George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Oasis Within: Mindfulness Practice for Teachers

January 22, 2014
Photo credit: Thinkstock

Editor's note: Simon Goldberg, Lisa Flook's colleague at UW-Madison's Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, contributed to this post.

It's 6:00 AM on a frigid Monday in mid-January. You know the feeling -- the darkness outside, as if you're moving through molasses, slogging through just to get out of bed. Through your morning ritual, you're finally at school. And it's just the beginning of a long, grueling day, in a seemingly endless week, and a never-ending year. You find that you don't have much patience for your students, frustrated with what feels like their commitment to making your life difficult. You feel isolated and alone, unsupported and up against something much bigger than you can handle -- in a phrase, burned out.

If some aspect of this story resonates, you're in good company. Many teachers experience stress and eventual burnout due to demands inherent in educational settings. But it doesn't have to be that way. Schools are beginning to recognize the importance of nurturing children's social and emotional skills. Likewise, schools have much to gain by caring for and promoting the wellness of their teachers. Recently, our group at the University of Wisconsin had the opportunity to work with a number of teachers who agreed to help us study the effects of a mindfulness training program adapted especially for educators.

An MBSR Moment

Among other benefits, mindfulness is a stress-reduction technique increasingly being used in business, healthcare and education settings, to name a few. Mindfulness entails bringing attention to present-moment experience with an attitude of openness and curiosity while letting go of judgments that may arise. Research evidence suggests significant physical and mental health benefits of practicing mindfulness, from stronger immune function to decreased depression and anxiety.

Research underway on applications of mindfulness in school settings is showing promise for teachers (as well as for students, which is another subject). A handful of studies with educators have found reductions in stress, increased compassion for oneself and others, improved focus and attention, and more effective teaching practices, even after just eight weeks of mindfulness training. Most of these studies employ curricula modeled on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), one of the most widely disseminated programs for learning mindfulness.

You may be thinking, "MBSR sounds interesting, but what if I don’t have time or access to an MBSR class?" Mindfulness practices, although requiring some effort to integrate into one's life, are straightforward and accessible. Here are two practices that you can try out:

  The Dropping In practice
  The Breath Awareness practice

Even brief moments like these, practiced a few times a day, can make a difference. Dropping in before class, during breaks, with students at the start of class, when things are getting hectic or before going home for the day may help us relate to the stress in our lives in more healthy ways.

The Power of Acceptance

Research suggests that mindfulness practice offers healing. The power, perhaps, lies in not needing to change one's experience. This may sound counterintuitive at first, as our instinctual reaction compels us to hold onto whatever is pleasant and push away whatever is unpleasant. This is a normal (automatic) response, but it creates considerable pain given that experience, whether pleasant or unpleasant, is constantly changing.

By simply cultivating the ability to experience the present moment openly, with curiosity and without judgment, mindfulness practice can remove a layer of stress and discomfort from our lives. Going back to our cold, dark January morning from above, sure, many of us may prefer a bright, warm June morning. But an extra layer of (unnecessary) suffering gets piled on the January cold when we think or wish that it should be different from what it is. The weather won't change just because we think it should, so why not save our energy? We also add suffering through worrying and projecting into the future or past. "This weather will interfere with my plan to exercise outside, I won't be able to stick to my resolution to be healthier, I might as well forget about dieting, too. I don't know how I can ever become healthy and happy." And so on.

Mindfulness practice offers an alternative to this habitual resistance we're all too familiar with. We can learn to engage experience directly, even when painful or stressful, or when facing an unwelcome chilly morning. This approach does not eliminate the unpleasant, but can we see experience for what it is without pushing it away? Can we perhaps learn to treat ourselves with compassion when we encounter difficulty?

The first scientific studies of mindfulness, over 30 years ago, applied it for chronic pain. Participants in these groups learned to experience their pain directly, without adding anything on top. Opening themselves up in this way -- exactly the opposite of how they were used to responding -- provided relief. What a paradox!

Life is often tough, and teaching is certainly tough. But this difficulty increases with our resistance to what is here now. Through practice, we can develop greater kindness toward ourselves and increased openness to our experience, to be more fully available for both the painful Monday morning and the exhilarating "Aha!" moments of student discovery.

More About Mindfulness

Here are a few resources for learning about mindfulness programs and research:

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  • Mindfulness
  • Mental Health
  • Student Wellness
  • Teacher Wellness

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