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Wellbeing for dance teachers

A little while ago I recorded a podcast for a dance education organisation, focusing on teacher wellbeing. The podcast host was keen to address this topic because literature and media outputs about wellbeing tend to be aimed at students and performers, rather than those who train them. Unfortunately, the organisation is no longer in operation, so the episode was never released. But this conversation about teacher wellbeing feels useful and relevant – so I’ve summarised the content below.

Q: How do you define wellbeing?

A: Wellbeing is a huge topic within psychology and because of this there are various different definitions of it. Essentially, wellbeing involves continual striving to live in accordance with our values and to fulfil our own purpose in life, while also enjoying momentary pleasures and experiences. Models of wellbeing generally include factors like positive emotions – which may come from pleasurable experiences, positive social relationships and connections, a sense of meaning and purpose, opportunities for achievement, some form of autonomy in at least some areas of our lives, and the feeling that we are making a contribution to our community or society. So it is quite broad, far-reaching and involves both fun and development or growth.

Another important point to make about wellbeing is that it’s a dynamic concept – it’s not something we either have or don’t have. It can change, it can fluctuate, and it’s absolutely something that we can change ourselves. In fact, some authors suggest that wellbeing is really just the balance point between the challenges we face in our lives, and the resources we have available to us to meet those challenges. From that perspective, a life without challenge is a life without opportunities to grow and develop, so actually we don’t necessarily want to feel good or happy all the time. This is a useful way of looking at wellbeing because many messages in the media suggest that constant or permanent happiness is within our grasp if we just try hard enough – and this simply isn’t true. No matter our circumstances, no matter how many tools and techniques we use to enhance our wellbeing, there are always going to be times when we don’t feel great, and accepting that life has its ups and downs and that is normal, is key to becoming more content.

Q: Why is well-being important for dance educators?

A: Wellbeing in and of itself is important for everybody, at every stage and in every walk of life, because everybody deserves to feel good about themselves. And when we feel good about ourselves, we are more likely to perform our various roles well – whether that’s as a teacher, dancer, parent, student, friend, partner, and so on.

Often when we work in dance it’s because we have a passion for it – dancing is a part of us, a part of who we are – and because of this we give a lot to it. Wellbeing is so important for dance teachers because we are in a giving role. I know from myself, my colleagues and my own teachers just how much time, energy and thought goes into teaching, and that teaching is about more than instruction, it’s also about guiding, mentoring and caring for students. There can be a huge amount of pastoral work that goes hand-in-hand with teaching that often goes unrecognised. Teachers give so much, but the vast majority of research out there focuses on students, or, if it’s about teachers, it tends to be about teaching styles and strategies. Teachers themselves deserve more attention, particularly in terms of their wellbeing.

This combination of being in a giving role, and working in an area which we love, can be a great source of wellbeing – it can offer opportunities for meaning and purpose, for making a contribution, for positive social relationships – but when our work forms a large part of our identities it can also take over to an extent, and it can stop us from paying attention to other areas of our lives. In the long term this can lead to burnout, but in the short term when our wellbeing is compromised it can have an impact on things like our mental and physical health and also our ability to do our jobs well. For instance, we may struggle with concentration, we may be more negative around our students, we may be more pessimistic in general or disproportionately worried about things. We need to find a balance between our work and our lives outside of work, and to try and prioritise our own personal needs as these are separate to our needs in the professional context, even when our work is a big part of our identity.

Q: Can you give some more detail about what happens when an educator doesn’t prioritise their wellbeing?

A: It can be quite obvious when we aren’t looking after our psychological wellbeing. For example if we’re really stressed, we can become very irritable, snapping at people or being sarcastic, we can find even small challenges suddenly overwhelming, we can find it very difficult to make what are really quite simple decisions, we might lose our sense of humour, and we may not sleep well which only makes things worse. If we are suffering from low mood we may find ourselves feeling pessimistic, lethargic or low in energy, lacking motivation, and feeling hopeless or tearful. So often the clues to look for are in our behaviour – are we flying off the handle more than usual, or finding it hard to summon up the energy to get out of the house? These behavioural changes are signs and symptoms telling us that we need to pay more attention to our wellbeing.

