Tag Archives: Greater Good Science Center

Can Mindfulness Make Us Better Teachers?

By Vicki Zakrzewski | October 2, 2013 Republished by permission of the Greater Good Science Center University of California Berkeley. Please click here to view the original article.

bridging2014badgeA new study suggests that training teachers in mindfulness not only reduces burnout but also improves their performance in the classroom.

Imagine this: In the middle of a lesson, one of your students deliberately makes an offensive remark that causes the other students to laugh and threatens to derail your lesson. Your fists start to clench and there’s a tightening in your chest. Before you know it, you snap angrily in a way that 1) doesn’t calm the students down, and 2) makes you spend the rest of the day, or several days, wondering if you’re a terrible teacher. Sound familiar?

This scenario is only one of many that add to a teacher’s daily stress level, which, over time, can lead to burnout—a major issue for those in the education profession. However, adding to this stress is often an educator’s own lack of social-emotional strategies for dealing with the stress and emotional intensity of the job, which researchers suggest may diminish his or her effectiveness as a teacher.

Summer_Institute_Teachers_with_closed_eyesParticipants at the GGSC’s Summer Institute
for Educators
Roibín Ó hÉochaidh

So is there something teachers can do to develop their social-emotional skills, not only to guard against long-term burnout but also to help them deal with stressful events while they’re happening? Yes, according to a new study conducted by the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (CIHM):
the practice of mindfulness.

A decade’s worth of research has documented the great physical, psychological, and social benefits of practicing mindfulness, which involves paying careful attention to your thoughts, feelings, and environment. In recent years, schools have embraced mindfulness to help improve students’ attention, emotion regulation, and learning. For the most part, the focus has been on students rather than teachers.

A group of the Center’s researchers, led by Lisa Flook, took a different tack: They conducted a small pilot study to test the impact of an eight-week mindfulness course adapted specifically for teachers. The study found that those who completed the training enjoyed a myriad of personal benefits, including elevated levels of self-compassion and a decrease in psychological ills such as anxiety, depression, and burnout. In comparison, a group of teachers placed on a wait list for the course actually increased in their stress and burnout levels.

But what made this study unique is that it also looked at the participants’ classroom performance, such as their behavior management skills and their emotional and instructional support of students. What it discovered was this: The practice of mindfulness made them more effective teachers, possibly by buffering them from the impact of stressful experiences as they were happening.

In other words, the study suggests that when teachers practice mindfulness, students’ misbehavior and other stressors become like water off a duck’s back, allowing them to stay focused on what teachers really want to do: teach.

So how does the practice of mindfulness actually help teachers in and out of the classroom?

To start, the CIHM researchers defined mindfulness specifically for this study as, “Paying attention in the present moment, on purpose, and without judgment.” Anyone who has taught knows that paying attention in the present moment is incredibly difficult because of the thousand demands on a teacher’s attention all at once. And judgment is a very easy state-of-mind to slip into when confronted by a misbehaving child—you don’t only judge that child but judge yourself for judging him or her.

One of the most basic mindfulness practices involves sitting quietly and bringing one’s awareness to thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, or an external object. Neuroscientists and emotion researchers have found that this kind of practice heightens the activity in the regions of our brain that regulate our attention, which then carries over into our everyday lives.

For teachers, this means that in the midst of the craziness that is a classroom, we remain aware of what’s going on inside our minds and bodies, which can help us rein in our knee-jerk angry reactions to a situation and instead choose a kinder and more compassionate response.

Lisa_FlookFor example, in the scenario I described at the beginning of this article, a teacher skilled in mindfulness would notice his or her clenched fists and tightening in the chest, take them as a sign that he or she was about to hit the roof, and perhaps take a deep breath or two to calm down. Then he or she would be much better prepared to calmly redirect the students’ attention to the task-at-hand. Boom, done, just like that. Moment passed, no lingering stress in the body or mind of the teacher, and the lesson continues.

Mindfulness practice is also a way to deliberately cultivate positive qualities such as empathy and compassion. Previous studies have linked mindfulness to increased activity in brain regions associated with these positive emotions. In its training for teachers, CIHM included activities such as loving-kindness meditation, which has been found to help promote kindness and compassion toward others.

I like to think that teachers are naturally empathic and compassionate toward their students. But often these qualities get lost in the stress of classroom life, and what suffers most is the all-important relationship between the teacher and the student. By deliberately practicing mindfulness techniques that cultivate kindness toward others, a teacher faced with a misbehaving student might ask the question, “What happened to you?” rather than “What’s wrong with you?”—a more compassionate response that strengthens rather than hinders the teacher-student relationship.

Finally, the CIHM researchers found that the mindfulness group’s self-compassion increased as well—an important component of teacher well-being. Educators have a tendency to beat themselves up over so many things: a failed lesson, saying the wrong thing to a parent, an inability to reach a challenging student, helplessness in the face of a student’s tragic home life—the list goes on and on. And we take it all home at night, leaving us with little psychic space to re-charge for the next day. Over time, our teaching suffers.

