In our multi-part interview with Jenny Grant Rankin, PhD and author of First Aid for Teacher Burnout: How You Can Find Peace and Success, Engaging & Challenging Gifted Students, and How to Make Data Work: A Guide for Educational Leaders, we explore her journey from teaching to writing, the best ways for teachers to leverage resources, how she addresses burnout, and how her work aligns with The Teaching Well.
*This blog post connects to our upcoming presentation at the Bridging Hearts and Minds of Youth Conference in San Diego on February 12, 2017. Check out the conference to buy a ticket and learn more!
Many times when we talking about teacher well-being, we get the following response:
• “Well! That sounds like quite the luxury.”
• “So… you bring wellness techniques we can use for students?”
• “Wow! You push into professional development time to support teacher well-being. Is there enough time? How do they fit it in?”
Kelly, our Executive Director, and I love students (extraordinarily). We taught in public schools in underserved communities in Los Angeles and Oakland for six and five years, respectively. We worked every day with students who face chronic trauma—off the charts on the ACES scale.
In many of our communities, especially in underserved urban areas, school sites are one of the most stable fixtures in students’ lives. Most pre-teens and teenagers actively emotionally develop by attaching to adults outside their nuclear families. In addition, students affected by autism, homelessness, childhood trauma and the foster care system need stability in their teaching populations at an even higher level. When teachers make vital connections to these marginalized youth and then leave, the students in our public schools are affected emotionally and academically.
Right now, 46% of teachers in America leave the classroom within five years of entering it So, all the time we spend teaching teachers how to create mindfulness and compassion with youth? Every time one of those highly-trained teachers walks out of the classroom, we have to start all over again.
At The Teaching Well, we feel incredibly clear about one thing: we cannot ask teachers to teacher mindfulness and compassion to students without making sure the teachers embody it first. That would be akin to asking a mechanic who doesn’t know about car engines to teach you how to fix yours.
Our goal is to ask teachers to embody self-compassion, mindfulness and resilience so that they can STAY in the classroom long-term and channel well-being to students. Teacher well-being is vital to a compassionate, thriving school environment. Here are two reasons why:
1. Teachers need resilience against Compassion Fatigue.
In the context of 2016, finding stress resilience in the face of horrifying news has been part of the national experience, from the death of Americans at the hands of the police to the exhaustive conflict in the presidential race. Constantly “holding space” for the painful experiences of others and our communities is real. And, although it might be new for some, this process of being a participant in someone else’s traumatic experience is a normal, albeit uncomfortable, part of being an educator.
Every day, teachers “hold space” for 20 - 200 wonderful student who come from homes with a variety of experiences. This includes their accomplishments, happiness and growth as humans but also their challenges, anger, home struggles and tears. We support learning through connecting the unique experience of each child, and this includes gracefully navigating many young people’s emotional responses.
When educators are given space on their school sites to develop collective skills to stay resilient, they are more effective at redirecting students, supporting families and working as a community to raise our next generation.
2. How we treat ourselves is how we treat others
Through concepts like Mirror Neurons or research like Kristen Neff’s on self-compassion, it is proven that how we take care of ourselves through times of stress accurately depicts how well we can react to others. And when we are stressed, our reactions are often exaggerated. As teachers, we are consistently in high-energy, high-expectations situations. It is integral that we have the tools to decrease stress at high impact moments.
When we speak of self-care at The Teaching Well, we are not talking about adding fluffy stuff to your day to be nice to teachers. We are talking about creating a team that is professionally committed to each other and personally committed their health and wellbeing. And by doing so, we create adult communities that have greater capacity to support students and families.
As teachers, working with youth is both our privilege and our life’s passion. It is our responsibility to use mindfulness and self-compassion and care practices to ensure that we are able to commit to our professions for the long-run. An education system full of healthy, mindful and compassionate educators is one that can truly bridge the hearts and minds of youth.
Summer is fading and fall is finally here. Our students are setting in, and so are we. I’m hoping most of us are still in our creative calm, and that our stressors are not pushing us to the point of distress or burnout.
These moments of settling can offer a joyous time of reflection. Recently, I have been drawn back to reading Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements, in which he challenges us to be impeccable with our words, not take anything personally, not make assumptions, and to always do our best.
In the teaching world, not taking things personally can be a challenge. Our students are not tabula rasas, nor are we, and both the beauty and the pain of all of our lived experiences can be triggering in a classroom setting. As teachers, it is our job to neutralize traumas, to listen, to support, and sometimes it’s hard to do our best.
Ruiz says, “Your best will sometimes by high quality, and other time it will not be as good. When you wake up refreshed and energized in the morning, your best will be better than when you are tired at night. Your best will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick… Your best will depend on whether you are feeling wonderful and happy, or upset, angry, or jealous.”
So how do we do our best, and how do we make sure that our best is the highest quality possible? The answer is clear; we need to take care of ourselves! We need sleep, we need to be healthy, we need to learn how to de-escalate ourselves before we can de-escalate others.
