Deborah Holexa, RDH, MAEd, CMF
Deborah Sparks, RDH, MAEd
Dental Hygiene Residential Faculty
Mesa Community College
Educators enter the profession with a desire to make a difference in the lives of their students. They often do not realize that their time and energies may be depleted by the demands of budgets, administration, and other extraneous forces, potentially leading to high levels of burnout that cause many to leave the profession in their first five years of teaching. Another outcome of educator burnout is how the educator’s mood and energies potentially affect student outcomes, creating a negative cycle.
Mindfulness practices, the backbone of Emotional Intelligence, can be a tool in reducing teacher burnout and its affects on student outcomes. Much work has been done with Mindfulness and K-12 teachers and the authors believe that this can be transferred to higher learning environments. Caution should be used in the selection of Mindfulness facilitators; only credentialed, experienced facilitators should be used in educator training.
As educators, we entered the profession with an altruistic heart; with the wish to help our students reach their highest potential. We realized this would involve everyday tasks such as creating and delivering lesson plans, providing formative feedback, grading, studying best practices in our disciplines, and many other pedagogical tasks. We may not have recognized the extent of the workload; the behavioral challenges 20-30 unique human beings bring to a classroom, the on-the-spot decisions that need to be made to keep peace or to keep engagement flowing. We may not have anticipated pressures from administrators, budgets running in deficient, the need to do more with less, regional and national dictates, or pressures to publish and present. All we wanted to do was to assure the competence of the next generation.
Unmet expectations can be one of the many causes of life stress. Emotional demands of meeting the needs of many; governing boards, administrators, students, and in some cases parents, can be much more than we bargained for when entering the profession of education. We have the knowledge of our subject matter, we know how best to teach that material, we learn how to scaffold the material in meaningful ways based on age, development or circumstance of our students. Yet a skill that we get little if any training in is our coping strategies. How do we manage it all and still find satisfaction, happiness and even joy in our profession?
The intent of this paper is to present a possible solution to the disillusionment, dissatisfaction, occupational stress and burnout some educators may experience. Research has shown 25%-30% of educators report their jobs as very or extremely stressful and as many as 46% of educators leave the profession within 5 years (Roeser, Skinner, Beers, Jennings, 2012, p168). Some reasons cited for educator stress and burnout include: workload, lack of collaborative time with colleagues, lack of support from administration, management of student behaviors (Roesner, Jha, Walace, Wilensky, Schonert-Reichl, Cullen, Oberle, Thomson, Taylor, Harrison, 2013, p788), time demands, organizational factors, and accountability to standards (Flook, Goldberg, Pinger, Bonus, Davidson, 2013, p182).
Another facet of dissatisfaction and burnout to be considered is how the educator’s moods and energies affect the classroom climate and ultimately student outcomes. We have all had the experience of walking into a situation and responding to the atmosphere; depending on the energy being communicated, we may feel a sense of joy and welcome or we may feel a sense of dread, angst, discomfort and the desire to exit. In much the same way students can sense what educators bring into the classroom; often students will unconsciously respond to the atmosphere that the educator creates, pushing back or resisting the teacher’s energy, contributing to negative classroom behaviors. An explanation for this lies in the neuroscience of the brain, specifically, in mirror neurons. Dan Siegel, in his book, “The Mindful Brain”, describes the phenomenon of mirror neurons as “essentially the ways in which our social brain processes and perceives the intentional, goal-directed action of others…what we see we become ready to do.” (Seigel, 2007). Seigel also states, “we are hard wired to perceive the mind of another being” (Seigel, 2011).
Could it be plausible then, that a stressed out, burned out educator can be partially contributing, in an unintentional way, to behavioral challenges, lack of positive engagement and decreased student outcomes as a result of their own emotional unbalance? Could it be that because of the lack of coping strategies and self-care capacities we are accentuating our own discomfort?
If this is the case, what solutions can be created to help support and promote the educators’ health and well-being, job satisfaction, and potentially enhance the academic outcomes for the students? Most institutions have some sort of teaching and learning support center. These centers provide us with resources to create online and hybrid classes, showcase 5 new technologies for the classroom, assist in the development of meaningful rubrics, and problem solve student engagement issues, yet what many of us need is a way to cope with the demands and stressors of our day to day experiences. Becoming aware of potential burnout or distress can be a first step. Seeking support and developing skills and strategies to flourish and thrive would be the next step. Having resources available to help recognize signs of burnout and offer coping strategies could be a beneficial addition to teaching and learning centers.
