The case for teaching mindfulness to educators, for educators

Most of us are familiar with the airplane directive: please put your own mask on before assisting your neighbor. In the to the left diagram, the illustration shows a woman doing this before the child. We will be of no use to that child unless we put our mask on first.

I repeat: We will be of no use to our children unless we put our own masks on first. This is an incredibly challenging message for many educators to buy into. They will agree readily that they need to care for themselves first, then in the next breath guiltily admit that they make no time for it. 

I wrote about this once before in a piece called, "Addressing the emotional toll of teaching." As I wrote previously, I believe there are real structural changes that need to be made, like better pay, lower students-teacher ratios, more administrative support, and more hours for preparation. That said, 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.

I am revisiting this idea of teacher care again as I conclude my final of three courses with teachers this fall. For a series of six, eight, and nine weeks, respectively, we met together. We checked in, we practiced together, we explored different aspects of mindfulness, from breath and body to emotions and thoughts. We first looked at how we could practice before even thinking about how to apply it to the classroom. Because teachers deserve these tools too.

In each of these courses, I was struck by how moved the teachers were by practicing mindfulness themselves. Each found refuge in the stillness they self-generated. Even those who admitted they had not consistently implemented their own formal practice were able to witness greater mindful living throughout their days, with their students, their colleagues, and even their families at home. One teacher wrote, 

"I have become good at finding a few minutes here and there throughout my day to close my eyes, focus on my breath and let go of my attachment to my thoughts. As a result I’ve been more patient with myself and with others, even during some pretty stressful times that might have thrown me into anxiety at other times. This is rewarding but what I really appreciated this week was the ripple effect it had on other people in my life and the way we interact with one another. When I was more mindful and aware of my intent, the people around me reflected that in our interactions."

Without even explicitly teaching others mindfulness, the way we carry ourselves as educators directly encourages more authentic and less defensive interactions with those around us, including our students. Here, another teacher reflects:

"I am not taking it [student behavior] personally anymore.  I think mindfulness has helped me to work better with students.  I know they are upset about something, they react and then we talk about it.  I think not getting mad and judgmental is getting easier with the students and I think I am less stressed with them.  My co-workers have noticed a difference in how I work with students.”  

These anecdotes are supported by pre- and post- data we collected using the Perceived Stress Survey (PSS) and the Healthy Self Regulation Scale. In both of the courses where we gathered that information, educators reported lower stress and a greater ability to self regulate. 

These local findings are in line with national research. A study led by Lisa Flook at The Center for Investigating Healthy Minds found that teachers were not just less stressed, but were better teachers in quantifiable ways, like classroom organization. Another study from 2013, done by Singh, showed a decrease in challenging student behaviors and and negative social interactions between students in rooms where staff were being trained in mindfulness. This suggest whole classroom shifts in culture are possible just from teachers practicing mindfulness, without even teaching these skills explicitly to students.

Teachers are notoriously hard on themselves, and our culture asks them to be. In a "No Child Left Behind" educational climate, there is an expectation that it is the teachers responsibility that every child succeeds. If they don't, teachers are first blamed, and often internalize this as a sign of their own failings. Rather than being motivating, when this feeling becomes persistent, it often spells burn out, and we lose too many good teachers before they even have a chance to hit their stride.

Mindfulness is not an antidote. But it is a way of being that can alleviate some of that pressure and invite teachers back into a more compassionate stance with themselves. A byproduct of this is that their classrooms become more conducive to learning. So let's offer those teachers some masks. They deserve them.