When trauma arises in our classrooms we often become reactive because we care. We immediately try to help our students; putting on their facemasks before thinking about putting on our own. This means that we carry our students’ traumas with us, on top of our own, which can lead to an extremely heavy feeling throughout our days.
We will never have the capacity to take away all of students’ traumas or potentially even our own traumas; and in reality we shouldn’t want to take it away anyway because our experiences, our students’ experiences, make them the beautiful people they are. But how can we focus on what is in our control? How can we ground ourselves, so we are able to help our students feel their roots and ground themselves?
There are many types of stressors: environmental stressors, chemical stressors, mental stressors, emotional stressors, cultural stressors, etc. Our bodies react differently depending on the type of stress, our experiences, and our ability either react, reflect, or do both.
We often think about how our brain communicates to our bodies, but our bodies also have the ability to communicate to our brains; and we can train our bodies and brain with signals especially through our senses.
Smell is a sense that I have found much refuge in. Something as small as making a cup of grounding tea and breathing it in before I drink it, has given me the ability to ground myself and be more reflective before reacting. One of my favorite grounding teas is Tea India’s Cardamom Chai, check it out, and let me know what you think.
Essential oils have also been extremely helpful for me. There are medicinal blends that can be used for specific kinds of stress. Here is a list of helpful essential oils that might guide you to grounding yourself in the classroom. If kept on your desk, you can simply dab it on while walking around, and kids either won’t notice or will smell this grounding, which can help ground them too.
Type of Stress
Environmental Stress: caused by bright lights, noise, or cramped space
Oils: Cedarwood, Coriander, Geranium, Cypress ,Chamomile, Basil, Bergamot
Chemical Stress: caused by too much coffee, too much junk food, to many drugs- like aspirin or antibiotics
Oils: Lavender, Patchouli, Pettigraine, Geranium, Clary-sage, Grapefruit, Lemon, Rosemary
Physical Stress: caused by pushing your body to the limits, driving long distances, working out too much
Oils: Rosemary, Chamomile, Marjoram ,Lavender, Bergamot Thyme, Geranium, Fennel
Mental Stress: caused by trying to achieve, anguish over uncompleted jobs, financial worries
Oils: Gernaium, Lavender, Sandalwood, Basil, Bergamot, Grapefruit, Cardamom, Patchouli
Emotional Stress: caused by relationship problems, parental guilt, inability to give or receive love, grief.
Oils: Geranium, Sandalwood, Palma rosa, Bergamot, Vetiver, Rose, Cardamom
There are also blends that can be made that are specific for burn out: when you have worn yourself out and are finally moving into distress. This blend is for when you are no longer able to feel empowered in trying to multi-task 5 things at once, waking at 5 and working until 10, when you are incapacitated and overwhelmed in your tiredness. This is often the hardest time to relax, and you may feel like you are just spinning in circles.
Your energy is probably completely depleted. Sometimes when I am in this stage I wonder, "How am I going to make it out the door?" When you feel like you have nothing left, it is vital to build up your energy stores again. Exercise and breathing are needed but starting that can be hard. Scent is a great way to start your breath. You can use these blends in your classroom or at home. You can put them in the shower, use them as a massage oil, or you can also just rub in your hands and inhale.
Burnout Exercise Blend
Grapefruit (5 drops)
Cypress (4 drops)
Geranium (2 drops)
Burnout Relaxation Blend Sandalwood (8 drops)
Palma rosa (5 drops)
Lemon (9 drops)
Burnout Reviver Blend
Lavender (5 drops)
Eucalyptus/Peppermint (8 drops)
Grapefruit (7 drops)
Rosemary (4 drops)
I hope this helps you ground yourself and fill YOUR well, so you can give to your students in a sustainable way.
With love and gratitude,
As part of a five-article series on teacher retention, LA Director Jane Mayer details why The Teaching Well's commitment to healthy teacher voice is an invaluable component to reducing teacher turnover. Original link to the article can be found here:
Two previous articles in this series, have detailed the enormity and the complexity of the teacher turnover problem in our country: more than 1 million teachers entering and exiting the classroom every year, and somewhere between 40 percent to 50 percent permanently exiting within five. This lack of stability in many educational communities means less emotionally stable and academically productive spaces for students.
As countless researchers, writers and experts on teacher retention have argued, keeping teachers engaged in our schools is not necessarily about pay. Recently, researchers from UC Berkeley and the University of Virginia discovered that the highest indicating factor for teacher retention is whether or not teachers feel that they are part of a productive and meaningful community—one where their voices are heard, valued and collectively used to inform practices and policies on school campuses (Fuller, Waite & Irribarra, 2016).
In order to stop the ever-revolving door of teachers in and out of our highest need schools, schools must become spaces where teachers can empower themselves as expert educators and honor their valuable contributions to our communities. Empowerment in any space must start with voice; Individuals must be allowed to speak what is true for them and have what they say valued by the community.
But how, in a concrete way, do we move away from top-down models of leadership and organization to honor our teachers and hear their voices?
As an 8th grade English grade teacher in Los Angeles, this is the point I used to make again and again with my students: “Anais, but what do you think? What is your belief? What do you have to say—what is the view that you have to offer that is unique to you?”