The authors propose that Mindfulness Practices (MP) are a potential solution. The most common forms of practice include mindfulness meditation, yoga, and ancient Chinese practices such as Tai Chi, and Qi Gong. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), is a prominent leader in bringing mindfulness to the mainstream. He states: “mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (1994, p4). Another way of describing mindfulness is noticing what is, as it is, without judging or wanting it to be different; being right in the middle of it all, good bad or indifferent. Mindfulness has the capacity to develop emotional resilience. It supports the development of Emotional Intelligence. Emotional Intelligence is based on the principles of mindfulness; its roots are in the 2500 year old Buddhist philosophy. There is much research to support claims that mindfulness enhances well-being and emotional resilience. The most common wholesome states that MP have been shown to modify, based on objective and subjective studies, are to decrease heart rate, decrease cortisol levels (stress hormone), increase immune function, increase empathy and compassion for self and other, shift toward responsive rather than reactive interactions, and increase overall life satisfaction.
Many of our ideas are extrapolated from the work that has been done with K-12 teachers and mindfulness interventions, as there are few studies investigating the effects of MP on Running head: MINDFULNESS 101 6 education in higher learning environments. One such study was a randomized control trial that included 113 elementary and secondary teachers from the United States and Canada (Roeser, et.al. 2013). The participants experienced an 8-week, 36-hour mindfulness training that included additional home practices. The control group was on a waitlist. The test group was evaluated using self-report survey tools (subjective) and blood pressure and pulse rate recordings (objective). The self-reported results indicated that there were improvements in awareness of sensations, feelings, thoughts, and actions. They also reported large declines in stress, anxiety and depression (Roeser, et.al. 2013).
A second study of 64 educators from two middle schools in Pennsylvania used self-report tools to rate their mindfulness (Abenavoli, Jennings, Greenberg, Harris, Katz, 2013). Their findings noted that educators who, by personal report, were high in mindfulness experienced less emotional exhaustion than those low in mindfulness. (Abernavoli, ET. al. 2013). Additionally, those who reported being high in ambition but low in mindfulness reported more burnout while those who reported being high in ambition and high in mindfulness reported less burnout (Abernavoli, et. al. 2013). This suggests that if mindfulness traits can be cultivated they may be life skill strategies for educator well-being.
The last study we investigated was a randomized control trial enlisting 18 public elementary teachers from a medium sized mid-western city (Flook, et.al. 2013). The participants experienced an 8-week, 26-hour total, modified Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction course (mMBSR) while the control group was on a waitlist. The items measured were: psychological distress, mindfulness and self-compassion, burnout, teacher classroom behavior, cortisol measurements, neuropsychological and attentional tasks and mindfulness practice compliance. (Flook, et.al. 2013). Two key assessment tools were used in the pre and post evaluations. One was Ruth Baer’s Five Facet Mindfulness Scale (FFMQ) used to measure the mindfulness skills of observing, describing, acting with awareness, non-judging and non-reactivity. The second was Christina Maslach’s Burnout Inventory (MBI) assessing three aspects of burnout, emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, personal accomplishment (Flook, et.al. 2013, p185). The study results suggest that mindfulness interventions increase educators’ mindfulness and self compassion, increase effective teaching behaviors, and reduce burnout and attentional biases (Flook, et.al. 2013).
We believe that there is enough potential promise in MP use for increases in health and well-being to be part of each institutions’ faculty support and teaching and learning endeavors. Traditionally there are considered to be four pillars of mindfulness: awareness of body, awareness of sensations, awareness of thoughts and awareness of mental states or qualities of mind. Where as educators do we begin? Our minds are one of our greatest resources and strongest tools. Yet the value of Mindfulness is to assist in moving away from the mind in a deliberate way and placing our attention on the body as it is experienced in the present moment; something that may be difficult for educators in particular. While deceptively simple, the practice can be challenging. A comfortable place to begin is with basic awareness of the body, connecting the mind with the body. Informal practices of awareness include noticing the weightedness of the body and how it moves through space. As awareness of self increases, educators can develop practices to help regulate emotions and stress, specific to their profession. More formal approaches to developing a mindful state of being are traditional seated meditation, where the focus of attention is primarily on the breath, and walking meditation where the focus of attention is on the feet. As we begin working with the mind, it may become more noticeable that it is wandering and jumping from topic to topic without rest. This is normal; it is not a deficiency of the mind. Minds are designed to think and often become restless when they are invited to stop. The intention of Mindfulness is not to stop thinking but rather create space between thoughts or perhaps allow thought to reside in the background of the mind. The practice of Mindfulness helps train the mind to work for us.
When incorporating MP in the training and support of educators, caution must be used in the selection of those providing this training. While mindfulness is a wonderful tool with much potential for good, examining one’s own mind and tendencies requires a skillful facilitator to coach and guide the way. There are many fine accrediting organizations in mindfulness today, yet due to the increase in attention that mindfulness is receiving, there are also many inexperienced and non-credentialed individuals who claim to teach MP; an ethical issue currently being deliberated by those who have devoted their lives and careers to mainstream mindfulness. Before incorporating a new offering, investigate the credentials of those who will be teaching, look into their educational background and more importantly inquire about the facilitator’s personal experience with the practices. With the correct facilitator and personal practice, MP can support the inner lives of educators creating more personal life and work satisfaction, enabling them to inspire, engage and impact students in a positive way.