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.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
The Importance of Intergenerational Learning Experiences
The young and the old and everyone in between living, playing, and working side-by-side is a tale as old as time. Yet that tale seems to be one of the past. We currently find ourselves in a
society where those interactions across age groups are few and far between.
Once upon a time intergenerational relationships formed organically. A family living in tight corridors was necessary for survival. Children, parents, grandparents and so on worked and lived as a community working toward the same goals. Their lives were interconnected. Today we live in discrete units. We have our own goals. We have our own lives from 9-5. Students split up by age. A greater role is placed on peers than ever before. Modes of communication have drastically evolved from my grandma's generation to my daughter's generation. Heck, communication has changed dramatically in the past 5 years let alone the past 50 years. Information is at our fingertips. Why ask grandma about the Dust Bowl when I can ask Alexa? I can ask her in the bath. I can ask her while I'm driving. I can even ask her at 3 in the morning when grandma has been long asleep.
Alexa has become such a fixture in our household, that not only does my daughter know how to get what she wants from her, but she also thinks Alexa is a real person. Living with us.
Now don't get me wrong. I don't believe that the changes we've seen, especially in the recent past, are necessarily bad things. Especially when it comes to technology. These changes are here to stay and are continuing to evolve as I write this. The best thing I can do as a parent and teacher is embrace it. But I also don't want to see my children or my students (or myself for that matter) miss out on the amazing benefits of intergenerational relationships.
Before going on I want to be clear about the definition of intergenerational. The way I mean it in this context is in connection with learning. Intergenerational learning is when those from varying age groups learn from each other. It's not a matter of being in the same room at the same time with people of all ages, like in a movie theater for example. It's working together with the intention of learning from one another. And yes, older generations CAN learn from younger generations, regardless of what you've heard about millenials, or your fears about Generation Z! Everyone has a role to play.
Benefits of Intergenerational Learning Experiences:
1) Learning from each other.
2) Building a stronger, healthier community of trust, reliance, and collaboration.
3) Discovering commonalities.
4) Provides opportunities to see different points of view.
5) Breaks down misconceptions, judgements, and stereotypes.
6) Those involved gain skills from those that are more experienced. This goes both ways. There are skills that young people have that some older generations struggle with. Tech literacy is one example.
7) Older generations can help children develop a healthy self -concept (self-esteem, confidence, identity, ideals, values and priorities.)
8) Intergenerational relationships can provide personal one-on-one attention to a child if approached as a mentorship experience.
9) Gives children someone other than a parent (fear of parental disappointment) or peer (fear of judgement) to confide in.
10) Elders with intergenerational friendships report better mental wellness.
Ways of Making Intergenerational Learning Experiences Part of the Curriculum:
1) Consider developing a mentorship program. Bring mentors from various generations to spend time with your students. They can play games, read to each other, chat, build something, etc. But the interactions should be one-on-one and should occur regularly.
2) Start a technology literacy volunteer committee. This would work well for older students. Pull together a group of kids that would like to offer tech lessons to those in the community that need it.
3) Start a club that community members of all ages can join. Ex: book club, knitting club, chess club, etc.
4) Incorporate intergenerational learning experiences into your current curriculum. Don't change anything, just add community volunteers to work with your students in the classroom.
5) Along those same lines, assign a project specifically designed to provide intergenerational learning experiences. I created a PBL project on generations that asks students to interview several individuals from different generations.
Check it out here: Project-Based Learning: Generations.
6) Organize shadowing experiences. Older students can arrange shadowing experiences with community members from different generations outside of the classroom. Urge them to make this activity a regular occurrence, not a one time thing.
7) Pen pals - if mobility is a challenge, consider a pen pal program with any number of mixed- generation facilities. An assisted living facility is one option. These relationships don't have to be between children and the elderly, however. My high school students used to go to an elementary school once a week to read to first graders. That is also an intergenerational learning experience that benefits both parties.