One of the challenges is that we can get into negative cycles of thinking, feeling and behaving. Again thinking about stress as an example, if we are really stressed, our threshold for dealing with challenging situations is much lower, so we lose control more easily or feel completely overwhelmed by everything. We may find ourselves storming round the house, slamming doors, or shouting – and these actions and behaviours serve to reinforce the idea that we’re stressed and out of control. To take another example, if we have low mood we may withdraw from the activities and people that would usually make us feel better, leaving us isolated, which only serves to reinforce the low mood.

When we get into these patterns a good place to start is by looking at whether or not we are doing enough to look after ourselves – and to evaluate at our thoughts because these are often what lead to the feelings and subsequent behaviours.

Q: Let’s focus on that next. What are some of the strategies and techniques educators can use to enhance their wellbeing?

A: There are lots of different ways to enhance wellbeing, such as fostering positive social relationships, getting outside in nature, taking part in physical activity and exercise, and paying attention to nutrition and sleep. These are strategies that many people will be familiar with, so I’m going to share 5 ideas for enhancing wellbeing that may be less well-known.

1. Wheel of life

It’s always good to make time to reflect, to have a bit of a look at your life and assess the balance of different activities in life. I suggest filling in something called a wheel of life which is a common coaching tool that is used to see if any areas in your life are dominant, and whether some are perhaps a little lacking. As I mentioned earlier, this can be particularly important when your work forms a large part of your identity. In the wheel of life activity, you evaluate your satisfaction with a range of areas in your life such as career, money, friends and family, fun and leisure. Ask yourself, what does success feel like to you in each area? Give yourself a mark out of 10 (where 1 is very dissatisfied and 10 is entirely satisfied) for each area, so that you create a visual overview of your life. Now have a look at your wheel. Is it smooth, or is it a bit bumpy? You can use the wheel of life activity to identify areas in your life that you would like to change and start thinking about what those changes might look like.

2. Gratitude list

Practising gratitude is a really quick and simple way of increasing optimism, by purposefully focusing on the good in our lives. It can be really nice to do at the end of a long and challenging day, one of those days where we are ruminating on negative thoughts or worries, to help take our minds away from the negative and to put things into perspective. Practising gratitude has been shown to improve our mood in the present moment but also to increase our feelings of optimism so that we expect better things in the future. It can help with emotional regulation, with dealing with stress, it can increase our resilience and even improve sleep quality.

The simplest way to practice gratitude is to write a short gratitude list every day. Just write down 3 good things that happened that day, big or small, and why they made you feel good. Over time this will help you to see that even a ‘bad day’ had good elements to it and it will help you to start noticing the good when it happens.

3. 10 minutes a day just for you (scheduling activity)

This is very straightforward. A bit of time every day doing something that you can get absorbed in, even if it’s just for 10 minutes. It might be colouring or painting, a spot of gardening, yoga, crosswords or sudoku, meditation, etc. I’ve suggested 10 minutes because that’s achievable for everyone, but if you can do more, great! It should be something that takes your mind off other pressures, so it needs to be fairly absorbing or challenging. It can be the same thing every day or something different.

This is such a simple and obvious suggestion – 10 minutes a day doing something you enjoy, something just for you – but how many of us actually do this? In reality, it’s rarely something we prioritise. I think it’s because the consequences are not immediately obvious or negative – unlike, for example, if we don’t do the washing up, because then we won’t have any clean plates to eat from the next day! When we don’t take a bit of time to ourselves, the consequence of this isn’t obvious until a few weeks or even months later – but then we hit that point where we just feel exhausted or overwhelmed or like we need a break – and we realise that while we’ve been taking care of everything and everyone around us, we haven’t been taking care of ourselves.

