I was teaching in a graduate early childhood special education teacher program when the pandemic began. The morning that New York City shut down. I thought mostly about my teacher candidates. An urgent desire to perfectly design each course in an online format overwhelmed me—surely this would be the way to reduce any disorientation that candidates might be experiencing, provide some stability during a time of immense and rapid change, and model strategies they might be able to use in their own remote teaching experiences.
I noticed then that I was holding my breath. It prompted me to pause and breathe. In that moment, I chose to take care of myself first so that I could consider the needs of my teacher candidates next.
Compassion fatigue is the result of prioritizing others’ needs at the expense of our own well-being. This practice is common in helping professions, such as nursing and social work, but less discussed in teacher education, specifically early childhood teacher education where candidates include families in young children’s educational programming and planning.
The recognition of self requires one to be present, conscious, and self-aware—things I characterize as being attuned to or mindful of one’s needs. Yet, in our reflective discussions on teaching, we often examine practice with a focus on competency rather than through the lens of each individual teacher’s perspective and experience.
For the early childhood teacher, this could be akin to reprimanding a preschooler for falling asleep during a morning meeting without knowing the child had not slept well the night before. To effectively attune to the needs of children and families, teachers must attune to their individual needs first.
To help early childhood teacher candidates recognize the role of their positionality in influencing their practice, I used the shift to online teaching as an opportunity to create space for them to build a mindful self-to-other practice to carry forward into their own personal and professional settings.
Here are four activities to progressively encourage self-to-other thinking for early childhood teacher candidates and teachers.
Build Self-Awareness by Addressing One’s Needs
I began every class with a self-check-in: “Record and post one thing you did today to take care of yourself.” Pre-pandemic, I provided teacher candidates with sticky notes and asked them to anonymously post their responses on the whiteboard at the front of the class. During the pandemic, we used the chat box in Zoom, which was not anonymous. Another way to implement this could be to use Poll Everywhere to create an anonymous word wall.
At the end of class, I asked a candidate to read aloud several responses. We discussed their attention to self-care as a protective factor they could rely on during a time when nothing felt clear or certain.
Create Community by Connecting With Others
As students began to get to know one another, I encouraged them to reflect on our class as a community of learners, colleagues, and practice. Pre-pandemic, candidates posted their responses to the following prompt on sticky notes: “Describe a connection made with a course colleague.”
During the pandemic, candidates shared shout-outs to their course colleagues in the Zoom chat. Another way to encourage reflection on connections is to move teachers into small groups, either in person or in Zoom breakout rooms, and invite them to share positive experiences interacting with each other.
To be reflexive means to mindfully consider oneself in relation to others. Rather than assume that teacher candidates were familiar with mindfulness, I asked them to watch Thich Nhat Hanh’s What Is Mindfulness and read Zero to Three’s Getting Started with Mindfulness. My aim was to share resources that would equip them with a shared lens and language to reflect and plan. In a shared Google Sheet, I asked candidates to record responses to three prompts:
- Review: Record your initial impressions on mindfulness.
- Reflect: Describe your experience with mindfulness in this teacher-preparation program.
- Plan: In what ways have you been mindful or can you bring mindfulness and/or self-compassion into your thinking, practice, and interactions as an early childhood special education teacher? Start with yourself.
Recording responses in a shared space stimulated shared reflection; it also had the unintended effect of initiating a dialogue around how teacher candidates could and should be supported in teacher-preparation programs.
Encourage Creative Reflection
Until now, the shared spaces were limited to a specific format: written text, then dialogue. I decided to choose a medium that allowed for creative reflection, like Padlet planning journals, so that candidates would have open spaces to write, create graphics, record videos, and share resources. I also provided specific prompts to encourage (but not require) reflection on their individual well-being and its influence on others.
- In what ways might remote or blended teaching increase or decrease compassion fatigue? What have you learned about your well-being this semester?
- In what ways might your well-being influence the experiences of children and families with whom you are working?
- What are some strategies you might integrate into your daily practice to continue practicing mindful teaching both in person and at a distance?
Following their posts, candidates went into Zoom breakout rooms to debrief and identify one area to continue or change. Popping into each breakout room to listen and observe, I was heartened to hear candidates celebrating each other’s successes using the language of mindfulness.
Mindful thinking can help teachers become more attuned to themselves and to others. By centering myself in my practice, I addressed my needs before pouring my all into supporting my teacher candidates. They, in turn, completed a very challenging semester with a practice and community they could carry forward.