The role of today’s teacher is multifaceted and demanding. Stressors in the teaching profession come from varied sources: socio-economic factors, cultural and linguistic diversity; inclusive class composition; work intensification brought about by accountability measures, new curricula, methodologies, and assessments; technology implementation; and an increased workload. Stress in the teaching profession translates into absenteeism, turnover, and early retirement.
For more than a decade there has been a rise in teacher turnover in public education. Between one third to one half of teachers leave the profession within the first five years (Hanushek, 2007; Ingersoll, & Smith, 2003). Teacher turnover has partly been attributed to teacher burnout (Aud et al., 2011; Ingersoll, 2001). How teachers perceive stress and their ability to cope with workplace demands are associated with teacher burnout (McCormick & Barnett, 2011). Successfully addressing stress and burnout in the teaching profession is a challenge, yet has significant implications for teacher retention and student success.
Likely adding to teacher stress is the increase in mental health problems among our youth. Evidence shows that our children and teens are experiencing more mental health problems these days, with approximately half of all adolescents meeting lifetime criteria for at least one diagnosed mental disorder (Merikangas et al, 2009, Collishaw, Maughan, Goodman, & Pickles, 2004). Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health issues facing adolescents and adults. Anxiety can negatively impact students’ school performance, disrupt their thinking, and interfere with their learning (Lalongo, Edelshon, Werthamer-Larson, Crockett, & Kellam, 1994; Shapiro, Schwartz, & Bonner, 1998).
The stress of teachers affects the classroom environment, learning, and ultimately student outcomes. The importance a teacher’s ability to effectively address students’ academic and emotional needs, while simultaneously coping with classroom demands and their inherent stressors, cannot be underestimated. Educators need to be able to manage stress effectively to meet their students’ broad needs and provide them with adequate support.
Years of neuroscientific, medical and psychological research with adults provide accumulating evidence that teachers, like other individuals, can benefit personally as well as professionally from the reflective discipline of mindfulness (Flook et al, 2013; Gold et al, 2012). The practice of directing one’s attention to a specific focus, and repeatedly bringing one’s attention back whenever the mind has wandered from that focus, with acceptance and a kind curiosity, has been proven to foster resilience and improve brain functioning (Davidson et al, 2003; Kilpatrick et al, 2011). There is some evidence that executive abilities, such as attention, planning, problem solving, and multi-tasking are enhanced by mindfulness training (Chiesa et al, 2011)). A consistent mindful meditation practice also promotes emotional regulation (Vollestad et al, 2011; Goyal, et al., 2014).
Mindfulness practices have also been shown to be effective with children. In a study of first, second, and third graders in two elementary schools, it was found that mindfulness improved attention skills and social skills and decreased test anxiety (Napoli, Krech, and Holley, 2005).
Mindfulness can be integrated into a classroom using one of three basic approaches: indirect (the teacher develops a personal mindfulness practice and embodies mindfulness attitudes and behaviors throughout the school day), direct (programs that teach the student mindfulness exercises and skills), or a combination of the two approaches. Given the challenges of introducing new school curricula into an already busy educational environment where such interventions are rare, we are proposing a primarily indirect approach, training teachers.
Research suggests a need to implement programs to enhance health promotion and emotional well-being, and reduce the use of nonproductive coping skills among teachers as well as students. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) has been proven to be effective in reducing stress and improving emotional regulation in children and adults. Further, providing MBSR to teachers has been shown to not only alleviate teacher stress, but reduce teacher burnout and improve sustained attention (Flook et al., 2013). Since research indicates that teachers are the greatest source of variation in what students learn in school (Allen et al, 2013), classrooms of mindful teachers may become more organized, more disciplined, and more scholastically motivated.
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