In the beginning of the year, many of them looked at me as if no one had ever asked or even requested of them to find their voices. Unfortunately this has proven to be the reality for many teachers as well.
In the public education system today, teachers labor in environments in which their voices are marginalized (Fullan, 1993). Federal and state regulations govern standards, funding, and almost all facets of education, which ultimately trickle down through systems. Administrators have less power than superintendents, and teachers are the lowest on the totem pole. Much of their daily lives are governed by grading systems, statewide tests, mandates, etc., all of which their voices have never been a part (Hargreaves, 1994; Ingersoll, 2003).
This has been going on for so long that teachers have learned to accept their powerlessness and adapt to “live within a broken system.” It’s the only way to have any chance at getting to be the change agents they so desperately want to be. But when we strip teachers of their voice and continue to demand that they work in broken systems, we should not be surprised about high burnout and attrition rates that coincide with such treatment.
However, when teachers are actively engaged in systems that allow them to both process (alone and in groups) their beliefs and their opinions, those teachers are likely to sharpen the clarity of their voices and more likely to listen to the voices of others around them. What is created is a dialogue of mutual respect where all human beings are honored (Darder, 2015; Freire, 1970). And as evidenced above, this meaningful use of voice in contribution to community is the highest indicator for teacher retention.
If we as a society are truly committed to a sustainable education system, we have to make listening to and trusting our educators a priority. Without space for teacher voice and meaningful dialogue, turnover will continue to plague the system.
Teachers are our leaders—we need their voices in policy, curriculum, and philosophical school decisions. We cannot afford to continue this to lose their expertise and passion if we intend to provide thriving, sustainable spaces for young people.
Here are some ways to create space for teacher voice and dialogue on school sites, which can act as a catalyst for teacher empowerment and re-engagement:
1. Create a school culture that values wellness. Body awareness and health are essential to being able to speak our voices. In my years as a teacher and now as a facilitator of professional development, I have found that many teachers are so dissociated from their bodies that they don’t even know when they are stressed. They can’t feel their internal signals because they so often have to deny them (regulated bathroom breaks, anyone?). They aren’t aware that their undeniable desire to say “yes” to every need is detrimental to their health and long-term sustainability as teachers. Fundamentally, when people aren’t well, they can’t feel their truth, much less speak it to someone else. Or, feeling their truth, they lash out in anger and frustration when a sensitive situation calls for calm clarity and firm action. We need teachers who are clear, calm and focused—and able to speak the truth without resentment, anger or punishment.
A culture of wellness is established when personal needs can be balanced with the needs of the community—teachers are encouraged to not work on weekends, to eat full and healthy lunches rather than scarfing down snacks while kids test in their classrooms, or when administrators allow them to say no to commitments that would compromise their physical and mental health. Dr. Patricia Jennings, a preeminent researcher from The University of Virginia and creator of the CARE program for teachers, ran a study on teacher wellness in the New York City public schools that proves that cultures of wellness improve outcomes from adults and students on school campuses.
2. Listen to teachers. We can no longer afford a fundamental distrust of our teachers. Can we let go of our collective fear and trust that most people (most of the time) are doing the best they can in service of our students? That when they report that a student really isn’t responding to a behavior intervention that it’s not just the teacher being inadequate, but perhaps about a system or regulation that isn’t working? No adult is perfect—and every teacher has areas for growth. But we do much better as communities when we honor what people have to say and meet them where they are rather than denying their experiences.
A culture of listening is created when we stop trying to tell our colleagues and employees that their experiences carry no value (or, maybe worse, pay only lip service towards valuing them). Impactful listening can happen in many ways: 1. At a faculty meeting when an administrator realizes that 50 percent of a staff is saying the same thing (and chooses to use that truth to delve deeper into a possible solution) or 2. When colleagues actually empathize with one another around difficult situations without needs for solution.
3. Create teacher feedback systems for school-wide policies and procedures (i.e behavior, grading, technology, curriculum, etc.) To truly engage teachers in using their voices in meaningful dialogue, we must create systems for feedback and honor voice. For instance, if enough teachers on a campus feel that a technology system is ineffective, the action that would encourage teacher sustainability is honoring their voices and trust that their experiences are valid and an important source of information. Then, use their feedback to inform a new way of creating the technology system that works for the majority.
Steven C. Ward wrote an article in Newsweek about ways to reverse plummeting teacher morale. He explains, “the key to effective schools does not reside in the interventionist strategies and think-tank polished ideas, but in the way teachers and schools are supported…the time is now long overdue to begin an entirely new path of education reform….This path seeks to support teachers, re-establish their autonomy and rebuild the more general trust in institutions.”
Yes, it’s time that the educational system actually heard and valued its greatest asset: the teachers themselves. Start focusing on teacher wellness, voice and meaningful collaboration and watch the as the system changes.
"Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare." -Audre Lorde
Talking about self-care and wellness programs can feel a bit light (superfluous). Many times, when I first talk about The Teaching Well with administrators or staff I’ll receive a series of responses:
“Well! That sounds like quite the luxury.”