Time and again, teachers ask me in workshops and at our Summer Institute for Educators how they can stop thinking about work after they’ve gone home. My suggestion, based on the research, is to have a personal mindfulness practice coupled with self-compassion. Mindfulness teaches us to “notice” our thoughts or thought patterns without judging them as “good” or “bad,” which helps diminish the emotional charge that keeps these challenging school situations reverberating in our heads. Once we’ve neutralized that charge, we can choose to take a more compassionate stance toward ourselves, realizing that all teachers face these challenges and that everyone, including yourself, is doing the best they can.

One caveat: The changes rendered through a mindfulness practice do not happen overnight, nor do they last without continuous practice. Although this study showed significant changes in just eight weeks, Richard Davidson, one of the study’s co-authors and a leading expert on the science of emotions and mindfulness, is quick to point out that mindfulness is like going to the gym: You have to keep practicing to enjoy the benefits.

While the practice of mindfulness is never a “cure-all”, research suggests that it is a powerful foundation upon which teachers can start to build their social-emotional skills—and, in turn, improve their teaching. So while we may never be able to stop that student from making an offensive remark, we can control our reaction—which, in the end, may make the student think twice about doing it again.

Resources for educators who would like to start a mindfulness practice:

In addition to the resources listed below the UCSD Center for Mindfulness offers free guided audio and other resources, 5-Day professional mindfulness retreats through our Professional Training Institute, along with next year’s annual 2014 Bridging the Hearts & Minds of Youth conference.

If you would like to try mindfulness in the privacy of your own home, UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) offers these free recordings.

If you would like to learn mindfulness in a class, there are several programs geared just for educators, including the Greater Good Science Center’s Summer Institute for Educators, Mindful Schools, the Garrison Institute’s CARE for Teachers, PassageWorks’ SMART-in-Education, and Margaret Cullen’s Mindfulness-Based Emotional Balance.

If you’re unable to attend one of the above teacher-focused programs, there are numerous workshops throughout the U.S and the world teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), the program, founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, from which the CIHM’s training was adapted.

Take This Job and….

By Vicki Zakrzewski, Ph.D.
Education Director, Greater Good Science Center

Wait! Here are some research-based ways teachers and
principals can rejuvenate their passion for their jobs in the new
year.

I’ve always thought that educators are some of the luckiest people in
the world. No really, just hear me out: Yes, the work is harder than
many people understand and so many of them are underpaid, but it’s
also one of the most inherently meaningful jobs a person can do.
And that’s no small thing.

Reflecting_over_the_ocean_1

(Photo Credit Isaac L Koval)

Researchers have found that people who see their work as meaningful, or having some special significance, experience lower levels of job
stress and higher levels of job satisfaction, motivation, and performance. Finding meaning in our work also protects us against burnout—a serious issue for teachers.

Yet, in all the crazy busyness of managing a classroom and leading
schools (this applies to administrators as well!), it’s very easy to forget
why you’re doing this job in the first place; the meaning might have
slowly leaked out over the years. But it’s possible to get it back. As you move forward with your work in the new year, I encourage you to take some time and reflect on the meaningful aspects of your work. To help, I suggest writing down your reflections, as scientists have found that journaling about positive
experiences can improve our health. Revisiting what you’ve written can also help sustain you during times of intense pressure and challenges.

To guide you in this process, I’ve assembled a list of research-based
thought-prompts—ideas to get you thinking about how you derive a
sense of meaning from your important work. You can use them either
on your own or with your colleagues. Administrators might also
consider sending these exercises home with teachers to share collectively at the next staff meeting—a great way to promote a
positive school culture!

1) Remember why you became a teacher in the first place. Was
it to make a difference in children’s lives or society in general? Or
maybe because you wanted the variety, the creative outlet, or the
daily challenges that teaching offers? Perhaps you were greatly
inspired by a teacher and wanted to give other children the same
experience.
For some people, teaching is a calling, which researchers believe
involves a transcendent summons beyond oneself and a desire to
serve humanity. When people feel “called” to do their jobs or if they
see that their work has a definite purpose that reflects who they are,
the work naturally feels deeply meaningful because it connects them
to their personal values.

