Using Mindfulness to Prevent Teacher Burnout
If you are a teacher you know the meaning of burnout. It happens to all of us. For some, stress and anxiety ebb and flow based on the demands of the job at the time. For others, stress becomes a normal part of life. That is what happened to me.
Five years into my teaching career I was confronted with an unexpected health issue. I met with a variety of doctors who all said the same thing: Get your stress under control. Stress was not only impacting my mental health, but was taking a toll on my body as well. One of my doctors suggested that I see an acupuncturist. The acupuncturist always took my heart rate before starting. One day she asked if I had a tough day. I told her that I hadn't, that it was a fairly standard day. She told me she asked because my heart rate was very high. That was eye opening for me. I couldn't even recognize when I was stressed because that's how I felt ALL THE TIME.
I took the advice of my doctors and sought help. I got a stress therapist. The physical health issue was ironed out for the time being, but the stress issue as a whole was not resolved long-term. The efforts that I took to maintain a low-stress lifestyle were not sustainable. I couldn't see a stress therapist forever. I didn't, and still don't, have the tools to manage my stress long term.
A few months ago I connected with the lovely, intelligent, and fiercely passionate, Nikisha Patton Handy through LinkedIn. Her profile struck me because of my own history with stress. She was an educator that was burned out of the industry. She stepped away to take some time to be with her family. She has since discovered mindfulness and has used that discovery to serve other teachers that are having similar experiences. Her story, which she tells here, is powerful because it is so relatable. I wish I had met her 5 years ago. Check out her story below as well as some resources for self-care.
Nikisha Patton Handy began teaching in 2005 as a special education teacher, and continued to work in education until 2016. She earned a Bachelor's degree in Applied Behavior Analysis, a Master's degree in Special Education specializing in Behavioral Interventions, and is currently working to complete a Doctorate degree in Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment. Nikisha has served in the capacity of educator, tutor, department chair, interventionist, and interventionist coordinator during her career. Nikisha has since become the proud business owner of 2 Inspire Peace, which seeks to inspire peace in those that pour into children. 2 Inspire Peace offers stress relief and healing by way of mindful meditation, offering retreats, professional development opportunities, aromatherapy and de-escalation products, and life changing events for educators, mentors, and caregivers.
Every burned out teacher has their story. Mine is one of passion, hope, overachieving, and high expectations. Let me begin by saying that since 2005, I have been a special education teacher. The first hurdle I encountered was the fact that many of the other teachers, administrators, and staff never quite understood what I did as an educator. There is quite a discrepancy between what special education teachers are responsible for in comparison to general educators. When other teachers and administrators see what you are doing, many either feel sympathy or lack understanding and judge what you do as subpar in comparison to other educators because of a lack of knowledge, empathy, and experience.
The last year that I agreed to be a teacher of record, the year began with me sitting in a before-school professional development session as the principal presented the assessment data from the previous year. This particular year included a monetary incentive if percentages of passing the state exam were achieved.
I found myself staring at a screen with bar graphs illustrating the performance of students that took a modified test. There were several misconceptions built into just showing the chart without explanation. The first misconception was that all students that took these tests were in my class. The second misconception was that these students failed the assessment without making significant growth from the prior year to the year on the graph in front of me. The ultimate misconception was that none of us earned the monetary incentive because of my students.
I knew about all of the struggles, the meetings, the number of students that had shown grade levels of growth in one single year, and even the relationships with families that had been restored during the process. But as this screen was displayed for all of the other teachers to glare at, I felt a sense of apathy, and in that moment, I was determined to do more to prove to my peers and myself that I was an excellent teacher.
This is what many of us do as educators: push ourselves more even though many of us aren't given the support, resources, funding, or time needed to work the miracles expected for the students we serve. From there, for me, as my family grew, as I left special education and switched to becoming an interventionist to prevent future false positives in special education, as I worked harder to make an impact, I was slowly losing myself and had no idea that I was burning out. I had created a new normal of toxicity, of complaining, of saying "yes" and agreeing to do more work than was possible for me to complete, of taking work home and losing more significant time and memories with my family.