4. Phone detox/take a break from your phone

I appreciate the irony here that people may well be engaging with this conversation on their phone! But I do think we all need to break up a little with our phones, and I’m not the first person to say this. Phones take away our ability to be present in the moment and to be present with others. And there is plenty of research out there now showing how our concentration spans are shorter because of smart phones and internet access, that we have become reliant on the dopamine hit we get when we receive a notification, that the way we compare our lives with the perfectly edited lives of others on social media can have a negative impact on our wellbeing.

But I also think that phones have taken away our ability to sit with our own thoughts. I remember before I learned to drive, I had to sometimes take long train journeys, and I really looked forward to it, because it was a chance to just sit and let the world go by, stare into space, think, or not think. But nowadays on a long train journey I’d be writing emails, watching a TV show or listening to music on my phone. There’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but because we can be so easily distracted by our phones, we’re losing the ability to just ‘be’, and I think that is likely to be problematic. Because actually, our minds really need the chance to just ‘be’. It’s good for us to have nothing to do because it creates space for us to let our minds wander, to dream up new ideas.

But we also need this space to process events, to process feelings. When we are experiencing uncomfortable thoughts and emotions, it’s very tempting to distract ourselves from them, and there are times when this is absolutely appropriate because we’re not yet ready to face them. But sitting with those uncomfortable feelings is useful, because firstly it helps us to process the things that have happened, and secondly because it teaches us that feelings pass. When we actually allow ourselves to experience those feelings, we learn that they peak and then decrease, that they don’t last forever. And that is really important.

So try and make your phone less attractive – turn off push notifications, put it on silent for set periods of time each day, put it in another room if you need to. And taking a break from our phone may also help us to find those 10 minutes or longer to do something we enjoy that’s just for us, every day.

5. If you want to go a little deeper, try a thought diary or thought record

This is something that can be incredibly useful. It’s a technique from cognitive behavioural therapy where you write a thought diary entry when an event or situation occurs that you have interpreted negatively. You write down what happened, what your thoughts and feelings were. Then you look objectively at the evidence – were your thoughts a fair and accurate reflection of reality? How could you have interpreted the situation differently? You then write down an alternative thought, and review how you feel as a result. This technique is really effective because it helps to create space between an event and your reaction to it, and to find a different perspective. When you create your alternative thought it can also really help to shift your mood, and stop whatever happened from setting the tone for the rest of the day.

Once you’ve done a week or so of these entries, you can then have a look and see if you can identify a pattern of thinking. Do you tend to react or respond to certain events or situations in similar ways? Do you have habitual ways of thinking that you may benefit from changing? We all have particular unhelpful thinking styles or habits, and once you have identified the ones that you tend to use the most, you can start to work on them. So this is something you can do if you want to spend a bit more time on your wellbeing.

Q: If you had one final piece of advice for dance educators in terms of wellbeing, what would it be?

A: I think the main thing is that you cannot put off looking after yourself. If you don’t take the time to look after yourself, to work on your wellbeing, to do things just for you – it will catch up with you. And these things need to be regular – you can’t think, "oh, but I’ve got that spa day coming up," or, "I’m going on that holiday in 4 months" – it’s not enough. As a teacher you are constantly thinking about others, but you can’t give what you don’t have: you need to make sure that your jug is full, that you put on your oxygen mask first, whichever metaphor you prefer, so that you can continue giving to others without draining yourself. The strategies I’ve shared were chosen specifically because they are quick and simple, so try and schedule them in regularly, because this way you are far more likely to do them.

And finally, keep using the strategies that work for you even when life is great. It’s so tempting to stop doing them when we’re feeling good, because we think we don’t need them anymore. I’ve fallen into that trap myself so many times! So make new habits, stick with them, and enjoy the benefits they bring!

Would you benefit from a deeper dive into some of these topics? Have a look at my online courses to find out more!

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