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Using Mindfulness for Teacher Wellbeing

Promising results from pilot studies of teachers using mindfulness in classrooms are exciting educators like Dr Mark Greenberg, child development researcher from Penn State University’s College of Health and Human Development, and Christa Turksma, psychologist, teacher and mindfulness trainer.  The husband and wife team, speaking at the recent Mind & Its Potential 2012 Conference in Sydney, say that nurturing teacher mindfulness is a great opportunity to create a caring classroom.

Longitudinal studies have shown the psychological and health benefits of adults using mindfulness; one meta-analysis identified the usefulness of mindfulness-based stress reduction as an intervention for a broad range of chronic disorders and non-clinical problems. Now, evidence is being collected about using  mindfulness in the classroom. And with increasing reports of teacher dissatisfaction with their profession, and reports that as many as one third of all newly recruited teachers are resigning or ‘burning out’ in their first three to five years of teaching, the move to use mindfulness to improve teachers’ wellbeing and decrease burnout, is gaining traction.

What is Mindfulness?

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor Emeritus of Medicine and founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School defines mindfulness as: paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.

In other words, mindfulness is consciously directing your awareness to present thoughts, feelings and emotions and staying with the present experience without automatically reacting to it. Kabat-Zinn says that  mindfulness also requires us to develop interpersonal awareness; having an awareness of your conduct and the quality of your relationships, in terms of their potential to cause harm to others, is part of cultivating mindfulness.  Speaking at Mind & Its Potential, Dr Greenberg emphasised that the non-judgmental aspect of mindfulness is particularly challenging, because “it is part of being human” (to make assessments and offer judgements).  

Teachers are practising mindfulness when they are:

  • listening with full attention to children and colleagues;
  • aware of emotions experienced by themselves and by students during  interactions;
  • open to receiving and accepting a student’s thoughts and feelings in a non-judgmental way;
  • not reacting in an automated way, but are regulating their reactions to be responsive to the child’s needs; and are
  • showing compassion for themselves and their students.

How Teachers Are Using Mindfulness in the Classroom

From her many years as a kindergarten teacher and mindfulness educator, Turksma shared examples of how teachers bring mindfulness practice into the classroom:-

  •  Replacing a raised voice to call the class to attention with a ‘Zenergy’ chime (struck with a rubber mallet it emits a soothing and relaxing sound) brings a quiet focus without adding energy to an already hectic environment.
  • In the car, or when walking to school, setting an intention for the day e.g. to be patient, can help to remind teachers how they choose to be that day.    Writing an intention down and keeping it visible on the desk is a useful visual reminder.
  • Keeping a picture of their family on their desk is another visual cue for teachers to bring love and generosity into the classroom with them.
  • Using deep breaths to address tension helps to bring attention to feelings, and gives time to notice and acknowledge them, without reacting first. 
  • Teaching meditative breathing practices to students and introducing ten minutes of mindful classroom practice each day, allows students the opportunity to watch their thoughts and feelings come and go, without reacting to them.  Some teachers who use the breathing practice have reported that it helps children to concentrate better in the classroom.

 At the CARE for Teachers professional development program in Pennsylvania, co-authored by Turksma, teachers are taught practical skills to bring mindfulness activities into their daily practice at home and in the classroom.  Skills include relaxation, silent reflection, mindful movement, and deep listening. 

Benefits of Mindfulness for Teachers

Christa Turksma likens mindfulness practice for teachers to nurturing the roots of a tree.  She says that the resilience, compassion for self, and self-awareness that