Addressing the emotional toll of teaching

Teaching is hard.

Our veteran educators say that it is only getting harder with pressure from the top increasing and students' attention spans shortening.  There are more students in classrooms. More classes to prepare for. More high stakes tests. More children with high needs. Accountability has shifted almost entirely to the shoulders of teachers to solve all academic, social, and emotional problems that arise for students. Here is one of my favorite cartoons that exemplifies this shift in accountability:

It is not only angry parents that teachers have to manage. In a letter to the New York Times,  Randi Weingarten, of the American Federation of Teachers, writes,

"We have always asked teachers to be a combination of Albert Einstein, Mother Teresa, Mom and Dad. Now, we judge them by a faulty, narrow measure — one standardized test in English and one in math — and then blame them for not being saviors. Teachers are used to the pressure cooker but are stressed out because they aren’t getting the support, resources, time and respect they need to do their jobs."  

Last year in a personal blog post titled, Teachers "do too much" (But not the way kids mean), I wrote about the challenges of finding peace with the incredible demands of teaching. I left the classroom after five years for a host of reasons, but in part to dedicate myself full-time to the well-being of teachers and students in these demanding times. Even in an amazing and supportive school, too much was asked of us, and it took a toll. 

Because of this, we see teachers leaving the classroom, and avoiding the profession all together, at alarmingly high rates. In  "Teacher Shortage Spurs Nationwide Hiring Scramble (Credentials Optional)," Motoko Rich, of the New York Times laments,

"In California, the number of people entering teacher preparation programs dropped by more than 55 percent from 2008 to 2012, according to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. Nationally, the drop was 30 percent from 2010 to 2014, according to federal data. Alternative programs like Teach for America, which will place about 4,000 teachers in schools across the country this fall, have also experienced recruitment problems."

We cannot afford to lose teachers. There are many ways to address this including: better pay, fewer students, more administrative support, more hours for preparation, and removing the expectation that they save the world. Addressing any of these external conditions could relieve some pressure, so teachers can breathe again.

While we are waiting for structural changes from the political world, on the ground we can give teachers tools to fortify their internal worlds. By teaching them how to develop their own inner strength, they can cultivate a resilience to withstand the professional pressures.  


What happens if we insert mindfulness into the picture? 

One reason teaching is challenging is the emotional energy it takes to remain unaffected by whatever students bring to the classroom.  Kathryn Byrnes, a Mindfulness Education Consultant, talked about the different between "empathetic distress" and compassion at a recent Teachings in Mindful Education retreat that I attended. Empathetic distress, she explained, is when teachers absorb the troubling emotions that their students experience. Because of mirror neurons, humans experience the emotions of another as if they were their own. Even if a teacher walks calmly into a situation, she can end up inside the emotional experience of her students. Mindfulness can help teachers build their equanimity through breathing and sensory-anchoring practices. Once grounded, educators can approach their students with compassion without the burden of experiencing that child's own inner turmoil as their own. 

Another challenging aspect of teaching is when teachers find themselves triggered by the behavior of their students. Elizabeth Frias, of Mindfulness First, wrote about a new way of addressing this in an Huffington Post article, Rethinking Professional Development: Using Mindfulness to Explore the Emotional Labor of Teaching. Through a guided mindfulness practice, her staff help teachers notice their emotional reactions to students, so they can ultimately better manage them. Practicing scenarios in a safe space supports a skillful response to student misbehavior.

Students are not the only emotional drain on teachers and in some cases are the least of their worries. Grounding and envisioning practices can be equally beneficial when preparing for challenging parent-teacher conferences, a particularly long day of professional development, a difficult conversation with an administrator, or tackling a stack of 120 essays that need to be graded by 8am on Monday (and it's Sunday night). Cultivating an inner fortitude helps teachers cope with the endless challenges they face. 

This theory is taking hold as researchers uncover supporting evidence. Three studies outlined in Mindfulness in Education Highlights out of University of California's Greater Good Center showed significant reductions in psychological symptoms and burnout, increases in self compassion, and even increases in attention and working memory among teachers. Even more interesting, they found that children actually showed better behavior — more often complying with requests and demonstrating less challenging behavior — when the teacher had mindfulness training. Though the research is admittedly limited, the field is rapidly expanding, and thus far shows promising results.


Resources for teachers

There is a growing number of education consultants and outsider providers, such as myself, who are passionate about this work and delighted to be partnering with schools to bring mindfulness directly to students and educators.

Also, Deborah Schoberlein's Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness and Daniel Reschtschaffen's The Way of Mindful Education are good resources. 

Mindful Schools offers online curriculum training and even a yearlong certification program for teachers looking to dig deep.

Finally, if teachers are looking for a immersive retreat experience, there are a number self-care programs out there that specifically target teachers. The Garrison Institute's CARE for Teachers (Cultivating Resilience and Awareness in Education) runs an amazing retreat every summer, as does TIME (Teachings in Mindful Education). 


happy teachers = happy students

We need our teachers. We need them to be happy and healthy in their lives, in part because human beings' wellness (or lack their of) has a ripple effect that ultimately finds its way back to us. Moreover, educators have an powerful impact on countless young hearts and minds every day. If teachers can wake up grounded, content, and fulfilled, their students will experience benefit, straight from one nervous system to another. 

In my classroom, I hung a sign that read,

It’s my daily mood that makes the weather.
— H. Ginott