With everyday that went by, I hit snooze more, woke and got out of the bed later, arrived at work later, and promised myself to do less as I was assigned more. How did I get here? I now realize that what I lacked was something I never knew existed, so I didn't know that I needed it. What was that? Mindfulness. Simply being aware of the present moment, having self-awareness and the ability to regulate my emotions and behaviors, or even recognizing that I was leaving the majority of my life either in fear of my future or suffering from the past.
The only times that I truly felt present were the moments that I spent with my students. Once I left the classroom, I didn't have as much access to students. I was working more closely with teachers and staff in a supposed "elevated position". It was at that time that I began to lose my passion for the educational industry as a whole.
There are many teacher training programs for those that aspire to change the world by pouring into our younger generations, but where are the classes within these programs that teach balance, mindfulness, and the skills to live in a way that promotes resilience in such a demanding industry? The new norm is that teachers graduate from their programs, enter the industry, many without a mentor, and simply get better with time. But what happens to these educators as people, as family members, as friends, who who are just trying to balance their lives with their newfound career?
Many unfortunately burn out within 2 to 5 years of entering into the industry. Therefore, our industry is flooded with new educators, many of which go without mentors, support, or any idea of how to sustain themselves without losing their family, their friends, and sometimes awareness of their own mental health.
I chose my family after 12 years of dedication to education, and that's when I found mindfulness. I had a two-year-old at home and a husband that I felt I had emotionally abandoned and needed to take care of. My journey began with long moments of contemplation of how I had arrived to a place where I was consuming medication to control depression amd and anxiety. I needed a deeper connection with myself to truly find my purpose, not necessarily my next career move. I needed to find peace! I was beginning to see the same signs of unhappiness and anxiety in my daughter. A separation had been created between me and my spouse. I immediately recognized the need to simply reset.
Mindfulness for me began with finding what allowed me to feel at peace. Was it the sun beaming on my face? Was it my time using guided meditations to center, balance, and positively affirm myself? I began playing uplifting music, cleaning and decluttering my space, and journaling my feelings and insights. I found that certain scents such as lavender and lemongrass lifted my spirits, and so I took an interest in essential oils and aromatherapy. Moment by moment and day by day with these practices in place, I began to develop a sense of gratitude for having access to all of the things around me that made me feel uplifted. I found that deep breathing had the power to reverse an oncoming anxiety attack. The same breath could calm me even in my most furious moments.
Mindfulness is different for everyone. What may appeal to one may deter another. Whatever you have to do to stay in the moment and keep your thoughts positive is the definition of mindfulness to me. What we consume and accept as our reality flourishes. It can start with you choosing to grow rather than stay stagnant, choosing to be happy rather than feeling fine, choosing to live your best life everyday instead of taking it a day at a time. Mindfulness is a second by second, minute by minute choice that has totally changed and rearranged my existence in a way that I cannot explain. What mindful practice will you commit to in order to adopt a lifestyle that allows you to balance and stabilize, thereby allowing you to offer patience and compassion for yourself and those around you? #positivevibesonly
Written by Nikisha Patton Handy
Attention needs to be paid to the sources of teacher burnout, there's no question. And no one is arguing that here. Continue to use your voice and advocate for systems that prevent stress and burnout. I wasn't burned out of the industry because I had support from my director and coworkers. That is not uniform across the board, however. Teachers battle lack of support in many districts. Until all of the issues with education magically disappear, keeping mindful is a good practice. It's a good practice in life. Educators aren't the only ones that feel stress, pressure, anxiety, depression, etc. It's likely a reality of living in the 21st-century. Being mindful of your emotions and actions is an important skill for everyone to have, including our students. It's important for us to model social/emotional intelligence, and mindfulness can be a really effective tool for that.
Thanks for reading! Nikisha hosts her own Youtube station where you can find quick and simple tips for stress reduction and meditation exercises. You can also peruse her website, 2 Inspire Peace, for more resources.
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Ed Web: Free Education Webinars for Professional Development
Yay! Here we are, my first blog post ever! I'm oddly nervous, but feel confident because I've chosen the mother of all online education resources to start us off. Edweb. It is exactly what it sounds like. It's a website loaded with FREE webinars for educators. The best part? You earn a certificate for participating that can be counted toward clock hours for licensure renewal. Major bonus.
