As a teacher educator, I am privileged with the opportunity to visit a variety of schools across the Phoenix area. Unfortunately, what I observe throughout many of these schools worries me. I see a lot of stressed teachers and at times, some extremely unhappy ones. I, by no means, am passing judgment. As a former secondary teacher, I know firsthand how stressful teaching can be. That is why I no longer teach in a K-12 setting. I left the profession due to burnout.
Teaching can be a rewarding profession, but what we don’t often talk about is the stress. It has been identified as one of the most stressful professions. It should come as no surprise that the teaching profession has a high rate of attrition. According to the data from the nationally representative Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS) and its supplement, the Teacher Followup Survey (TFS), the largest and most comprehensive data source available on teachers, after just five years between 40 and 50 percent of all beginning teachers leave the profession (Ingersoll & Smith, 2003). We are also facing a national teacher shortage.
What I don’t think most people realize is teachers are the epicenter of students’ educational experiences. Teachers have to manage and support their students’ needs and interests, all while trying to get them to perform and produce something that exhibits their knowledge. So much of what occurs in the classroom is dependent upon the teacher. This is not new information. Even way back in 1938 John Dewey recognized that it is the teacher who holds the responsibility for the conduct of the interactions and intercommunications of the classroom, which are the very life of the group as a community.
In my 11 years as a teacher, never once was our mental health or well-being discussed in our professional development or staff meetings. There is the assumption that upon receiving their licenses teachers are ready and capable of handling the social and emotional demands that are embedded in the profession and that they can continue to sustain the resilience to meet those demands. This is quite unfortunate considering teachers have been identified in the research literature as the most important school level factor in students’ achievement, motivation and engagement (Midgley, Feldlaufer & Eccles, 1989; Pianta, 1999; Roeser, Eccles & Sameroff, 2000). Teachers are obviously a crucial factor of students’ educational experiences. Why do we neglect teachers’ social and emotional well-being?
Given what I know about my own teaching experiences, those of my colleagues and the plethora of research on teacher stress and burnout, I cannot help wonder, how can we help teachers build resiliency and promote their social and emotional well-being?
Practicing mindfulness appears to offer some hope. There is a movement underway to help teachers learn and practice ways to manage their stress. We at Mindfulness First are part of this movement. The administration and staff at Crockett Elementary have welcomed us onto to their campus, and for the next eight weeks the staff at Crockett Elementary will be provided with research-based information on emotions and stress and how they can use and develop mindfulness practices to regulate their emotions and stress more effectively.
I completely recognize mindfulness practices cannot cure all of the woes that come along with teaching, but I believe this is a step in the right direction. As a society, we expect teachers to be all things to our children. We expect them to be caring, patient, inspiring, and all of those other admirable traits. Yet, most often schools do little to foster and support those traits and skills. We at Mindfulness First have the opportunity to give the staff at Crockett something I desperately could have used when I was teaching – skills for coping with stress and the time and space to practice those skills.