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.
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.
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 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.
“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.”
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.”