When I decided to leave my job and stay home with my children for the year, I started getting a little panicky about how I was going to earn those hours. When I was working, professional development was arranged by and paid for my employer. Once home, It was a challenge to find CEU opportunities within my meager stay-at-home-mom budget and jam packed schedule. I found 1 hour seminars for $50 online, or two week long courses at local Universities. That's all fine for some, but I need to stretch every dollar and every hour. I'm spread thin as it is, which I believe is probably the case for most teachers and stay-at-home-parents. I stumbled upon Edweb and have since participated in about 10, free, live webinars, all of which were pretty genius.
You can be really flexible with Edweb. You create your schedule. You participate in webinars that work for you. And the best part? You can engage from the comfort of your own home. I have been able to sneak a few sessions in here and there while my youngest is napping. If you're a teacher, you could easily participate in a few webinars over spring or winter breaks, or during a prep hour if you have a little extra time. Each webinar is only an hour. There have been times that I have been in the middle of a webinar and something came up. I can pause it and come back later, because all live sessions are recorded. You can go back and watch from thousands of recorded webinars that have been archived and made available for viewing. The downside to watching the recorded version is that you don't get to be a part of the webinar. With live webinars you can participate (or not, if that's not your thing). You can make comments, ask questions, and start dialogue with people from across the globe. Community collaboration opens so many doors for you as a teacher and for your students. Live webinars make this possible.
One fantastic element to this resource is that the webinars are diverse. I can pick and choose the webinars that fit my philosophy, teaching style and interests. I am interested in project-based learning, social-emotional learning and STEM. There is no shortage of webinars on each of these subjects. In Minnesota there are specific requirements for licensure renewal aside from clock hours in your subject area. Examples include suicide prevention best practices, positive behavioral intervention strategies, and reading preparation. Edweb has webinars for each of these subjects. Edweb is where I have learned about some of the resources I will share with you here in the future. The webinars on Edweb are chosen because they are innovative ideas that address the most-cutting edge educational research. Every time I complete a webinar, a part of me wishes I was still teaching so that I could implement a suggested strategy, activity or idea in my teaching. The webinars light a fire under my ass, which is especially fantastic come February in Minnesota when I need a little light and inspiration. For now, I file notes and ideas away until I go back to work, at which point I'll have a large stockpile of material to test out.
One final bonus - and I swear I am not getting paid by Edweb to say these things - very little energy on my part needs to be put into explaining the Edweb website, because it is so user-friendly! You create an account. That's about as difficult as it gets! The rest is just selecting from the plethora of fantastic webinar topics, viewing or participating in the webinar of choice, and printing your CEU certificate to file away for safe keeping.
If you have read the Who We Are section of this blog you know now that I won't be boasting about just any old educational resources on this blog that can be found online. In other words, I likely wouldn't share a resource that is loaded with worksheets. I will post and share educational resources that emphasize innovation, inquiry, experiential learning opportunities and community collaboration. I think Edweb encompasses these ideas. There is an optional element to Edweb, that you can opt in if you choose, or not if it's not your thing. Right on the homepage there is a tab at the top titled "Join a Community". I for example am part of the "Teach and Travel" community. I am notified when there is an upcoming webinar on student travel. I participate in live forums on occasion with other members of this community where we share ideas and tips on various student travel related topics such as great fundraiser ideas. Some of the best lessons or learning experiences I have done with my students were ideas that came from other educators. Sharing our resources, bouncing ideas off of each other and ultimately supporting one another is essential for happy, healthy, productive, effective and caring educators. Let's face it. The teacher survival rate is grim. Teaching seems to be a revolving door with the the standing statistic that 40-50% of new teachers leave the field within the first 5 years. Often times, as we have all experienced, we feel underpaid and undervalued. Edweb helps ameliorate these effects by building a community of teachers to support one another. Working in a community school for the bulk of my career has opened my eyes to the advantages these connections present, for students and educators. If you choose to "join a community", your level of involvement is entirely up to you.
Edweb is loaded with innovative webinars, valuable for you and your students. If you are looking to reinvent your teaching strategy, add a few modifications here or there, or just need a little inspiration when you're feeling stuck, Edweb is a great go-to resource. Register for a webinar, or join a community and start a forum to get a little insight and encouragement. I hope you're able to use it if for nothing else to just get some CEU clock hours. I hope to run into some of you in an Edweb forum! Good luck to you all. Stay tuned for a post on another great resource!
Search Webinar Archives
Join a Community
My Edweb Transcript
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.