The Other 60 Percent

Can Buddhist training de-stress teachers?

BOULDER – What Angie Mays remembers most about last Thursday’s lunch was not so much how it tasted, but how it sounded.

She and her fellow students in her “Mindful Teacher” class at Naropa University were honing their sensory awareness skills by having a “mindful” lunch together. They ate in silence, carefully chewing and chewing and chewing each bite, noticing the subtle flavors and textures of their foods.

But what struck Mays was the sound. Without the distracting noise of conversation around her, she heard the chewing going on all around her in a way she’d never noticed before.

“I also found I couldn’t really look at anybody, because to look was to want to engage in conversation,” said Mays, an instructional coach and new teacher mentor for Weld County RE-8 school district.

Stressed teachers in need of contemplative practices

Mays acknowledges she’s got a long way to go to become really skilled in this whole mindfulness business. Other than practicing a little yoga, she’s a newbie.

“In my experiences in working with teachers the last few years, I’ve seen a lot of burnout, pressure, stress. There’s something missing.”
— Angie Mays, Fort Lupton

But she’s certain it’s worth doing, and worth sharing with her colleagues in Fort Lupton. That’s why she’s enrolled in a two-year Contemplative Education program at Naropa.

“In my experiences in working with teachers the last few years, I’ve seen a lot of burnout, pressure, stress. There’s something missing,” she said. “This program feels to me like it’s not just the latest fad, but something that can reach people.”

Few groups are more in need of stress relief than the nation’s teachers. Studies consistently show teaching to be one of the most stressful occupations, and the resulting physical and emotional ailments can be debilitating and costly.

Programs such as Naropa’s Master of Arts in Contemplative Education and the Cultivating Awareness and Resilience or CARE program at the Garrison Institute in Garrison, N.Y., aim to arm teachers with the Buddhist-inspired practices of mindfulness and body awareness as a means to counteract the stress of today’s classroom.

$3.5 million federal study underway of stress relief in classrooms

They’ve reached only a minuscule fraction of America’s classroom teachers. There have been about a hundred graduates of the Naropa program over the past decade, and fewer than 500 have taken CARE training.

Tish Jennings

But practitioners believe they eventually will be able to provide empirical data on the success of such practices in keeping teachers healthy. Once they can show school administrators how the training can boost the bottom line, they expect more educators will get serious about getting mindful.

“This is a really new area,” said Tish Jennings, senior director of the Initiative on Contemplation and Education at the Garrison Institute. Jennings was in Denver this spring to share with others involved in contemplative studies some ways to gather evidence about the impact of their work and advance the knowledge base of the field.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Education awarded a $3.5 million grant to fund a four-year randomized controlled trial of the CARE for Teachers program in New York City schools. It will assess not only CARE’s impact on teachers but also on classroom climate and student outcomes.

“I found myself dealing with some strong emotions in the classroom … As teachers get stressed, children get stressed.”
— Jennings, 22-year teacher

“I was a teacher for 22 years,” said Jennings. “I found myself dealing with some strong emotions in the classroom. It can be an emotionally demanding profession.”

Jennings also supervised student teachers, and it was through those experiences that she began to see how emotional reactivity not only creates stress, but can impair a teacher’s ability to be effective.

“As teachers get stressed, children get stressed,” she said.

When office workers get stressed, they usually have the option of stepping away for a few minutes, having a cup of coffee, speaking to another adult to help them calm down. But in a classroom, teachers must not only figure out what to do when they’re upset, they must do it in a way that manages the situation and doesn’t derail learning.

“And they’re doing it in front of a lot of children who may be highly critical of them, or not even paying any attention to them,” she said. “It can be incredibly challenging.”

Mindfulness helps teachers regulate emotions

Mindfulness practices can help teachers better regulate their emotions. It helps them to step back, calm themselves, and respond to situations intentionally, not flying off the handle.

Richard Brown began the Contemplative Education program at Naropa after teaching in a Buddhist-inspired school in Boulder in the 1980s.

