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Can mindfulness help stressed teachers stay in the classroom?

A few years ago, Amy Lopes, a veteran fifth-grade teacher in Providence, Rhode Island, learned that teachers at her school could try a mindfulness and yoga training along with their students. Her immediate reaction: “What a bunch of baloney!”

“I said, OK, I’ll try it, but it’s not going to work,” recalled Lopes, who teaches at the William D’Abate Elementary School. “But, within a couple weeks, I just let go and became a learner along with my students, and my whole world has changed.”

That training was given by a nearby nonprofit that had recently changed its name – from Resilient Kids to the Center for Resilience – because, said founder and executive director Vanessa Weiner, whenever trainers visited a school to work with students, “we kept hearing from teachers who said, ‘We need this, too.’”

Teacher stress is growing, experts say, pushing educators out of classrooms and hurting learning. On top of chronic underfunding for education and the continued pressure of standardized tests, there’s also the unrelenting pace of newer education reforms.

The mounting stress levels have sparked a trend of “resilience” trainings and workshops, which typically include yoga, mindfulness and meditation. Some educators worry that the push for resilience lets a broken system off the hook, arguing that more energy should go toward fixing what causes stress, not just helping teachers endure it.

“As we can see from the abysmal teacher attrition rates still going on, we need to do something more than just ask teachers to buck up and meditate,” said Jason Margolis, a Duquesne University professor of education.

But backers of these programs say frazzled, emotionally exhausted teachers need coping strategies now, and that need isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon.

Teacher stress and high turnover

Teaching ranks among the most stressful professions, according to Gallup research from 2014, in which about half of teachers reported high daily stress at work, tying medical professionals for the most-stressful jobs.

While it’s hard to say precisely how much stress educators face, experts say the sources of stress have multiplied in recent years, including anemic public-school funding levels, the continued dominance of standardized testing and a constant stream of new reform efforts, ranging from technology platforms to personalized learning initiatives.

“Too often in school transformation efforts, nobody acknowledges upfront that it’s going to be a slog, even when everybody in these schools wants to do something different,” said Deborah Delisle, president of the nonprofit Alliance for Excellent Education, and a former assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education in the Obama administration.

As part of a training session in mindfulness, teachers formed an inward-facing circle and closed their eyes, while other teachers walking the perimeter of the circle were prompted to touch the shoulder of someone who had inspired them. The training is part of a movement to help combat high levels of stress among teachers nationwide. Photo by Chris Berdik

Teacher stress fuels turnover, and staff shortages are hitting districts nationwide. About 8 percent of teachers leave the profession annually, and only half of those leaving retire, according to a 2017 report by the Learning Policy Institute, an education think tank. The biggest reason non-retiring teachers leave the classroom, the report noted, is dissatisfaction at work (55 percent).

Among teachers who stay on the job, about 28 percent are “chronically absent” (more than 10 school days a year), according to the most recent Department of Education statistics, which cover the 2015-16 academic year. While teachers can miss work for any number of reasons, stress can trigger a slew of physical ailments, such as migraines, asthma, obesity and heart disease. Indeed, that’s why wellness — eating right, exercising and rest — features prominently in many teacher stress management plans, including those developed for the Atlanta schools working with Georgia State University’s Center for Research on School Safety, School Climate, and Classroom Management.

The Center’s original mandate was to study a range of student mental health and safety issues, such as bullying. But the director, Kristen Varjas, said that local school leaders kept telling researchers, “what we’re really concerned about is the stress level of teachers.”

When stressed teachers quit, it’s often called burnout, but Doris Santoro, a Bowdoin College education professor, dislikes that term. Burnout, she said, wrongly implies that the ex-teachers simply weren’t up to the challenge of their profession. What usually pushes teachers out of the profession, she said, is a disconnect between “deeply held values about what teaching is and what students need, and what school leaders expect them to do.”

Santoro said school reform initiatives often rely on pre-packaged curricula, for example, that rob teachers of the flexibility to adapt lessons to students and find creative ways to engage them. Frustration can build even when teachers agree with the premise of a reform.

“If you look more deeply, teacher stress is often about teachers being frustrated with something that’s not succeeding with their students,” she said.

Teacher stress and student performance

The attention now being paid to teacher stress sprang from the growing focus on student stress and its influence on learning. The Center for Resilience, for instance, offers teachers a two-part training — first, building their own practice of mindfulness and self-care; then, a second round to help bring mindfulness to their classrooms, with breathing techniques, glitter jars (which students shake and silently watch settle), and other practices such as a body scan (a closed-eyes, focusing of attention on different regions of one’s body).

“Teachers are trying to manage classrooms just by saying, ‘Calm down and pay attention,’ but we need to give kids the tools to be able to do those things,” said Weiner, and teachers need to practice these skills before they can pass them on to students. “The analogy is that you can’t teach somebody to play piano if you don’t know how to play piano.”