“So… you bring wellness techniques we can use for students?”
“Wow! You push into professional development time to support teacher well-being. Is there enough time? How do they fit it in?”
The clients who have chosen to work with us this year understood that when their teachers are fully present (healthy mind, body, spirit) in the room, they are able to get through more content in less time. They also hold more clarity on how everyone can bring their strengths equally to the table. Here are three reasons why teacher well-being is integral to a thriving school ecosystem.
1. Creating Resilience against Compassion Fatigue
In the context of this summer, finding resilience in the faces of horrifying facts has been part of the national experience. Whether the death of Americans at the hands of police or the Trump/Hillary Campaign has been haunting your social media, this constant holding space for the painful experiences of others and how it affects our community is real. And, although it might be new for some, this process of being a participant in someone else’s traumatic experience is a normal, albeit uncomfortable, part of being a educator.
Consistently, teachers hold space for 20 - 200 wonderful beings who come from homes with a variety of experiences. This includes their accomplishments, happiness and growth as humans but also their challenges, anger, home struggles and tears. We support learning through connecting the the unique experience of each child and this includes gracefully navigating many young people’s emotional responses.
When educators are given space on their school sites to develop collective skills to stay resilient, they are more effective at redirecting students, supporting families and each other as a community working together to raise our next generation.
2. Workplace Wellness Programs WORK
As successful companies have shown us, providing wellness services for employees increases productivity and effectiveness. In the educatoin sector, with a direct focus on serving students, it can be easy to forget the part adults play in the equation. But just as we are looking to our most successful companies for design0based thinking, blended learning and effective management structures, we must also look to them for how they treat their people. And the reasons aren’t only to make employees feel supported through the work day. They’re also for long term financial success. These include:
-Decrease in health insurance premiums
-Decrease in sick days
-Increase in long term effectiveness and retention
3. How we treat ourselves is how we treat others.
Whether we think of Mirror Neurons or Kristen Neff’s self- compassion research, it is proven that how we take care of ourselves through times of stress accurately depicts how well we can react to others. And when we are stressed, our reactions are often exaggerated. As teachers, we are consistently in high-energy, high-expectations situations. It is integral that we have the tools to decrease stress at high impact moments.
When we speak of self-care at The Teaching Well, we are not talking about adding fluffy stuff to your day to be nice to teachers. We are talking about creating a team that is professionally committed to each other and personally committed their health and wellbeing. And by doing so, we create adult communities that have greater capacity to support students and families.
Join us in the movement-- and tap the well within!
There was always something ironic about the way I dealt with the stress of teaching. I’d finish the teaching day around 3, stay to coach or tutor or run a department meeting til around 5:30, then race through Los Angeles traffic (or, more accurately, sit in LA traffic) to get to a 6 pm yoga class. Those were always among the most stressful 30 minutes of my day, but I needed to get to that 6 pm class to de-stress. And, while focusing on the stress of traffic, I wasn’t focusing on the stress of teaching, so I guess that was a plus. But I knew that I needed that 90 minutes of yoga and meditation to stay healthy; not just physically healthy—we all know that as a teacher you’re on your feet most of the day—but mentally healthy. And it’s that mental health that we as educators need to spend more time discussing.
One of the most helpful tools I ever saw as a teacher was a graph that mapped the stages of first year teaching (see below): anticipation, survival, disillusionment, rejuvenation, reflection, anticipation again. It was helpful to be able to anticipate what I would be feeling—and most importantly to know that I wasn’t alone in those feelings. But when looking at that, I was also struck by how much of the year would be “survival, disillusionment, rejuvenation” and how irrelevant my education in pedagogy and even English (my subject area) seemed to be when it came to facing those feelings. What I needed to not just cope, but thrive—a necessary prerequisite for my students’ success—were tools for self-care.
Without The Teaching Well, I had to pick up these tools on my own (and, of course, with the help of colleagues). Mindfulness was helpful, specifically yoga and meditation; acceptance became necessary and my students and I put up a poster in our classroom that said “I like it when it rains, because if I didn’t like it, it would still rain” which oriented us towards acceptance and optimism; I really celebrated the little victories, which occurred daily, and that we too often ignore; the camaraderie I built among my colleagues was crucial to my well-being; and, finally, maintaining a healthy life outside of my classroom, one that included exercise and friends and travel and reading, helped me maintain a healthy attitude at work. I also shared these strategies with my students, many of whom were experiencing levels of anxiety and stress far more significant than mine.
These were the tools of self-care that worked for me. They will be different for other teachers, but the important thing is to focus on this toolbox the same way we do on the pedagogical one.
And the reasons for this are many. For one, the stress of teaching forces many teachers, especially ones at the beginning of their careers, to exit the profession, which not only is disruptive for them, but also for their students and their schools. Teacher turnover is also not without cost; teacher attrition costs the U.S. roughly $2.2 billion each year (in recruitment, teacher development, placement, etc.). In the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), attrition at some schools is well over 50% a year.
