When teachers are in these situations, stress hormones course through the body. When these hormones stay elevated for long periods of time, the result can be teacher exhaustion and burnout.
That has certainly been true for me. I've been a teacher for 25 years and I love the profession. But at different points in my career, I have felt intense stress and exhaustion from the demands of the job. It usually hasn't been the heavy workload that gets to me. Rather, it's the emotional labor of the work that I have found to be particularly draining. We all have students coming to our classrooms with high levels of stress, trauma, and mental health needs. These issues affect our ability to teach our content material.
I finally realized what might seem obvious. I could only control myself- my reactions- the way I perceived these challenges and the way I managed my stress. And, so I turned to a practice that I thought might provide some relief- mindfulness. Not only did it make a difference in how I handled stress in the classroom, it helped me slow down and rediscover my happiness in being a teacher. Mindfulness is not a panacea, but it can be an incredibly useful tool for teachers.
Here is the classic definition of mindfulness from Jon Kabat Zinn: "Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally." He also says, "The real practice is living your life as if it really mattered-moment to moment."
Here is a video that I think sums up mindfulness in a fun, perfect way:
Students cannot learn unless they're emotionally regulated, and it follows that they won't learn from a teacher who isn't emotionally regulated. This is why a mindfulness practice has the power to be transformational for teachers. Mindful Schools teaches, "Children and youth reflect the nervous systems of adults around them. Your nervous system is the intervention." When students feel secure physically in your classroom and experience an emotionally safe relationship with you as a teacher, learning is most achievable. A mindful teacher can bring out the best in a student's ability.
We all feel stress, and it can get the best of us in the classroom. Learning how to notice strong emotions, pause before reacting, and calming down our own nervous systems can be hugely beneficial to teachers. You don't need any special cushions, bells, or clothes to learn mindfulness. All that is required is an open mind and a little time every day. Teachers deserve rest, relaxation, and renewal, and mindfulness might just be the tool to help.
Here are a few tips and resources for beginning to learn about, and experiment with, mindfulness:
Start small and go easy.
Start with 1-2 minutes a day of mindfulness practice. Or focus on taking 5 deep breaths when you're feeling stressed.
Don't go it alone.
There are a ton of resources out there. We all need guidance and support when learning a new skill. You are not alone.
Instant gratification is the enemy.
Mindfulness practice is not Candy Crush or Instagram. You're not going to have a huge hit of dopamine every time you practice or become instantly calm. So, take the long view and be patient with yourself. Over time you'll notice a difference.
Bring your mindfulness practice into your daily life.
Formal mindfulness practice (where you sit and pay attention to the breath) is the practice, the training, the bicep curl for real life. The idea is for this training to transfer to your daily life and kick in when you need it. So, the next time someone cuts you off in traffic, your brain can remember to take a deep breath instead of going into a state of road rage (as depicted in the video above).
My journey with mindfulness started with committing to a personal practice to reduce stress. Then, I noticed how much it was helping me in my professional life. The students were just as challenging; the systems were just as difficult, but I was different. Then, I took the next step and began training through Mindful Schools to learn how to bring these techniques to students to help them with focus and emotional regulation.
Last spring, I found myself speaking to a group of 343 high school students about mindfulness at the SE MN Student Government Conference at Century High School. I had been presenting on mindfulness quite a bit at that point, but this gig was slightly terrifying to me. Not only was it a huge group, but they were all high-achieving teenagers. They had invited me, but I was worried about the message resonating with them. They were the best audience I had have ever had. Not only were they responsive to the concepts and practice of mindfulness, they were hungry for it.
At the end of the session during the Q and A, one student pointedly asked me, "Why aren't we all learning this?!" I didn't really have a good or satisfying answer for that question, but I told him I was working on it.
What I am confident about is that the first step in bringing mindfulness to our students is for teachers to bring mindfulness to their own lives and the way they teach and relate to students. As Thich Nhat Hanh says in the title of his book, "Happy teachers change the world."
I have to admit, winter is not my favorite time of year. I love summer! I love being out on the water fishing, sitting on a deck, or basking in the glow of the warm sun. Those enjoyable moments are not as easy to do in the winter (by the way, even though I am from northern Minnesota, I am not a fan of ice fishing!).
On a brisk walk one abnormally cold, Sunday, November afternoon, I realized I don’t just like summer because of those lovely activities, but because I find myself able to stop, breathe, and take a few moments for myself away from school and teaching. Then I began to wonder, why don’t I stop, breathe, and take a few moments for myself during the school year? A recent conversation with a fellow teacher reminded me that as education speeds up, we keep trying to keep up. Why don’t we try to slow it down? How can we slow down during the school year? Here are some ideas that I am going to try in the next few months. I know that life is just going to get busier, so hopefully these will help me to stop, breathe, and slow things down.