Studies suggest that lower teacher stress improves student learning. In 2018, for example, University of Missouri researchers compared students’ behavior problems and their math and reading scores with the self-reported stress levels and coping abilities of their teachers. Students with low-stress teachers had the highest test scores and the best behavior. What’s more, in classes led by highly stressed teachers, both student behaviors and their math test scores got worse as teachers’ ability to cope with stress dropped (there were no significant changes in reading scores).

Of course, these results show correlation, not causation. Does teacher stress contribute to student academic and behavior struggles, or is it the other way around?

“I suspect the relationship is reciprocal. They build off each other,” said the study’s lead author, Keith Herman, who wrote the book Stress Management for Teachers (2015) with study co-author and fellow education professor Wendy Reinke.

Patricia Jennings, a University of Virginia professor of education, agrees, calling it the “burnout cascade.”

Emotionally exhausted teachers, she observed, were more likely to overreact to minor student stumbles, and these reactions spiked student stress in turn, leading to more discipline issues, and so on, spiraling downward.

“You can’t learn when you’re stressed,” said Jennings. With adrenalin and cortisol coursing through your veins, you can’t think deeply about a problem, or immerse yourself in a book, which is partly why schools have been adding “social-emotional learning” lessons to help students cultivate empathy, resolve conflicts, and manage their emotions. But, it’s hard to calm kids down with stressed-out teachers.

“I believe that teacher and student stress underlie a lot of our problems with learning,” said Jennings. “If we want to improve our test scores, then let’s all calm down.”

To that end, Jennings has spent more than a decade working with colleagues on a 30-hour mindfulness-based professional development program for teachers called CARE (Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education). As part of the training, stretched across several weeks, teachers explore the cognitive and physical links to their emotions to better regulate them, and they role-play stressful classroom situations to practice mindful responses.

CARE proved effective in a 2017 clinical trial, in which 224 elementary school teachers interested in the training were randomly assigned to a participant group or to a control group that was waitlisted until the research was complete. Using a combination of teacher questionnaires and classroom observations, Jennings and her team found that CARE increased teachers’ control of their emotions and reduced their stress, while also improving their sleep and making them feel less hurried overall.

But schools don’t often put time or resources into fighting teacher stress until it grows into a serious problem and teachers are eyeing the exits, said Jennings.

Is resilience training a solution?

Early on a recent Saturday, about 100 Boston-area educators filled a local high-school cafeteria that had been cleared of tables to make space for yoga mats. The gathering was part of a 200-hour training in mindfulness, meditation, yoga instruction and community building offered in several cities by a company called Breathe for Change, based in Madison, Wisconsin. Tui Roper, the lead trainer, conducted a lesson on accepting gratitude.

During a break, several teachers explained why they were there. Some spoke of recent efforts to de-stress students, which spill over onto teachers.

Tui Roper, executive director of partnerships at Breathe For Change, knows about teacher stress from her years as an elementary school principal in Washington, D.C. Roper led a Breathe For Change training session in Boston last month. Photo by Chris Berdik

“We need to be not only teachers, but social workers, and nurses, and mommies, and daddies, sometimes,” observed Danita Kelley-Brewster, assistant principal of Boston’s Charles Taylor Elementary School.

Others were simply worn out. “I love my students. I don’t want to leave teaching,” said Amy Martinez, an English teacher with the Central Massachusetts Collaborative, a multi-site special education partnership in Worcester. “But I just felt really empty. Emotionally, I was at the end of my rope.”

Some education experts worry that the emphasis on teacher resilience puts too much responsibility on teachers themselves, and not enough pressure on the systems and policies that cause the stress.

“We have to pay attention to both,” said Margolis, the Duquesne professor. For instance, he’s looking into how schools can cultivate teacher-leaders to shepherd big, new initiatives, “rather than bring in a lot of outside consultants to do top-down professional development.”

In one model, trained teacher-leaders spend half their time in their own classrooms and half coaching their colleagues, including co-teaching classes. “And when they meet, they talk about how to roll a reform out in a teacher-centered way, which often includes dealing with the stress of it,” said Margolis. “If it’s done well, then you get open honest dialogue about what’s working and what’s not, and how can we make this work at our school with our kids in a way that’s least stressful?”

Backers of resilience training say it’s a matter of triage, and they need to help educators now.

Indeed, the large crowd of teachers at the Boston training was testament to the growing demand for coping skills. Not only did the participants give up months-worth of Saturdays, but most of them paid the $2,650 tuition themselves. (Breathe for Change offers needs-based scholarships.)

At midday at the Boston training, teachers sat together, eating packed lunches. Leaning against a wall, Martinez, the Worcester English teacher, recalled the first Saturday, when she walked in not knowing anyone.

“We started in a big circle, and just to know that there were 100 other educators here who understood what I’m dealing with, emotionally and academically, all the pieces of it,” she said. “There was already a sense of community and connectedness that was very uplifting.”

This story about resilience training exercises was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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