Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
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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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.