For those teachers that stay, stress can lead to unhappiness and, as in most professions, unhappy teachers are less effective teachers. One study found that happiness led to a 12% spike in productivity among employees; it’s likely quite higher when your profession is built on human interaction and the ability to motivate and inspire young people. Teachers are of course some of the most selfless individuals in society and, along with that, I find there’s often an unwillingness to focus on themselves because of the need to focus on others, notably their students. But as I always tell young teachers, you can’t be good to your kids if you’re not good to yourself.
Then there are of course the non-educational reasons we want teachers to take care of themselves: as people, we simply want them to be happy and healthy.
After my time teaching, I decided to run for the LAUSD School Board because of a belief that our educational ecosystem is in need of repair: that everyone in the system, from student to parent to teacher, is not being supported in the ways that would make us all more successful. The true promise of teacher wellness and The Teaching Well is that by focusing on the health, well-being and happiness of teachers, we also improve outcomes for students and schools; the return on this investment, in the form of higher rates of retention and more motivated educators, is one of the highest we could imagine.
Teaching is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Teachers work around the clock, for little money, with extremely high stakes; it is undoubtedly going to be a high stress environment. Ensuring teachers’ well-being is the least we can do. Amidst all the talk of policy panaceas and educational silver bullets, I hope we can focus on the simple, yet profound act of ensuring our teachers are healthy.
Nick Melvoin, a former LAUSD middle school teacher, is a candidate for the LAUSD Board of Education in District 4. To learn more, check out www.nickmelvoin.com.
The teaching profession is truly a labor of love, and in low-income or Title I public schools, many teachers go above and beyond in their deepest efforts to close the achievement gap. I honor and have so much respect for all the teachers who get creative in motivating their kids, stay late hours to differentiate instruction, and do their best reaching out to parents, all while having a substantial amount of patience and positivity day in and day out.
There are many factors that affect the health and wellness of students (and teachers!) and the quality of public school lunches is atrocious. For many students and teachers, the majority of their calories are coming from the low-quality foods served at school (think sugar-laden cereals, greasy pizza out of a bag, rubbery burgers, and a ton of dairy from milk and cheese).
Perhaps this is why so many children can't concentrate after lunch or develop neurological imbalances that make learning new concepts so difficult. Or teachers, why your blood sugar crashes and make you impatient and exhausted. (Sound familiar?)
This dire situation coupled with my own passion for eating healthy foods inspired me to teach my students about health and nutrition every chance I got. One year my school was fortunate enough to have fresh cut fruit delivered to our classroom as a recess snack and I always made the time to promote the health benefits and delicious tastes of these foods. I also upheld a strict “no junk food” policy in my classroom during parent-teacher events or class parties. When students had to join me for lunch in the classroom, I would always show them my lunch (whenever I ate sprouts it always freaked them out). I also always started the morning with a giant mason jar of green juice, and my students could list all the ingredients inside.
Sometimes, the best method of teaching (and keeping up our own death priorities) is simply leading by example. Of course there were parents who showed up unannounced at the end of the day with cupcakes for their child’s birthday, but besides that, my students knew better than to bring in unhealthy snacks.
I remember one time we were having a class celebration. The students and I were doing a math lesson and a generous parent came into the classroom and dropped off two liters of soda. As the beverages were set at the table, silence fell among the students. There were a few quiet gasps, and then they looked at me, as if bracing themselves. I then thanked the parent for their donation and we continued with our lesson. I didn't want whichever student to feel bad about what the good intentioned parent had brought, plus I knew how important it is for students to have a choice.
When it was finally time for the party, not one of my students asked for the soda. Maybe it was that they were too afraid to even ask, or maybe it was the lesson we had just done on sugar in beverages. Either way, I was so proud of my students for embracing the healthier snack options and making a conscious decision about what to put in their growing little bodies. And it helps me to keep the focus on my own health when I am acting as an example for them.And it helps me to keep the focus on my own health when I am acting as an example for them.
Here are some strategies to keep healthy food in the classroom:
1. Celebrate with healthy food presented in a fun way.
The number one way junk food makes it inside a classroom is when there are classroom parties. In my classroom, we had “green smoothie parties” and my students LOVED it. I brought in my blender and all the ingredients (kale, pineapple, and mango for example), and blended it up in front of them. I talked about the benefits of each ingredient and then we talked about all the other combination of fruits and vegetables they could use at home. Then we served it up in little cups and straws and everybody gave each other cheers. The kids had a blast and would request the same whenever there was an opportunity for another celebration.
2. Forget the food and have an epic game of kickball outside. Instead of celebrating with food, celebrate with a fun activity. Kids love playing outside and love it even more if they get to play against their teacher! There are some kids, however, who might not like a friendly game of kickball, so it's always nice to offer another activity where you can still watch them (i.e. let them sit in the shade and do an art project of their choice).
3. If you’re a teacher, send home a letter at the beginning of the year about your healthy classroom policy. Have the parents sign and return. If you’re a parent, talk to the teacher and ask about the health policy and offer to create a letter to send home if the teacher hasn’t done so already. (Many schools also have health foods policy, however many times it just isn’t enforced). Teachers really do love when parents take the initiative to get involved!