“It seems like a paradox, but when we psychologically slow down, we can get a lot more done,” Jennings said. “When teachers experience that effectiveness and calming, it’s positive reinforcement for them to continue. It’s very subtle, but it’s really foundational.”

Richard Brown is the founder of the Contemplative Education program at Naropa, and is a co-developer of the CARE program.

“It came to be because of my own experiences in the 1980s teaching most third and fourth grades in a Buddhist-inspired K-12 school in Boulder,” Brown said. “I realized that a lot of insights from Buddhism could be translated to non-sectarian teacher education programs.”

Students in the two-year Contemplative Education program at Naropa do most of their coursework online, taking classes in such subjects as contemplative teaching, compassionate teaching, transforming instruction and curriculum.

But they also spend three and a half weeks together during each summer to form a contemplative learning community. They take classes in mindfulness, embodied wisdom and creating community. Much of that time is spent learning about self-care and body awareness, Brown said.

Teachers learning to take care of themselves first

“Teachers need to take care of themselves first,” he said. “It’s like the notion of putting the air mask on yourself in the airplane before you help your child put theirs on. When teachers develop that kind of emotional maturity, then they can create an atmosphere in the classroom that allows them to better serve the needs of their students.”

Michele Blumberg, an adjunct faculty member at Naropa University in Boulder, leads students in a “Mindful Teacher” class through some relaxing bodywork exercises.

Step one of mindfulness in the classroom is being aware of what’s going on in their own bodies, he said.

“Teachers are constantly in their heads, but their bodies are giving them stress signals,” he said. “Maybe it’s a tightness in the stomach or throat. But they just soldier through rather than noticing that their body is tense, paying attention, and beginning to relax and let go.”

It also means really listening, hearing the sound of a child’s voice rather than just the words the child may be saying.

“When a child says ‘I’m upset,’ a mindful teacher will allow himself a second to hear that,” Brown said. “But if you immediately come up with a solution, the child may not feel heard. And feeling heard is as important as any answer.

“So we spend a lot of time training teachers to listen to the children before they speak. Take a moment to feel it. So if a child says ‘I’m upset,’ if we actually register genuine concern, then that child will trust us more than if we just say ‘Oh, what’s that all about?’”

Understanding the value of just sitting still

Brown instructs teachers in just sitting still, in noticing how they are breathing, in grounding themselves.

“When you are being still, you start to notice the kind of thoughts and feelings you have,” he said. “Things come up. You start to get familiar with how your mind works and how your emotional responses work.”

This week, he had students engage in some mindful reading – reading a descriptive passage very slowly, examining each word and noticing how different words created different emotional reactions in them.

“Before, I could have given you a synopsis of the passage, but when I read it mindfully, it was like savoring each word,” said Teresa Sedano, a Sacramento teacher who works with sign language interpreters. “It was like seeing a newsreel in my mind. And when we got to the word ‘pain,’ it took me to my own pain from an injury.”

Brown nodded his agreement. “When you make that personal connection, you remember it better, and you have a more meaningful experience of learning.”

Michele Blumberg, who is co-teaching the Mindful Teacher class with Brown, does some simple yoga-style bodywork with the students, helping them to relax and to become more aware of their bodies.

After class, Mays expressed her approval of what she’s learning, and how she will use it.

“You know, it’s not just teachers’ belief in their students that will cause them to succeed or get in their way,” she said. “It’s teachers’ belief in themselves that also matters.”

How I Help

Students were obsessed with social media. Here’s what this middle school counselor did about it.

PHOTO: Hero Images | Getty Images

In our “How I Help” series, we feature school counselors, social workers, and psychologists who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Students at Eagle Valley Middle School in western Colorado were spending lots of time on social media, and too often their comments turned mean. Counselor Kayleen Schweitzer decided things needed to change, so last year she spearheaded a schoolwide campaign urging students, staff and parents to take a five-day break from social media. More than 150 people signed the pledge.

