to ourselves with things like “I’m hopeless at that”,  “I’m too dumb to get that promotion”. Shaming ourselves makes us our own bully and this simply doesn’t support us in being our best self. We wouldn’t stand for bullying in our classroom so why would it be ok in our own heads? Instead we need to be kinder to ourselves by being our own best friend. Speak softly and gently, you deserve the same care your give to others.

Competition and comparison

In a world where we encourage individual difference and inclusion, the reality is we test everyone the same and make sweeping generalizations based on comparisons. We do this of ourselves as teachers too. We compare the results of one class to the other class and make assumptions about our teaching practice based on these results. The questions is, are you comparing yourself with what is going well or what is going wrong? My suggestion is that if you are going to compare yourself to others at all, try comparing what works well.


Teaching is a busy game where it is easy to get addicted to the busyness. The problem here is that as busyness increases our healthy habits, necessary for balance and general wellbeing, fall by the way side. By simplifying and prioritizing what is important and urgent, we regain perspective on our purpose and more proactively practice self-compassion. Don’t get caught up in other people’s stuff. Stick to what is really important – connecting with students for quality learning.

Neglecting your own needs

We are all human and have our own needs. The job of teaching has no end point so we cannot wait until everything is done before we choose ourselves. Instead we must take time for self care in order to be able to sustain the never ending tasks and demands. This means going to toilet when you need to, preparing healthy and nutritious food regularly, and taking time out to replenish and restore your own energy.

Overall, for me, self-compassion is about being mindful enough to make small choices that have a positive impact on my general wellbeing. This may mean going for a walk, reading inspiring material or laughing with friends. Either way, when i do take time out for me, I know I am deliberately ‘choosing me’ and do so proudly. I am not being selfish but simply restoring my own energy cup so I have more to give others. Of course, the next step to this is that modelling self-care is a powerful way of showing not only colleagues but students, how they too can better mange their own wellbeing.

The bottom line is, the more I restore, the more I have to give and prouder I become of my own contribution in the world. Through practicing self-compassion, I am able to break through common habitual thinking habits of teaching and better manage my own wellbeing.


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