4. If you’re a parent and have the time, offer to be in charge of a classroom party (the teacher will love you for not having to organize it) and sponsor a “green smoothie party.” Collecting $1 from each student would be more than enough to cover the cost of food. Or, collect a small sum and set up a beautiful spread of fruit.
5. For holidays like Halloween or Valentine’s Day, swap the candy for little toys or gadgets instead (pencils, stickers, erasers, rings, etc.) The Dollar Store is great for this! Or, change the celebration to a fun event that takes the focus away from food.
6. If you still want to have food at a celebration, make up a specific list of what parents can bring. For instance, each parent can sign up for one of the following: grapes, cut up apples with cinnamon, melon slices, carrot sticks, celery sticks, raisins, hummus, salsa, plates, mini cups with cute umbrellas, etc. This will minimize the possibility of parents bringing cookies and cupcakes. If you’re a parent, offer to create the list for the teacher and get in contact with the parents.
Now, let me be clear: I definitely like to eat cake on my birthday and I'm not saying that eating cupcakes at a party is something kids shouldn't enjoy. But in communities where processed foods are everywhere, and where type II diabetes is affecting kids as much as adults, I think it's important to embrace the classroom learning environment as an opportunity to teach students about real, whole foods and remind myself to do the same so I can be best for my students.
I recently came across a post on Instagram that said, “If it’s not a yes, it’s a no.” It reminded me of a concept I love called “the full-bodied yes.”
As teachers, we say “yes” a lot. We say “yes” to students who need extra help after school. We say “yes” to our colleagues who need extra support during our prep period. We say “yes” to chaperoning prom, to after-school parent conferences, to grading papers over the weekend, to writing new curriculum, and the list goes on (you know what I mean, teachers!)
But, how often do we say “yes” when we really mean, “I’m not sure,” or “no” ? Or, how often do we say “yes” when what we mean is, “I really can’t fathom adding anther thing to my plate, but I know you need it and you expect me to give it and I don’t want to deal with disappointed you or making you upset.”
More often that not, I imagine. (My job is to support teachers is not doing this, and yes, I still do it, too).
So, the concept of the full-bodied yes. Part of what we do at The Teaching Well is help teachers get in touch with their bodies. We support nutrition, mindfulness, self-reflection and self-awareness for many reasons. But one of the reasons we do that is because we need to be able to feel our bodies say “yes” and “no.” Our bodies are actually very intelligent life forms, and they give us an incredible amount of information if we allow them to.
When someone asks you to do something, see how your body feels when you say “yes.” Does it feel excited, giddy, purposeful, joyful, full, peaceful, energized, calm? Or, does it feel anxious, tired, tight, fearful, heavy, resentful and weighed down?
Though we may feel that it’s always best to say yes, it really isn’t. If we say yes when we mean no, we set ourselves up for resentment, exhaustion and burn-out.
Next time you get the opportunity to say “yes” or “no,” at school or at home, try to pause and check in with your body first. Listen to the message it’s giving you. Then, take a deep breath and answer with either a full-bodied “yes”, or another truthful statement like “no” or “I’m not sure.”
It’s not easy at first, but healthy self-awareness and honest communication are essential to sustainable school sites. Try it—just once, and see what happens. Start to tap your well within, and watch how life at school changes.
(Director of the Los Angeles region)
Erica is The Teaching Well’s in-house nutritionist for all food-related wellness needs!
Food serves many purposes; as comfort, as a way to celebrate, or for bonding. I love a great meal with friends or family, when the focus is enjoyment and connecting.
But there can be a darker side of using food for purposes beyond fuel for our bodies. Food can easily be used as a distraction, dealing with stress, or for filling an emotional void. And in most cases, the types of food desired are not typically fish and steamed vegetables, but rather sweets or salty foods that are neither health-promoting nor energy-giving.
Try This: Create a Meal Ritual
Creating a ritual - whether with a snack or full meal - can help to bring back the true purpose of food as nourishment. A meal ritual can help bring attention to your body, and allow yourself to come into parasympathetic mode, or “rest and digest” mode. In this state, your physical body is best able to break down and absorb food. Mentally, it can remind you to be present, and enjoy your food.
You can create your own meal ritual with something as simple as taking a deep breath before eating. What exactly you do isn’t as important as doing it with intention. Here are a few other practices you can consider when creating your own meal ritual:
Say one gratitude
Turn off or remove all electronic devices (TV, cell phone, computer)
Remove any other stimuli - even an innocent good book or magazine
Light a candle
Use a real plate
Set out a place mate and silverware
Take 1-3 deep breaths before picking up your fork
Set your timer for 1 minute to simply look at your food and smell the aromas
Eat outside in the sunlight and take a moment to feel the warmth on your skin
What I do
When I first tried doing a meal ritual, it felt a little awkward because I often eat alone. I felt like I needed to have something to do or something to look at so I wouldn’t be lonely. With practice, though, I’m now quite comfortable turning all my attention to myself and my food.