The results were encouraging. Participating students reported that they had more free time and were getting to bed earlier. Some even said the break made them realize they had been addicted to social media.

Schweitzer, who was named 2018 Middle School Counselor of the Year by the Colorado School Counselor Association, talked about how campaign organizers got students to participate, what she wants parents to know about middle-schoolers, and why she wants students to regard visiting a counselor as normal.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?

When I was 15, I lost my father. It was very unexpected and I found out at school. When I returned to school no one checked on me or followed up to see if I was doing OK. I remember wishing I had more support at school. That was the first time I realized that one day I wanted to be someone who could be there for students going through a hard time or transition.

When I was in college my favorite classes had to do with child development. I went on to pursue a degree in family and human services and a graduate degree in school counseling. I’m definitely happy with my decision to be a school counselor and I look forward to going to work every day.

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?

In the 2016-17 school year, my principal Katie Jarnot and I identified a need for something that would help with some of the conflicts occurring at our school. Katie came across a national program called No Place For Hate. It was just what we were looking for. In the 2017-18 school year, we brought No Place For Hate to our school. It has been amazing and powerful.

We noticed a lot of mean behavior on social media and that our students were spending so much time online. Also, with a surge of recent research into the detrimental effects of screen time, social media, and the correlation to depression and anxiety, it was clear there needed to be a change. So Eagle Valley Middle School’s No Place for Hate Coalition created a schoolwide activity that attempted to give students, staff, and parents a glimpse into positives that can come from limiting social media use and taking back control of our lives. We asked our school community to commit to giving up social media for five days.

During those five days, everyone who took the pledge was asked to do a daily reflection on the differences that they noticed. We offered a chance to win prizes as an incentive. To our surprise, we had 110 students (about one-third of our school), 18 staff, and 30 parents sign up.

Though not everyone completed the five days, we felt we brought some awareness to this problem. Students noticed how much more time they had when not using social media and they were able to get to bed earlier. Some actually admitted this activity helped them realize that they are addicted to social media. A few parents reported they were able to be more present with their family at night and have fewer distractions.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?

The tool I couldn’t live without is Google forms. Students can fill out a form to let me know they need to see me. When they fill out the form it notifies me with an email and I can see who is requesting to see me. It also allows me to keep data on what issues my students need support with. This helps me plan what supports I need to put in place through classroom guidance lessons, small groups, and individual counseling.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school where you work?

The biggest misconception I have encountered is that it’s a bad thing to go to the school counselor and that you need to have a huge problem. I have noticed that some middle school students are embarrassed to be seen going to the school counselor. I have worked really hard to make it normal to come to me and teach them that the strongest, most successful people need help sometimes.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?

I would remind parents that students’ frontal lobes are not fully developed and when they say they don’t know why they did something, they are probably being honest. I would also let them know that even if a student says they want parents to give them space and leave them alone, it’s not really what they want or need.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?

I have a student who is now in eighth grade and has been coming to see me on a regular basis when she needs support. As a sixth-grader, she was so closed off and worried about being seen coming to talk to me. I have been very consistent with her and kept reminding her that I’m always here if she needs anything. I ended up running a group with her and a lot of her friends. She saw that her friends loved coming to see me and were willing to talk to work through some of their problems. I also spent time with her and showed her it was a safe place to talk. Over time she broke down her walls and was able to trust me. Today, she stops by when she is doing well and when she is struggling. She loves to come and eat lunch with me. She has grown so much and I’m going to miss her dearly when she goes to high school.

What is the hardest part of your job?

The hardest part of my job is going home and worrying about my students. You always wish you could do more or make students see things can get better and they are enough. Middle school is such a hard time for students as they struggle to find where they fit in and deal with personal changes.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

In my first years as a school counselor, I had a student who was consistently falling asleep in class and missing a ton of school. When I had a meeting with his family, I found out that his mother was a single mom and his grandma, who also lived in the house, was very sick. The student was staying home to help take care of his grandma and his siblings so his mom could work and make money for the family. His father was an alcoholic who was in and out of rehab.

