We all agree being a teacher today is demanding. Teaching is a tough, exhaustive job; self-care is essential to counteract all-too-common teacher burnout, which is currently at 40-50% within the first five years.
We must juggle our time, manage resources, organize and plan our curriculum, communicate with students, parents, colleagues and administrators and more. Stress, anxiety and depression are only a few of the struggles experienced by educators. Our inner-critic is usually talking to us non-stop, telling us we are not doing a good enough job or that we are failing to reach every kid we teach. In addition, some days it is just plain tough to get in front of students and be excited about our subject. The demands of this career can be overwhelming, but there are tools we can use to step back and be kind to ourselves. The practice of mindfulness is one such tool.
Mindfulness can help in all facets of our lives, not just teaching. The practice gives us the choice to thoughtfully respond to situations rather than immediately react. Mindfulness fosters empathy and compassion as well as improves personal relationships — including the relationship we have with ourselves. Mindfulness also helps us pay more attention to and enjoy the present moment. These are the reasons why we decided to create a mindfulness course for teachers at our public high school called The Mindful Teacher Project.
The two of us each came to mindfulness in an effort to ease anxiety and stress, experienced both at work in and our personal lives. Our curiosity led us to participate in an eight-week course called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction — or MBSR — created by Jon Kabat-Zinn. There we learned the science behind meditation, how to meditate and the vast ways in which meditation benefits the body, mind and spirit. After going through the course ourselves, we came to believe this simple yet elusive practice would be apropos for teachers who experience the high demands characteristic of their profession.
The Mindful Teacher Project is a free eight-week course mirrored after MBSR, which is open to any and all staff at our school. We meet once a week after school; each week a new theme related to mindfulness and teaching is presented and discussed. Before class begins, we ask participants to take a quick online survey — the Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale or DASS Survey — where they check in with how they are feeling physically and emotionally. Then, we watch videos and practice short breath awareness meditations along with longer body scan meditations on yoga mats. The class, which lasts about an hour, ends with information about weekly meditation practices, readings, videos and reflection assignments. Also introduced in our course is mindful yoga and Loving Kindness meditations. Our theory is that if we throw as much as we know about Mindfulness at the participants, they will find the tools that fit their personal preferences and lifestyles.
The teachers who attended last semester’s mindfulness course had an average reduction of 35% in their stress, 45% in anxiety and 29% in depression at the end of the eight-week course as shown through weekly data acquired via the DASS Survey. Moreover, many of the participants were genuinely appreciative of the course offering and some even decided to take it again in the spring!
Here are some of the post-course survey comments made by teachers who went through our course last semester:
Q: What did you get most out of taking this class?
“Practice….it held me accountable for really practicing mindfulness in everyday life.”
“Learning that I am not alone with these problems. To live in the moment.”
Q: Do you have any comments or suggestions?
“I really enjoyed it. Keep it up and maybe people will catch on – Thanks again, I appreciate all that you guys did!”
“I found the whole experience rewarding, insightful (about myself) and helpful in controlling stress levels. I thoroughly recommend it to everyone who has issues controlling anxiety and stress or just being able to focus.”
Where do we go from here?
Currently we are focusing our attention on spreading the news about mindfulness throughout our school district. Hopefully we can present this eight-week course to teachers in other schools to help them respond to difficult situations rather than react, live in the present moment and enjoy teaching their students on a more regular basis. We truly believe teachers can benefit from practicing mindfulness.
Jessica Place and Patrick Delaney have been teaching high school in Georgia for 17 years and co-teaching together for nine. Jess teaches language arts, and Patrick is the special education co-teacher. Jess has a P.h.D. in curriculum and instruction and Patrick obtained his P.h.D. in special education.
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