8) Form an Intergenerational community service crew to give time to improving the community. The purpose of this would be to bring various skills and ideas from different generations to the table. It's also a great way to learn from each other while working toward common goals.
These are just a few ideas. There are many possibilities. Play around with what might work for the age group you work with, your schedule, the number of students you have, your level of flexibility, mobility and more. What works for you and your students may not work well for others. But don't let these obstacles stop you from providing intergenerational learning experiences to your students, or if you're a parent, to your children. There is so much to gain from intergenerational relationships. Don't waste an opportunity!
Check out Experiential Learning Depot on TpT for more experiential learning resources. You can also follow me on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education.
10 Free Gifts to Give Your Students This Holiday Season
Children of the 21st century need so much more from educators than content delivery. We as teachers (and parents) grew up in an entirely different world than our students. Information is available to them anytime, anywhere. Memorizing facts, we know, isn't relevant to this generation, it won't be relevant to the next generation, nor the one after that.
What students need now are the "free gifts" on the list above, among other things. There are many more student-needs than what I listed on my gorgeous graphic up top, I just couldn't fit anymore on the page!
Educators are (or should be) well aware of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Basic needs must first be met for learners to reach a level of "self-actualization." Many children do not even have consistent access to their most basic needs: food, water, warmth and rest. School may be the only place they get those things. Safety, friendship and the tools to build a healthy self-concept are additional student needs. Most children struggle with these ideas, especially tweens and teens. They need us to help them navigate through this unique time in history.
What we can give our students this holiday season is support, kindness and love. We can listen when they need us to listen. We can provide our students with learning opportunities that help them develop the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century. We can offer experiences that foster the discovery of skills, talents, interests and desires.
I left my job a year ago to stay home with my own children, and since then have done some serious reflecting on my career. The last few years at my job I felt bogged down by constant student behavior issues, the pressure of adhering to standards, truancy, and my own stuff going on at home. I lost patience with my students and lost-sight of their most inherent needs.
We all know teachers don't teach for the money! We teach because we love our students. You are likely already giving your students most, if not all, of the gifts on the list. If you're not, it's okay! Give yourself a break. We as teachers are up against a lot. But try to do some serious, honest self-reflection this winter break. Make changes in your classroom if you need to. Create the conditions they need to thrive. Assign projects that promote student voice and choice. Provide a plethora of input to aid students in discovering their interests and talents. Focus on your students, who they are as individuals, and what they really need from you.
Check out some of Experiential Learning Depot's projects that might be just what your classroom needs. They are all student-centered, so provide that choice, voice, autonomy and hands-on experience mentioned on the list.
Activities for Building a Strong Advisory Community
Project-Based Learning Tool Kit
Community Action Projects
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There's no question about it, children learn by watching and imitating. These pictures are cases in point. This child of mine is a mini-me. I see her observing me. She examines my actions, takes mental note, mimics my every move, analyzes the outcome, and adjusts her behavior accordingly. All the while her brain is rewiring and building new connections as she's learning from me. I can see all of this go down simply by the expression on her face as she's watching me and mirroring my behaviors.
It’s a reminder for me as a parent and educator to model behaviors, values, and priorities that I hope to see in my own children and my students. It's a seemingly simple concept. Don't hurt others, don't disrespect others, work hard. But I catch myself often doing things that I wouldn't want my own children doing. I have to stop myself, reflect, and make changes. For example, I want my children to be good listeners. If I want that, I need to listen to them. I believe I do that....when I'm physically AND mentally present. My cellphone compromises my ability to be mentally present. My children take note. They are learning that it's OK to have their faces buried in their phones while others are speaking to them. That's not OK with me.
So I have to take a step back, reflect on my actions, ask myself if I want to see these behaviors in the children in my life, and make changes if not. Educators and parents, we need to be cognizant of our actions, because these kids are watching us!!
Follow me on Pinterest (Experiential Learning Depot) and check out my TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot, for more educational resources.
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.