I realized that different cultures have unique values and priorities. It also taught me that you never know what someone is going through so we need to really take time to talk to kids to figure out what is happening in their personal lives before jumping to conclusions.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?

The way I wind down after a stressful day is to come home and spend time with my children. They are still young and innocent. I try to really enjoy this precious time with them when they have fewer worries and just want to have fun. I also love spending time with friends and clearing my mind of the worries of my job. Last, I enjoy catching up with email and work-related tasks as every time I scratch out something on my to-do list I seem to get stress relief.

Chilling effect

Five ways a proposed immigration rule could impact Colorado students and schools

PHOTO: JGI/Jamie Grill | Getty Images

Advocates for immigrant families fear that a proposed federal rule governing green card decisions could lead to more children going hungry and losing housing and health care. That, in turn, could pose challenges for educators and schools.

The proposed rule would allow the government to penalize some legal immigrants who have used public benefits by denying them permanent residency — a possibility that could prompt families to forgo any kind of government help. For children in those families, many of them citizens, the result could be hunger pangs, untreated illness, or outsized worry that their parents won’t be able to stay in the U.S. Inside schools, the new rule could mean more time and energy spent addressing students’ basic needs and the loss of funding from some public programs.

Fear that immigrants will shy away from benefit programs is nothing new. Stricter immigration rules since President Trump took office — stepped-up raids, efforts to discontinue the DACA program, and family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border — have already led to a chilling effect on the legal use of public benefits by immigrants. Advocates say changes to the so-called “public charge” rule will only exacerbate the problem.

The rationale behind the proposed rule, a stricter version of one that’s been in place for years, is to prevent immigration by people who will end up dependent on government help. Opponents of the rule say it punishes working-class immigrants who may need short-term aid, but contribute much more to the country’s economy over the long term.

The existing public charge rule penalizes immigrants for using programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or long-term care. The proposed version adds several more to the list, including Medicaid, food stamps, and housing vouchers. Free and reduced-price school meals aren’t included in the existing or proposed rule.

Mónica Parra, program manager of the Denver school district’s migrant education program, said families she works with are reluctant to sign up for any kind of help, even assistance heating their homes during the winter.

“They’d rather struggle or find other ways to get support,” she said. “It’s going to be very challenging to keep students motivated, but also safe. Maybe they’re going to be cold. Maybe they’re going to get sick.”

The proposed public charge rule doesn’t apply to refugees and asylum-seekers, and doesn’t penalize immigrants for public benefits used by their children. Still, like other advocates, Parra said she hears anxiety about the proposed rule from all kinds of immigrants, including citizens and those who already hold green cards.

They worry that using public benefits could get their own legal status revoked or hurt their chances to sponsor family members who want to immigrate to the U.S.

“The fear has always been there in these communities,” she said. “Now, people are even more afraid.”

The new public charge rule likely won’t take effect for months. First, there will be a 60-day public comment period, scheduled to start Wednesday, and then Trump administration officials will consider the comments and decide whether to make any adjustments.

Here’s a look at some of the ways the proposed rule could affect Colorado schools and students.

More kids come to school hungry

There are at least two ways schools could see more hungry students walking through their doors due to the public charge rule. First, families may be afraid to take advantage of food stamps — either by deciding not to enroll, or by dis-enrolling current recipients, such as citizen children.

Both Denver and Adams counties have seen dips in the number of people participating in the program over the last couple years. In Denver, about 2,000 fewer children receive the benefit now than in November 2016 when President Trump was elected. However, city officials caution that it’s hard to make a direct connection between falling participation and federal immigration policies since historically low unemployment rates may also be contributing to the trend.

While free and discounted school lunches are not part of the public charge rule, some advocates report that immigrant parents have been wary of enrolling their kids since Trump’s election. By law, public schools must serve students regardless of their immigration status and can’t ask for information regarding a family’s or student’s status.