Take a calming breath
According to the website The Best Brain Possible by Debbie Hampton, “your breath is your remote control to calm your brain and body”. Here is an effective breathing technique that slows oneself down.
Here is a 30-second video that is a great guide to a breathing technique.
Visualizing, sometimes known as guided imagery, is a great tool to add to the calming breath. Visualizing a place that brings you peace, even for a few moments, can help to re-center a person. According to MentalHealth.net, visualizing creates “an element of distraction which serves to redirect people’s attention away from what is stressing them and towards an alternative focus”. This can be especially helpful for assisting one’s sleep, so it is a well-spent five to 15 minutes prior to bedtime. My favorite imagery is sitting on my Dad’s boat, hearing a loon call, seeing the calm blue-green water and smelling the fresh scent of pine trees in the air. This image, along with the calming breaths, is a great way to slow down after a busy day.
If you need a place to start, you can try this video which is a guided imagery tour in a mountain forest.
Ask for Help
Anyone who knows me knows that asking for help is not one of my strong suits. I have found that it stems from expecting perfection of myself. However, this desire for perfection and lack of asking for help actually increases my stress. Asking for help and dividing large tasks between colleagues can make those stressful, large tasks seem much more manageable. Then it doesn’t just fall on one person to complete. Seek out colleagues with whom you feel comfortable asking for help and let them know you appreciate their assistance.
Know your limits
The old phrase of “just say no” applies here. As educators, we are dedicated to doing everything for our students and families. However, there comes a time when you need to know your limits and just say no to a new task or project. This simple word can be a huge stress-saver. Obviously, there are some tasks we must do, but there are other times I find myself adding things to my plate without realizing it. I have to remind myself that I can do a few things well, or many things poorly. Let something go, for now, and come back to it when you have more time to dedicate to it. Sometimes it isn’t “no”, but rather “just not now”.
Reflect on what makes you laugh or smile
According to the website The Science Alert, researchers at the University of Maryland “have linked laughter to the healthy function of blood vessels – something that can lower your chance of heart attack”. Furthermore, the same researchers found that laughter could boost ones’ heart rate and the production of certain antibodies, which can strengthen ones’ immune system. Considering how it is quite easy to get run-down and sick in education (especially since those of us in the education field are exposed daily to many illnesses), couldn’t we all use a few more antibodies? Each day, I try to find one thing that a student does that will make me laugh and remind me why I love teaching. I sometimes even jot down the funny statements students say on a post-it note and stick it on my computer. That way, when I am stressed and feeling overwhelmed, I read that little statement, smile and remember why I love what I do!
In the next few months, as the winds blow colder, the snow falls heavier, the workload gets crazier, and my stress is high, I hope that these five simple stress-relieving techniques will help me to slow down and enjoy life more.
This post brought to you by Katie Miller, K-12 EL Implementation Associate
I am no expert on mindfulness, let me be clear; however, I do find joy in reading blogs and articles around the power of the mind and the impact of one’s attitude. At a leadership meeting, Superintendent Muñoz asked us each to name three positive things that happened the day before. I will be honest, it took me a bit to identify three things! I decided right then and there I need to get into the habit of reflecting at the end of my day. I intentionally identify three positive things from the day before I go to bed each night. This has made a difference both in how I sleep at night and how I feel in the morning when I wake up.
Blogger Leo Babauta of Zen Habits writes the way to change our mental habits is “with awareness, with honesty, with an open heart, and with appreciation of the immense joy of life in the midst of chaos.” I find this exceptionally helpful, empowering even, to know that during the busy holiday season, during hectic times at work, when I feel pulled in too many directions to count, I can find joy in my life.
Images taken by Heather Lyke
As you prepare for your winter break, let me encourage a few simple mindful activities that you may try (shared from ‘6 Mindfullness Exercises You Can Try Today’ published by Pocket Mindfulness). I like this list as the activities are simple, can be done quickly and anywhere, while yet having the potential to make a big difference!
Be well. Be good to yourself and others. And remember, you make a difference.
This post brought to you by Jayne Gibson, Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Rochester Public Schools
Connect with Jayne Gibson via email or by calling 507.328.4301
If you’d like to explore mindfullness more fully, consider starting the new year off strong by joining one of these two upcoming PD Express courses:
Both begin in January. Connect with facilitator Laura Lenz if you have further questions.
Enjoy our Blog!
Members of the Secondary C&I team weekly post useful tools, tips, and tricks to help you help students.