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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Student Climate Strike
Students from around the world skipped class today to raise awareness and push legislators to make moves on climate change. I was able to pop over to the Minnesota State Capitol Building and watch the students in action. I was drawn by two issues that are important to me; climate change and education. The energy exuded by students and bystanders was contagious. I was both inspired and in awe by this student-led movement.
I wrote a blog post on student activism a while back called "Four Ways Students Can Take Action." The gist of the post is that students can have a voice. Students can make massive waves of change. Not only that, but getting involved in community and global issues and playing an active role in finding solutions, is one of the most profound learning experiences a young person (or old) can have. The four ways that students can take action mentioned in the blog post includes: 1) raising awareness, 2) advocating for legislation, 3) raising money, and 4) giving time. The climate strike is a small piece of a much greater movement, but the strike alone has been wildly successful in raising awareness around the world.
This current climate change movement, initiated and led by students, is gaining global attention. Why? In my opinion, it is because young people are the ones making the demands. And they have that right. Students at the capitol building today spanned every race, socioeconomic class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and background. They come from all walks of life, yet were brought together today to work toward a shared goal; to secure their future and the future of those that come after them. I don't know if the message would be as strong if a bunch of middle-aged folks like myself stomped up the steps of the capitol building waving around posters. Young people not only have the passion and the energy, they also have the tools and skills to spread the word to mass audiences at a rapid rate simply because they are growing up in the 21st-century.
Some feel torn about student walkouts. What's to prevent kids from using the strike as an excuse to skip class? Nothing, But I say one missed day of school is a small price to pay. The students that walked out today and made it to the Capitol steps gained more from this experience than they would have sitting in a classroom (says the experiential learning educator.)
Rondo: Beyond the Pavement
I recently had the opportunity to go back to my school, Jennings, to view a one-time screening of a documentary created by a group of High School for Recording Arts students. The project was entirely student-directed. The film, called Rondo: Beyond the Pavement, is about the Rondo community in St.Paul that was leveled and fragmented to make room for highway 94 decades ago. The hours and hours of research conducted by the students, rifling through thousands of documents, revealed that there were other route options that would have kept the neighborhood of Rondo in tact. They discovered in their research that the displacement of marginalized communities for the sake of development has happened to 1200 neighborhoods across America, leaving community level trauma in their wake.
What these students did was take an issue close to home, close to their community, relevant to the future, and they spread the word. Their film will be shown at six film festivals across the nation this year, possibly more. Their message is to learn from history, from people's stories, and not to sit back while others determine their fate. This student project is another great example of students taking action by raising awareness.
I have a resource in my TpT store called "Community Action Projects", which is a student-led PBL project where students take action on something important to them in the community. It doesn't have to be creating a global movement. It could be as simple as getting a crosswalk put into an area with a lot of pedestrians. The idea is to get kids involved and invested in their communities. To be responsible and educated citizens. It doesn't have to be political and it should not be teacher led. It has to be personal to the student and relevant to their lives.
I used to teach a climate change seminar before I decided to stay home with my own children. I have a lot of climate change resources to put in my store, but need to get them organized. That will take some time. I will probably have to take the summer to get it all on there, but keep an eye out for single resources here and there. It will likely be a mix of inquiry labs, project-based learning, and problem-based learning, and will be scientific in nature.
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Teachers and parents of the 21st-century have a challenge to face and the responsibility to confront that challenge. Technology is a prominent and permanent part of modern society. It is a blessing and a curse, particularly when it comes to social media and children.
We have all been faced with the need to make important decisions for our children when it comes to technology; at what age to allow them to have their first cell phone, whether to let them use social media as a research or presentation tool in class for school projects, how much time to allow them on social media each day if at all, whether to install child monitoring software to home or school computers.
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.