A week after the Department of Homeland Security released a draft of the new public charge rule on its website, the Eagle County school district emailed parents asking them to help squash the rumor that signing children up for free or reduced-lunches “will inform ICE,” a reference to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

The letter concluded, “There is NO RISK in applying for free and reduced lunch, help us spread the word.”

So, what happens when kids go to school hungry? They may have trouble paying attention, misbehave more easily, or suffer from headaches or stomach aches. In short, less learning.

More children without health insurance, more student absences

The public charge rule’s chilling effect could have a major impact on child health, according to a recent Colorado Health Institute analysis. An estimated 48,000 Colorado children — the vast majority of them citizens — could be disenrolled from one of two public health insurance programs, Medicaid or Child Health Plan Plus. That would double the state’s rate of uninsured children from 3 percent to 6.7 percent, according to the institute.

The reason for so much dropoff is that health insurance is typically a family affair. So even when different rules govern adults and children in the same family, they tend to be enrolled as a group or not at all.

When students don’t have health insurance, school attendance and performance can suffer. For example, children may be absent more if they lack help managing chronic conditions like asthma, or if they’re not getting treatment for acute illnesses or painful dental problems.

Loss of health-related funding for schools and school-based clinics

School districts stand to lose two health-related funding streams if the number of uninsured children swells. The first would impact the state’s 62 school-based health clinics, which would likely see a drop in Medicaid and Child Health Plan Plus reimbursements if fewer students enroll in those programs.

Such an enrollment decline, which some clinic leaders have already reported, could make it harder for school-based clinics to stay afloat financially, said Bridget Beatty, executive director of the Colorado Association for School-Based Health Care.

With more uninsured students, “The need will go up,” she said, “but conversely the ability to financially sustain them will get more challenging.” 

In addition, 53 Colorado school districts receive funding through a program that could be affected by the proposed public charge rule. It’s called the School Health Services Program and allows districts to seek Medicaid reimbursements for services provided to low-income students with disabilities. That money can be used for health-related efforts that benefit all students, such as the addition of school nurses, wellness coordinators, or suicide prevention programs.

Funding received through the program ranges from a couple thousand dollars in small districts to a few million in large districts.

High-poverty schools have a harder time offering universal free meals

Nearly 40,000 students in 20 Colorado school districts can eat school meals for free because their schools participate in a federal program designed to make breakfast and lunch easily accessible to low-income students. But that number could drop if the public charge rule decreases food stamp participation.

The special meal program, called Community Eligibility Provision, is open to schools or districts where at least 40 percent of students come from families that use certain public benefits, including food stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Unlike in traditional school lunch programs, parents don’t have to fill out applications for free or reduced-price meals.

“Any time when you have eligible families not participating in SNAP, it does have a negative impact on community eligibility,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school programs at the national nonprofit Food Research and Action Center.

Even if schools or districts remain eligible for the program, a drop in students getting public benefits could mean a change in how schools are reimbursed for the free meals, she said. That, in turn, could make the program less financially viable for schools or districts to participate.

Immigrants could turn away from publicly funded early childhood programs

Crystal Munoz, who heads the nonprofit Roots Family Center in southwest Denver, worries that the Spanish-speaking families her program serves will stop using programs like Head Start, state child care subsidies, and the Denver Preschool Program, which provides tuition assistance to the city’s 4-year-olds.

Even though those programs aren’t part of the proposed rule, there’s still trepidation, she said. It’s because of the constant flurry of rule changes and the generally negative tone around immigration right now.

“We find ourselves very afraid to even give out resources or referrals to certain programs because we’re not sure,” she said. “For us, it’s waiting and seeing.”

She said if families do drop out of Head Start or other child care programs, it could push children — many of them citizens — into unlicensed care with relatives or neighbors, or force parents to cut back work hours to stay at home with them.