2) Recall those moments when teaching made you feel ALIVE—
as if you were “running on all cylinders.” Meaning can be derived
from those times when you are personally immersed and intrinsically
motivated by your work. Most likely, this happened because you were
expressing your “authentic self”—the matching of your actions to your
perception of your true self.
When I was teaching, I experienced these moments with project-based
learning. No pedagogical method excited me more than helping
students apply their learning through self-created projects. Here was
an opportunity for students to develop their creativity and innovation
and teamwork skills—things that I highly valued in my work and in
myself. (A childhood spent creating haunted houses and elaborate
plays with friends had to lead somewhere…)

3) Think of a time when you made a difference in a student’s
life. Work becomes meaningful when you believe you have the power
and ability to make a difference. Teachers impact students’ lives all the
time—sometimes to a greater degree then they realize.
I’ll never forget the note I received from the mother of one of my
students who had a serious speech impediment. She thanked me
profusely for helping her son to believe in himself and to once again
love school. I had no idea the difference I had made in her child’s life,
but it deepened my appreciation for the tremendous responsibility that
comes with teaching—and hence, enhanced the meaning of my work.

4) Appreciate your colleagues. Our relationships with others often
create the most meaning in our lives—both at work and at home—
especially if they’re comforting and supportive. Teaching can be very
isolating, so it’s a big deal when teachers come together to share their
knowledge, accomplish a project, or just to ask, “How’s it going?”
As a new educator, I particularly appreciated the teachers who offered
their support and told me that the first year is always the hardest.
When I became an administrator, I worked hard to create caring
relationships among the staff because of the special significance these
relationships held for me as a teacher.

5) Reflect on the contribution you are making to the world.
Work becomes meaningful when we feel connected to something
larger than ourselves. On those days, when it seems like all your
efforts are infinitesimal in their impact, remember that they’re not:
When teachers consider how they can make a profound difference in
each of their students’ lives (see #3 above), it doesn’t take much to
realize how each of these lives adds up to a bigger whole, exerting
tremendous influence over the world in which we live.
In my workshops for teachers and administrators, I like to end with a
quote from Williams James: “Act as if what you do makes a difference.
It does.” If I could post this in every classroom in the world, I would—
just as a gentle reminder to you and everyone around you how
important and meaningful your job is.

Wishing you a very peaceful—and meaningful—new year.

Teachers and administrators who would like to learn more methods for
renewing their passion for their work might be interested in attending
these two upcoming conferences:

bridging2013badgeBridging the Hearts and Minds of Youth: Mindfulness in Clinical
Practice, Education and Research
February 1-3, 2013 Catamaran Hotel, San Diego, CA
Presented by the UCSD School of Medicine and the UCSD Center for
Mindfulness, this conference is for people who want to develop the
skills and competencies to teach mindfulness to today’s youth and
learn what science has to say about this kind of work.

GGSC_Logo-NoText-ForWebsite_99_97Practicing Mindfulness & Compassion
March 8, 2013 Craneway Pavilion Conference Center OR Live Webcast
This day-long conference presented by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley and featuring a keynote by Jon Kabat-Zinn, will illuminate the connections between mindfulness and compassion, focusing on how mindfulness can deepen relationships, enhance
caregiving, and build compassion.

Learn About “The Science Of Compassion” First “Unprecedented!” Large-Scale Conference

The Science of CompassionStanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) presents world experts on compassion, altruism & service The Science of Compassion: Origins, Measures & Interventions
July 19-22 in Telluride, Colorado.

The Stanford University Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) presents The Science of Compassion: Origins, Measures and Interventions, the first large-scale international conference of its kind dedicated to study of compassion. The Telluride CCARE event will provide an unprecedented gathering of leading experts in research on compassion, altruism, social connection and service to discuss their latest findings. The conference will explore the origins of compassion and compassionate action, how it can be measured, and how we can foster it through interventions.

CEU: APA-approved Continuing Education Units (CEU’s) offered to psychologists and master’s level clinicians. 1 credit per hour of conference attendance.

The conference is open to researchers and the general public. Among the presenters are key figures in Psychology such as Dr. Phil Zimbardo and keynote speaker Dr. Richard Davidson, pioneering researcher on meditation and brain function. Other invited speakers include such distinguished scholars as Thupten Jinpa Langri (His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s long-time translator).

“While compassion is a fundamental part of every religious tradition, there is an ever enlarging body of scientific evidence that being compassionate has immense positive impact on the individual both in regard to their mental and physical health. This first-of-its-kind conference will highlight these scientific findings and provide a forum for researchers from around the world to collaborate with colleagues from a variety of disciplines. We at CCARE are very excited to sponsor the conference and contribute to this expanding field.” says Dr. James Doty, director of CCARE.

Event co-sponsors include the Telluride Institute, the University of California-Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, and the Swedish Association for Contemplation in Education and Research.
Between sessions, compassion meditation opportunities practices and interactive workshops will be offered. Seats limited.

For more information/registration, please go to CCARE. For questions and media inquiries, please contact Emma Seppala emmas@stanford.edu (650) 723-3248

SAVE THE DATE! Attend a Self-Compassion Workshop with Dr. Kristin Neff in San Diego.

Saturday, September 22, 2012, Special 1-Day Self-Compassion Workshop at UCSD presented by, Kristin Neff, PhD, author Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind.