Teaching is more stressful and challenging than ever. It is arguably one of the most stressful jobs in the country. With the ever-increasing workload, accountability policies, restrictions on how teachers are allowed to educate students, not to mention the overwhelm of navigating school during a pandemic, it’s no wonder that currently, teacher stress is reported to be just as high as doctors and nurses. High-stress levels can lead to many negative consequences for health and well-being. Quality of life and teaching performance suffer as chronic stress leads to teacher burnout, job dissatisfaction, poor performance, and high turnover rates. At the end of the 2020–2021 school year, nearly 25% of teachers reported that they were likely to quit their jobs, increasing by almost 10% of teachers who said they were likely to leave before the pandemic. African American teachers were especially likely to quit teaching.
Unfortunately, the fallout doesn’t end there; when teachers experience high-stress levels, student performance and well-being are also directly impacted. When classroom teachers are highly stressed and emotionally exhausted, students are more likely to be suspended, a disciplinary action that can affect students beyond their school years, curtailing their life trajectories. Black students are particularly vulnerable to the devastating effects of out-of-school suspensions due to systemic racism, stigmatization, and implicit bias. Research has shown that students between the ages of 12 and 18 who experience out-of-school suspensions are more likely to interact with the juvenile justice system. High stress levels and disciplinary action in schools are contributing factors that set students on the path of contact with the criminal justice system, especially for Black students.
Regrettably, there is no quick fix to the situation students, and teachers find themselves in. Many systemic challenges directly affect what happens inside a classroom that state, district, and school leaders must address. School leaders must create the conditions that allow for a less stressful school environment. The well-being of educators has to be a priority within the school culture; putting the onus solely on teachers won’t work. For schools to become more optimal learning spaces, leaders will have to allocate time and create structures that allow teachers to practice self-care, reflect, and attend to their well-being. Concurrently, classroom teachers must focus on their sphere of influence to mitigate the immediate impact of stress they experience and the students they serve.
Mindfulness is a valuable tool to help lessen the impact of stress in schools resulting in more equitable environments. It allows for the cultivation of in-the-moment non-judgemental awareness through self-regulation that enables one to identify what they are feeling and intentionally respond rather than react. Self-regulation is a skill that allows people to manage their emotions, behavior, and body movement when faced with a challenging situation. The ability to self-regulate enables a person to keep their negative emotions and urges in check and think before reacting. Stress causes the brain and body to become dysregulated. Once dysregulation occurs, access to the cortex, the part of the brain responsible for rational thinking, and reasoning are impeded, and our survival brain is in control. When students and teachers do not have access to the cognitive part of the brain, their ability to think, remember, learn, reason, and make effective decisions is diminished; this gives way to more disciplinary actions and more suspensions. By developing a consistent mindfulness practice, teachers and students can effectively manage their emotions and behaviors and create a buffer between stressful events and their reactions.
Studies have shown that a daily practice of self-regulation helps increase performance on the job and decreases the adverse effects of stress, such as overwhelm, fatigue, sleep disturbance, anxiety, and burnout. A continuous practice of self-regulation can subvert the pervasive stress both students and teachers experience in the classroom. A self-regulated teacher can also serve as a model for students to label and express emotions in a way that is effective, kind, and conducive to an optimal learning environment. Researchers have also examined the effects of self-regulation through mindfulness on implicit bias. Although no single study examines the usefulness of mindfulness to reduce implicit bias among teachers, recent evidence suggests that mindfulness is a valuable tool to mitigate implicit bias towards stigmatized groups. It can bypass the resistance some may experience when presented with direct racism through a non-judgmental approach, where participants develop skills through creating an ongoing practice.
Self-regulation practices are a tool that can help teachers fight against high levels of stress, exclusionary discipline, and implicit bias. These practices won’t eradicate the problems; there is plenty of work that leaders must do at the systems level; however, self-regulation practices can support teachers in developing behaviors and ways of being with students that are supportive and conducive to learning and their overall social and emotional development. Indeed it will take more than teachers using mindfulness practices to increase their self-regulation skills to reduce the stress, suspensions, and implicit bias in our schools; however, we cannot transform our schools without it.