Why We Teach Our Teachers to Meditate

“If you want to be great at something you must be willing to fail at it.”

I don’t know who first said it (pretty sure it wasn’t Will Smith or JK Rowling), but I heard it again recently and was reminded how much I love it. I like that redemption is possible. At worst, failure is okay. At best, failure is a vital tool for future success.

The teachers in our program want to be great at teaching. They prove this when they apply to our program and move through the interview process (or they wouldn’t be accepted), and they continue proving this through every intensely difficult moment of their high-stakes novice teaching experience in which they don’t quit.

And being a novice teacher is HARD! In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Education, nearly 50% of new teachers will leave the profession within their first five years.

That statistic reflects the general experiences of teachers in a wide assortment of school environments. Teacher attrition can be even higher in the hard-to-staff schools with which ATC partners. ATC fellows are often working specifically in school districts identified to be in “high need” due to challenges like academic distress, teacher shortages, generational poverty, and lack of public infrastructure/support.

Why teaching is so hard

I am often asked the question: “you say that novice teaching is challenging, what do you think makes it so hard?” My best answer: the pressure of being responsible for so many people in so many ways for so much of the time.

Feeling singularly responsible for the physical, social, and emotional well-being of 30-150 children every day five days a week can easily lead any teacher to burnout, or the state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. In fact, researchers have found that teachers make at least 1,500 decisions every day (about 3 every minute) so it is no surprise that teachers are burned out!

After eight years of supporting novice teachers, we at ATC know that the job of a novice teacher is extremely challenging and we know that our teachers encounter failure. So, we work to support our fellows in accepting failure as a growth opportunity and using it as force for change. To do this, we ask two questions: in what ways are novice teachers most likely to “fail”, and how can we help prepare them for those “failures”?

As a former educator I’d argue that most teacher failure stems from a lack of emotional awareness and regulation. Therefore, in addition to supporting teachers through these experiences of failure, we must also help them learn to identify when their emotional reactions are affecting their ability to safely manage the classroom and/or leading them into compromising situations. We know that the most successful teachers become masters at navigating the emotions of the classroom.

Unfortunately, too many of our students have experienced a number of adverse childhood experiences and carry an invisible weight of accumulated trauma. Moreover, the nature of trauma means that it usually shows up in the classroom as problematic behaviors that can be really overwhelming to a new teacher (who may have trauma and triggers of their own to navigate). While trauma-informed education can help teachers form stable, nurturing relationships with their students, teachers must first be able to regulate their own emotions.

What ATC is doing about it

Being a novice teacher is tough, especially when teachers are expected to help students in navigating their emotions and unprocessed trauma. Given the sheer scale of the challenge, it is highly unlikely that anyone, regardless of what they are told in training or what they read about, is ready on day one to handle it well. These things must be worked through with real experience and real recovery.

We believe that more learning will happen when teachers value their students’ well-being, demonstrate neutral/positive responses in the classroom (rather than negative reactions), and model effective emotional regulation strategies for their students.  So, we try to support our teachers in managing their own emotions. First, emotional resilience is a focus of our summer training with a two-hour session on the topic each week. Second, we provide our teachers with concrete resources to utilize both in the classroom with their students and outside of school in their own lives.

Lastly, we offer optional courses in mindfulness meditation (MM), or a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment. Mindfulness meditation involves breathing methods, guided imagery, and other practices to relax the body/mind and reduce stress.

We’ve found that mindfulness has been undoubtedly helpful for some of us on staff, and research studies have found many positive outcomes such as decreased stress and anxiety among elementary students and improved anxiety and interpersonal relationships among both students and teachers.

Personally, mindfulness meditation has had a huge impact on my own life. Although I had practiced mindfulness before I became a teacher, I really lost my connection to it and fell out of the practice entirely during the struggles of my first year teaching. It was a picture of Thích Quảng Đức that would ultimately bring me back to my daily practice.

A Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk who burned himself to death in protest of the Vietnam war, Thích’s image made me feel extremely sad and shocked, and I obsessed about it for days. In the end, Thích’s  commitment to his ideals inspired me to do the same: if this human being could do something like this, then I should at least be able to do what it takes to leave the classroom content every day.

How we do mindfulness meditation at ATC

Our four-week mindfulness course is generally offered three times per year: fall, spring, and summer. Each Wednesday night session runs about 60-90 minutes via Zoom with a short group meditation followed by introduction and practice of a new mindfulness strategy. Participating teachers are also expected to meditate on their own for at least five minutes every day and share a short written reflection in our support group on Slack.

Throughout the four weeks, teachers learn basic breath work and strategies, belly breathing, body scan meditation, gatha meditation, labeling of thoughts and feelings, walking meditation, and eating meditation. Course content and style of delivery will continue to evolve to provide the most benefit to our teachers.

Overall, the four-week mindfulness course has been a huge hit with our teachers! Survey data shows that all participating teachers would likely continue to practice mindfulness and mindfulness meditation as a result of their participation in the course. All participants also said they would recommend the mindfulness course to other educators.

The fifth ATC mindfulness meditation course will begin on Wednesday, March 9. Classes will run from 5-6pm each Wednesday between March 9 and April 6; there will not be a class the week of spring break. The course is totally free and will count toward fellows’ professional development hours if you attend all four sessions. ATC fellows can register for the course here.

If you have any questions about our mindfulness meditation course or how we are cultivating emotional resilience more broadly, please feel free to reach out to John directly at jrh009@uark.edu.