My meal ritual consists of two things: saying a gratitude, and removing my cell phone. I try to say a gratitude about something simple and specific, like how thankful I am that my partner does laundry, or how amazing it was that my friend from the east coast called me out of the blue. I then try to chew, really chew, and just taste. If you experiment with chewing, you’ll find that the taste changes a bit as the salivary enzymes begin mixing with the food.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s How to Eat offers small mediations on mindful eating. Keep this little book by your kitchen table and read a page before a meal.
Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food by Jan Chozen Bays, MD, is a more in-depth guide on how to implement mindful eating.
Every year as summer approaches, I am deeply reminded of my stress levels. I become mindful of the stress, both positive and negative, that my body feels. It seems as my mind begins to slow as the teacher to-do lists get shorter and I begin to let my body speak to me again. It realizes that it is both exhausted from the year and exhilarated for summer.
As summer approaches, I enter the drone zone, where I am excited at the idea of actually being able to make it to the gym more frequently, of being able to schedule more frequent yoga classes, or perhaps joining a summer sports team, of travel, yet sometimes the idea of just sleeping in takes over. Summer is also the time where I tend to reflect on how I can not only incorporate these activities in my summer life but remember how to keep my rituals throughout the year so I continue to feel balanced in the classroom.
As a teacher, sometimes it can feel like we live in a polarized environment: giving 150% of ourselves during the school year and then when summer hits, we are re-cooperating the extra 50% we gave. We often have to re-fill our wells of giving during the summer. Every year of teaching, I would set grandiose ideas during summer of how to improve my work-life-balance, but now I am left wondering, “How can we make our lives more balanced?” Surely there has to a less polarized and more balanced way to approach a profession that I love.
As teachers, we know that students need balance and consistency. We can see and feel how deeply it affects our students bodies, minds, and ability to perform as well as connect socially with peers. When we think of our students we know that balance is not something that happens to us, it is something that we do. Balance is something that needs to be practiced consistently. Suddenly I am left wondering, why then, do we as teachers, swing on a pendulum of summer life verse school life?
Recently I have been reading Reflexes, Learning and Behavior, by Sally Goodard, because I am interested in how stress somatically effects my students. I have been reminded again of the importance of mindfulness for us as teachers. Goddard claims, “The most advanced level of movement is the ability to stay totally still and perfect balance is the action of not moving.”
An example of this would be learning how to ride a bicycle. In the beginning, when we learn how to ride, it is easiest to balance when the bicycle is in full motion. The hardest part of learning to ride a bicycle is how to slow down and stop without falling off.
As teachers, how do we learn to slow down and stop with off falling off the bicycle? How can we bring balance to ourselves? As our balance improves, we become able to slow down the bicycle and control it at slower speeds.
I challenge you to practice being present during summer: to set yourself up with consistency of mindfulness that will carry you into your next year. I challenge you to slow down the bicycle in the comfort of summer to help improve your balance.
Here are some mindfulness and stress resilience techniques from The Teaching Well that might help.
Mindfulness in Daily Activities:
What: The more you can stay present the better you feel. Integrating mindfulness into daily life is the best way to practice consistency.
How: This activity should be physical so you can focus on details of your experience. It doesn’t matter what physical activity you choose, rather the point is to focus your attention on the sensations you feel. For example, you could choose to be mindful while doing the dishes. You can focus on the feeling of the hot water on your hand, the smell of the soap, texture of the sponge, your feet grounding into the floor, the muscles in your arm as you scrub.
Strengthening the Immune System through Mindfulness:
What: Inhabiting your body and being aware of your body physically creates a stronger immune system. A body scan can make you more aware of your body’s cues. Your body loves attention and it is a way of bringing self-healing. Most illnesses sneak in when we are not present in the body.
How: Self-Healing Meditation to boost your immune system is most effective just before you fall asleep at night or just as you are waking up in the morning. You want to flood your body with awareness. Close your eyes and lie down. Then choose different parts of your body to focus your attention on: feet, legs, lower abdomen, chest, arms, etc. Try to feel the energy in those places. What is your body telling you? Send your energy to the parts of your body that you feel need it. Hold the attention for just a few minutes, and if your mind wanders, don’t judge it, just bring your mind back to the focus of your body.
Mindfulness through the Senses and the Environment:
What: Your senses can often bring your back into the present.
How: Notice three objects you see in a room and pay close attention to their details (shape, color, texture, size, etc). Linger over each objects and name three characteristics of the object out loud. For example It’s blue, cylinder shaped, and waxy.” Repeat this for each sense. Notice three sounds and now three characteristics of the sound. “Its loud, pleasant, ticking.” Touch three objects and describe their characteristics. Remind yourself that you are present with these environmental objects, you are in the here and now.
Mindfulness through Smell:
What: When you feel as though you are not grounded a pleasant smell is powerful way to bring you back into the present.
How: Carry something that smells pleasant with you, a lotion, oil, perfume, a fruit. You can also find things in your environment: a flower, fruit, herb, etc.
Here’s to a balanced summer that will help you take care of yourself so you can teach well in August.
