By Bob Schwalb
It’s no secret: Teaching is a demanding and oftentimes stressful job. So stressful, in fact, that 46% of teachers in a recent survey said they experience high daily stress. This ties them with nurses for having the highest stress levels of any occupation in the United States. While it would be impossible for teachers to eliminate all of the stressors they encounter daily, practicing mindfulness allows them to lessen its negative impacts. This not only benefits the teacher’s wellbeing, but it also helps promote a positive classroom environment for students.
Stresses of Teaching
Many things contribute to teacher stress; here are just a few (if you are a classroom teacher, you will undoubtedly think of many more):
- Demands from parents, administrators, and colleagues
- Large class sizes
- Wide spectrum of learning styles and capabilities among students in the classroom
- Student conflicts
- Disruptive student behavior
- Lesson planning, including IEPs
- High-stakes testing
- Grading student work
- School funding constraints
- Numerous meetings
- Expectations of being a positive role model for students
- Online teaching (thank you, COVID-19)
Effects of Stress on Teachers and Their Students
These challenges, depending on the degree to which they are present, can leave a teacher feeling overworked, discouraged, exhausted, burnt-out and, in some cases, ready to give up teaching altogether.
A limited amount of stress is not necessarily a bad thing. It can help motivate us and keep us focused on the task at hand. But when stress persists to the point where it’s experienced constantly or it becomes overwhelming, it can lead to serious negative health issues such as anxiety, high blood pressure, heart disease, and depression.
Stress affects not only a teacher’s wellbeing; the stress they experience also affects the students in that classroom. A stressed-out teacher can negatively impact students’ emotions and their ability to learn. When students are stressed, their bodies redirect energy from the learning regions of the brain to the amygdala, which is responsible for the flight-or-flight response. When this happens, their capacity to learn is limited.
How a Mindfulness Practice Helps
Studies have shown a link between a positive emotional classroom environment and academic achievement. One study conducted at the University of Virginia demonstrates how a mindfulness development program offered to teachers improved not only the teachers’ emotional wellbeing, but also the quality of their classrooms and the academic achievements of their students.
Another study in Social Psychological and Personality Science showed that mindfulness training helped reduce implicit bias. Implicit bias happens when we stereotype individuals or groups of people based on their race, gender, age, etc. without consciously being aware that we’re doing it. When teachers bring unexamined implicit biases to the classroom, it’s easy to see the potential for negative consequences. Being mindful can help.
Being mindful does not make stressors and implicit biases magically disappear; instead, it gives teachers the tools and skills to maintain equanimity, remain fully aware in the present moment, and, as a result, create the potential for an optimal learning environment for students.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is our ability to bring awareness to what we are experiencing in the present moment. When we are mindful, we are aware of what is going on around us (e.g., sights, sounds, smells, etc.), as well as inside of us (e.g., thoughts, emotions, body sensations, etc.), without unconsciously reacting or becoming overwhelmed. It is a skill that anyone can develop through practice.
One of the most common and accessible ways of cultivating mindfulness is through a mindfulness meditation practice.
Types of Mindfulness Meditation
There are a number of meditation practices that cultivate mindfulness. Below are some of the more popular ones. You may notice that each meditation has an object for the meditator to focus on during the meditation.
- Breath meditation
- Body scan meditation
- Sounds meditation
- Thoughts meditation
- Emotions meditation
- Mantra meditation
How to Practice Mindfulness
You can practice mindfulness formally or informally.
With formal meditation, you designate a time and place to meditate away from interruptions and distractions. Ideally, you would set aside at least 20 minutes per day to meditate, but even if you are only able to spare a couple of minutes, you will likely see benefits. Formal meditation is usually done with eyes closed, sitting on a chair or cushion, focusing on the breath or another meditation object mentioned earlier. If sitting on a cushion or in a chair is not possible or is too uncomfortable, you can meditate lying down, standing still, or even walking.
Informal meditation happens when you bring mindfulness to everyday tasks, such as drinking tea, washing dishes, walking down the hallway, grading papers, or having a conversation. Practicing informally allows you to remain aware in the present moment with the breath and the body while you actively live your life. There is no limit to where, when, or how often you can practice informally. The more moments in the day when you are able to practice informally, the stronger your mindfulness will become.
Mindfulness Meditation Resources
Today, there are a number of terrific resources available to help you start and/or continue with your mindfulness meditation practice. Many of the online resources listed below provide excellent guided meditation instructions, as well as information that can be helpful for your practice. (Note that these recommendations are mine personally rather than HEART’s, with the exception of the final item.)
Here are a few wonderful books on mindfulness meditation, including How to Meditate, by Pema Chodron; Mindfulness for Beginners, by Jon Kabat-Zinn; and Mindfulness in Plain English, by Bhante Gunaratana.
Finally, you may find this HEART-produced guided meditation useful.
With practice, anyone can learn to use mindfulness to mitigate the harmful effects of stress. Since teachers experience higher levels of stress than people in most other professions, this is especially important to them. Bringing mindfulness to the classroom not only helps teachers deal with the stressors inherent in the job, but it is also likely to improve the learning environment for their students – clearly a win-win.