Superficial personal care? Stressed teachers say no thank you

Louise Williamson’s phone lights up whenever an administrator raises the importance of self-care and well-being in a meeting.

“That’s the last thing I needed to hear right now,” someone wrote on a text string the Southern California English teacher has with some of her co-workers. “Shut up and let me go home,” someone wrote. Or, “They say they care about our well-being, but we’re told to go teach in a petri dish every day.”

Being a teacher – always a tough job – is especially stressful these days. Teachers often waste their own planning time to cover classes for absent colleagues, who may be sick or quarantined after exposure to COVID-19. Students struggle with the trauma of lockdowns, the loss of a family member to COVID, and more. Discussions of wasted learning time fill professional development sessions. School violence is on the rise. And some teachers worry about putting their own health at risk every time they come to work.

Additionally, many teachers have had to prepare for both in-person teaching and virtual learning for children quarantined at home. That means creating slide decks, videotaping lessons, and more, Williamson said. Her planning time has more than quintupled this school year.

To help teachers cope with what many say has become an emotionally draining and bottomless workload, administrators across the country are turning in part to wellness and self-care practices that have become increasingly increasingly popular – and have fueled a multi-billion dollar industry – over the past decade.

Mindfulness isn’t going to help with the kinds of structural issues that push teachers beyond their limits. Simply telling a teacher to breathe when they haven’t taken a break all day isn’t going to help them at all.

Patricia Jennings, professor of education at the University of Virginia

Districts held professional development sessions on meditation and breathing exercises. Staff emails remind teachers to remember to make time for themselves and their families. Teachers are encouraged to experience yoga, aromatherapy, or journaling, usually in their spare time. A large urban district sent out a calendar with self-care reminders like “The 25th, take a walk.”

Some teachers say they find this stuff useful. Others see it as well-intentioned, but not a substitute for the kind of broader systemic change that would keep them from feeling like their jobs have become untenable.

And still others see it as myopic and even insulting.

“I think when officials recommend wellness to teachers instead of addressing the situation, it comes across as being insincere, condescending, or even just short-sighted, wanting to put a band-aid on an issue,” Williamson said, an almost 30-year veteran educator who teaches at Hilltop High School in the Sweetwater Union High School District, south of San Diego.

Or, as Tiffany Moyer-Washington, an 8th grade English teacher in Hartford, Connecticut, put it, “I feel like I’m drowning and they throw a rubber duck at you.” Rubber duckies are cute and all, but I can’t take it [because] I am literally drowning right now.

“People are souring on the whole concept”

That’s not to say that mindfulness techniques aren’t helpful to some degree.

In a study, first published in 2017with follow-up results published in 2019, researchers randomly assigned 224 teachers working in high-poverty New York City elementary schools to one group who received professional development in emotional regulation, mindfulness, and more, and one who did not. not received. After nine and a half months in the program, teachers who completed the training reported a significant decrease in psychological distress, less physical pain, and a better ability to remain calm despite the intensity of the class, compared to teachers in the a group of witnesses.

The problem is that while mindfulness can help teachers cope with their high-pressure jobs, it doesn’t remove the cause of that pressure, said Patricia Jennings, a professor of education at the University of Virginia. and the lead author of the study.

“Mindfulness can help teachers be more aware of when their own stress levels start to rise, and proactively do things to calm themselves down,” she said. But, she added, “mindfulness is not going to help with the kinds of structural issues that push teachers beyond their limits. Simply telling a teacher to breathe when they haven’t taken a break all day isn’t going to help at all.

Mindfulness fans worry that the districts’ superficial embrace of self-care and wellness has backfired, depriving teachers of the real benefits of these techniques.

“People get sour on the whole concept,” said Williamson, a certified yoga teacher and daily meditator who wakes up at 4:30 a.m. every day to practice before school. “And then when it’s sincerely presented, or when there are practices that would be useful, they reject them. They want to go on the warpath against welfare.

Additionally, Shayna Boyd, a middle school teacher in Chicago, wonders if self-care would be so prevalent if nurturing weren’t a female-dominated profession. It’s hard to imagine, for example, telling construction workers to “take a bubble bath or buy candles” in response to pervasive workplace stress, she said. “It just seems a little sexist.”

Being “honest about what is difficult”

What many teachers say they want instead of breathing exercises: the kind of big structural transformation that will make their job more manageable.

These broader changes could include: hiring more social workers, school counselors and others who can help teachers deal with student mental health; giving teachers more time to prepare their lessons; reduce class size; hire more paraprofessionals to help with the workload; and providing better compensation, especially for teachers who take on additional responsibilities.

Teachers recognize that these types of high-level changes can be costly, time-consuming to implement, or beyond the competence of a single principal or even superintendent.

Other suggestions might be easier to implement. Administrators could combine important announcements into one easy-to-digest email a day, instead of bombarding teachers’ inboxes with information, Williamson said. And they should consider drastically reducing the number of meetings teachers have to attend, at least for the rest of this school year.

Or, if districts are going to embrace self-care and mindfulness, they should “take it seriously,” said Los Angeles kindergarten teacher Rachel Vidaure. That could mean hiring certified meditation instructors or breath coaches and sending them to school sites, she suggested. Teachers also recommended that any self-care training be completely optional and that professional development time spent on mandatory mindfulness be better spent by allowing teachers to do work or even go away for the day.

Administrators can also work to build community and encourage teachers to take time for themselves, even during a hectic school day.

Case in point: Earlier this year, Moyer-Washington realized she couldn’t quite rest her teaching brain during her lunch break. So she brought a puzzle to the teachers’ room and invited her colleagues to help her complete it.

“Everyone loves it,” Moyer-Washington said. “We have completed 11 puzzles so far this year.” Time spent working on a fun project also helps reduce in-store discussions over lunch, she added. “It naturally gives people time to get out of the stressful headspace of teaching all the time.”

It’s a good idea to give teachers a chance to talk about strategies they think might help with work-related stress, Jennings said.

“Give teachers a voice about their needs,” she said. “Let them talk, let them communicate, let them participate in the problem-solving process. Because right now teachers are sort of left out of the conversation.

Teachers also appreciate when leaders are candid about the challenges facing K-12 systems.

“My manager is really honest about what is difficult. She recognizes when she’s struggling,” said Neema Avaisha, who teaches ethnic studies at Boston Public Schools. “So many people in leadership positions can’t just say, ‘This is tough, and it’s tough for all of us. Here’s how we can take care of each other through it all. ”

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