Educator Mental Well-Being
Tue, 2 Feb 2021
Teaching can be a beautiful, playful, and life-giving profession—but it also can be very, very stressful. You are in charge of so much, and so many people depend on you, but a lot of factors are out of your control. And often, in the face of stress, you power through and be the best you can for your students because they are so important. But guess what? YOU’RE IMPORTANT, and we know it’s sometimes easy to neglect taking care of your own needs in favor of others.
If teaching wasn’t already stressful enough, 2020 and 2021 have thrown everyone into the deep end. In many places, teaching looks so much different now, and the uncertainty of the future can cause a lot of anxiety. PLUS, we’re still inside a global pandemic!
In this video, we talk to a former middle school educator and current postdoctoral research associate at the Center for Healthy Minds. He’ll explain a few simple things you can do every day to help mitigate and/or reduce the added stress and anxiety you’re feeling, and how those practices can help you connect to your students.
Take Care of Your Students by Taking Care of Yourself
by Matthew Hirshberg
Thinking back to my time teaching middle schoolers, things went well when I felt connected to my students. Even if my lesson plan fell apart, when I felt connected to the students in the classroom, more often than not I managed to respond in a way that moved the class forward. At the very least, I was able to maintain a positive learning environment and maybe even laugh about what had occurred. When I felt stressed, angry, or impatient, I often said or did something that inflamed the situation or created tension with a student or group of students. That tension would frequently reemerge at some later point, and never in a helpful way.
Teaching is an extraordinarily demanding job. Teachers must not only corral a large number of students, none of whom are there entirely of their own volition, but they have to corral this large number of students toward learning. Although we talk about school as though academic learning is what it’s all about, we know students are children (and adolescents)with diverse academic, emotional, and developmental needs. To teach content, these needs must be addressed enough so that students are able to pay attention, engage, and digest new content and skills. To successfully educate students, we need an environment where students feel safe, respected, engaged, and cared for. In other words, in an environment of social connection.
Thanks in part to social-emotional learning becoming an educational buzzword, we do focus a lot more on the social-emotional learning and well-being of students. Rarely though do we consider the social-emotional learning and well-being of teachers. The good news is that recent research has illuminated a number of practices that help support well-being and the competencies that underlie well-being. The bad news is that these practices are infrequently included in teacher education or professional development. Recent research also suggests that engaging in these practices supports teachers in feeling less stressed, anxious, and burnt-out, in sleeping better, experiencing more well-being, and may even be related to more effective classroom practices.
Understanding and updating limiting self-beliefs
If we believe that we aren’t capable of growing, chances are we won’t. Social psychologists describe this attitude as a fixed mindset. Neuroscience has proven definitively that the brain is constantly changing in response to experience in a process called neuroplasticity.
We can begin to harness our inherent ability to change by first simply reminding our selves that we have this capacity. Sounds small, but our experience of struggling to manage a classroom of students, for example, can be transformed just by replacing the thought “I can’t do this!” with the thought “I am learning how to do this and will improve. “
Mindfulness is often described as paying attention, on purpose, to what is happening right now, with acceptance. We all already possess this capacity. But most of us haven’t intentionally strengthened it. By taking a few minutes each day to pay attention to the movement of the breath, or sensation in various parts of the body, or sounds in our environment, and bringing to these experiences the attitude that whatever is happening right now is fine as it is, we are well on our way to greater equanimity. We are also slowly training our mind to acknowledge and accept whatever is happening in our experience. Meeting conditions with equanimity means that we are not completely thrown off balance when our classroom falls apart, students are uncooperative, or other difficulties arise. And because we are not thrown fully off balance, we are better able to respond to circumstances in skillful ways that benefit ourselves and our students. Instead of reactively lashing out, we might have the space to consider our response more carefully. Better yet, we might begin to notice subtle signs that things are going awry, and address them before they snowball, or plan more intentionally to prevent the conditions that caused issues in the past. One final benefit of strengthening mindfulness: When we accept things for how they are, the inevitable consequence is that we experience less stress and more calm. Life may be seriously stressful, but so too is the resistance of how things actually are.
I can’t say that I have scientific evidence to back up this claim, but I think strengthening our ability to connect with others may be the most important thing a teacher can do to enhance their well-being and their teaching practice. When I was teaching, I tried every day to remember when I was walking through the school doors first thing in the morning that I was doing this job because I cared about my students and I wanted them to be happy, healthy, successful people. It took just a few seconds, but it oriented my attention to a connected intention.
In one study we conducted at the Center for Healthy Minds with preservice teachers, we taught a similar practice where participants were instructed to bring to mind their intention to teach, and to really go into the feeling of that intention. One of these participants later described a situation with a student in which they were getting very frustrated, but just as they were about to react, they remembered why they were where they were—the caring intention that led to this present moment. They went on to explain how remembering this intention changed the way they viewed the student and the situation, helping them to see the student as a child looking to be heard rather than a child trying to misbehave or cause problems.
The good news is that all of these practices are things any teacher can do. The other good news is that practices of attention and mindfulness, of understanding and updating limiting self-beliefs, and of warm-heartedness and connection do not need to take up all of your time, and can be skillfully integrated into your life and teaching in ways that can be profoundly beneficial. There are many options to support cultivating your well-being. A couple of recommended ones are below.
Tools to build well-being: Real-time instruction
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (Free offerings and paid courses available)
Tools to build well-being: Smartphone Apps
Healthy Minds Programs (Free)
Wishing you well-being and equanimity, and practices that can get you there.
-Matthew Hirshberg, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral research associate
Center for Healthy Minds, UW Madison
Former middle school social studies teacher