Must be Present to Teach: The Mindful Educator

Author: Peg Oliveira, PhD
Executive Director

How are you?

“Stressed!”

I have many teachers in my life, and come May (the third base of the home run of the academic year), this is predictably the answer I hear when I ask “How are you?” As a recent New York Times article put it “Teachers are Stressed, and that Should Stress Us All”

On any given day teachers are balancing the needs of their class as a whole, each individual student, and parents. They are juggling the demands of curriculum goals and administrators. When in class, they are “on” all day. Out of class there is planning to do, meetings to attend, homework to review and parents to connect with. On a good day they may have some space to acknowledge their own personal or family needs too.

For a short time this is, at a minimum, garden variety “overwhelm” – what we’ve gotten used to calling “stress” and swallowing as part of normal life. But in high doses, for long periods of time, without a feeling of reprieve or support, this is a recipe for burnout.  Burnout is not just when you need a vacation to recharge. It’s when you feel overwhelming exhaustion, frustration, cynicism and a sense of ineffectiveness and failure.

george-booth-teacher-burnout-new-yorker-cartoon
Photo Credit: New Yorker Cartoon by George Booth

This is a problem for us all because anywhere between 40 and 50 percent of teachers will leave the classroom within their first five years(that includes the nine and a half percent that leave before the end of their first year.)

Thankfully there are things we can do for ourselves. Practices that both train the brain to be calm in the face of chaos and to be resilient when life inevitably becomes overwhelming are essential to reducing the impact of stress and avoiding burnout.

A Culture of Mindfulness

Gesell Institute’s professional development starts with some version of “know yourself”. This includes reflective work like engaging in a self-evaluation process, developing an individualized professional development plan, and acknowledging and countering implicit bias. It also means implementing a pedagogy of presenceand learning to manage difficult situations with contemplative practices, like mindfulness.

Outside of my life as the Executive Director of The Gesell Institute of Child Development, I also direct a nonprofit called 108 Monkeys. Its focus is very specific: we mentor schools and child care centers in creating a culture of mindfulness to enable teachers to teach and students to learn in a more calm and creative environment. Many such organizations have sprung up over the past decade – a sign of hope that a new generation of educators is learning to fight stress before it causes their flight from the profession.

Does a Pedagogy of Presence make any difference?

The research is young but extremely promising.

A recent report out of Penn State, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, examined the primary causes of teacher stress, its effects on teachers, schools, and students, and strategies for reducing its impact. Quality programs for mentoring, workplace wellness, social emotional learning, and mindfulness were all proven to improve teacher well-being and student outcomes.

Patricia Jennings is a professor and researcher at the University of Virginia. The Journal of Educational Psychology will soon publish a study of her work in New York City, teaching mindfulness to more than 200 educators in high-poverty schools.

Jennings says the teachers who received mindfulness training showed:

  • Reduced psychological distress
  • Reduced time urgency — which is this feeling like you don’t have enough time
  • Improvements in emotion regulation

In sum, teachers feel emotionally better, more satisfied with their work, better able to manage their attention to emotional matters, and conducted better classes. By practicing mindfulness in their own lives—and with their students—educators are setting the stage for a calmer, more focused learning environment, as a whole.

So what is mindfulness?

Put simply, mindfulness means being here, now. Clinical psychologist and founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) classes, Jon Kabat-Zinn, defines mindfulness as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment” (Kabat-Zinn, 1990). 

mindfulness blog quote - peg - may 2017But mindfulness practices like deep breathing, meditation and yoga are simply the vehicle to the destination: a mindfully lived life. Functional mindfulness is the true goal. We “practice” the skills of mindfulness like  focused attention, increased self-awareness, responding rather than reacting, and observing the consequences of our actions with objectivity, because we want to strengthen our ability to do these things in our daily lives. To live mindfully.

Examples of mindfulness practice include:

  • Becoming aware of the breath.
  • Noticing thoughts as they pass through the mind.
  • Feeling the various physical sensations of an emotion.
  • Paying attention to the body at rest and in motion.
  • Noticing what happens in the body when you feel stress.
  • Paying attention to all the sounds in the room.
  • Feeling your stomach rise and fall with each breath.
  • Watching your thoughts that arise when you feel bored.
  • Choosing to respond rather than react to stressful situations.
  • Practicing sending kind thoughts and feelings to yourself and others (even the hard people).

How do I practice mindfulness, when I’m a stressed teacher?

meditation

When you picture someone practicing mindfulness, you might envision a person sitting cross-legged, meditating with their eyes closed, repeating “om”.  That is one way; but not the only way.  Taking small breaks every day to give yourself a little extra care and calm can make a big mark on relieving stress and improving overall mental health.  In September this makes a long day bearable. In May, this is the difference between sustainability and turnover.

Recharge Breaks that you can do anywhere, in just a few minutes:

  • Take a deep breath before starting an activity or responding.
  • Take a moment to feel the warmth of the sun on your face.
  • Walk from your car to the house with all of your attention on the bottom of your feet.
  • Sip water while doing nothing else.
  • Move your body.
  • Go outside and connect with nature.
  • Eat something without doing anything else at the same time, like one M&M.
  • Try an online meditation tool, like headspace.com or calm.com

Exercises to Jumpstart Your Mindfulness Practice:

You can do these at your desk, walking to class, taking a break, or sitting in a meeting (don’t tell!)

Easy Breathing

Bring gentle and consistent attention to your breath for two minutes. Start by becoming aware that you are breathing, and then pay attention to the process of breathing. Every time your attention wanders away (and it will!), just bring it gently back.

Even Easier Breathing

Sit with nothing to get done, and nothing special to do, for two minutes. That’s it. The idea here is to shift from ‘doing’ to ‘being,’ whatever that means to you, for just two minutes.  Just be.

5 Fingers Breathing

  • Inhale and open your hand.
  • Exhale, touch the tip of your thumb to the tip of your pinky finger.
  • Inhale open your hand again.
  • Exhale, touch the tip of your thumb to the tip of your ring finger.
  • Continue like that, until you reach your pointer finger then reverse the direction and go back, one finger at a time, until you land back at your pinky finger.
  • Repeat with the other hand.

Wishing you calm within the end of year storm

Further Reading:

Guided Meditations for Mindfulness Practice:

Mindfulness Videos:

burnout meditation mental health mindfulness stress reduction teacher stress yoga

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