Contrary to popular belief, martyrdom doesn’t produce the best results. When teachers feel fulfilled, that’s when they teach most effectively. It’s unrealistic to expect teachers -- and most people in the public service/social justice sector -- to give themselves unconditionally for long periods of time. What is realistic is for people to give when they themselves already feel at peace.
There’s a famous Sufi saying that says “Give from the overflow of your well, not from its depths.” When we’re feeling unsatisfied or overwhelmed, and our “well” is empty, it’s difficult to serve others. When we have unmet needs, it’s more common for us to “take it out” on others, including our students. But when people focus first on filling their own “well” by making themselves happy and healthy, it becomes far easier to “give from the overflow.” When teachers feel fulfilled, it creates space for us to take on the responsibility of others and serve without resentment.
As Buddhist Minister and activist Thich Nhat Hanh has famously said, “Until we are able to love and take care of ourselves, we cannot be of much help to others.”
So as teachers and givers, it’s important to ask ourselves: “How do I love and take care of myself each day? What do I need to be in a “well overflowing” place?” For some people, there well is filled quite quickly. For others, it takes more time, effort, and prioritizing to ensure that their needs are being met.
This also relates back to the Human Function Graph. The spot before the apex is where your well is filled, where you can are still able to take on the heavy responsibility of a teaching job without feeling depleted. It’s far more realistic to give from that place of extensive resources, than when we’re already in distress.
The Teaching Well is founded and shepherded by a team of former teachers, all of whom have taught in public, private and charter schools around the country—all of them for over five years and many for more than a decade. We were all highly driven, highly successful educators who know what its like to try and give from an empty well. We also have all found that our lives and the lives of our students dramatically increased when we started taking care of ourselves FIRST. In this discovery, we knew we had to give back to our communities what we had learned.
Thus, The Teaching Well was born. As a team, we support teachers and administrators in tapping their wells within, so that they may give from their overflow. We aim to bring this valuable resource to the communities who need it the most—so that they can sustain the lives and dreams of the students who need them.
Join us at the Well!
Kelly and Jane
A friend of mine who works as a recently social worker reiterated how important adult consistency can be in children from unstable family backgrounds. In her work, she saw kids go through more than five different social workers in a row during a short period of time. She saw some kids even enter their emancipation hearings having only met their social worker once before. It’s no surprise that my friend heard kids say “I really wish the other worker was here. She really knows where I came from. She knows how much I’ve grown.”
In schools, I don’t doubt that students feel the same. Even if a student may not like a certain teacher, it’s healthy for them to know that certain adults will at the very least, always be there. It’s healthy for them to have adults who have stayed with them over time and made them feel like they have someone to rely on. And with so much change, we create a lack of institutional knowledge around each child which means kids have to constantly work to retell their story. When I went to visit my old school last year, many of my former students told me how they honestly perceived me originally leaving. One said, “I thought you were leaving because you didn’t like us.” Another told me, “I know why you left. We were really hard on you.”
Through teacher turnover, students internalize the idea that they are “too challenging” as people, and that they are not worth sticking around for. This is potentially harmful message to be giving students, particularly students from unstable backgrounds. I think I was too easily dismissive of the role my decision to leave played in their lives. With all the changing variables going on in their lives, I didn’t realize how a critical a stable school life could be towards their development.
Self-Care for teachers is not about us. It is about being the most effective care-givers and members of society we can possibly be. It is about celebrating the wins of our students and watching the whole family come through a school. It is about the joy working for youth buoying your efforts in spite of a low salary or challenges that many of our districts and schools face. It is about building the resilience to stay on the front line and make a difference.
That’s why when I left the classroom I went on a quest for practices that could allow a teacher to stay in the sweet spot. From dozens of interviews and work with over 200 educators, my partners and I built The Teaching Well. Our goal is to provide school teams and educators with the tools and knowledge necessary to stay resilient and their best for kids in the classroom. In our next blog post, we’ll let you know a little bit more about what we offer and how it will change the landscape of public education.
Join Us at the Well!
As a teacher, there are so many reasons to speed up and keep upping the pace to achieve more and “teach more,” but let The Teaching Well lay out a few reasons why your focus on self-care (and slowing down sometimes) will make a difference:
- The Social Emotional Role Model of our classroom is us:
Humans learn through example. On a basic level this is mimicking behavior but neuroscience calls it Mirroring. All of us have specific neurons in our brain that react and replicate the body language of someone else. When you come into your classroom, you set the stage for how students interact with each other. Being able to keep your cool in emotionally heightened situations on a consistent basis is the difference between your students learning how to work together or triggering one another. Regular Sleep, a Mindfulness practice and regular exercise can make a difference.
2. Student Achievement Increases in calm classrooms.
A study done at Stanford showed that students who were in calm environments where they felt “safe”, scored higher on tests. With the drive for data in our schools this fact alone makes the case to provide teachers with the tools they need to stay resilient so our students brilliance is captured on these state tests.
3. Ed tech and Linked Learning are based on Teacher Implementation and Relationships: Our nation is committed to finding that next style of learning to build a stronger work force for the future. Whether it is Edtech or Linked Learning, two ways that state level education organizations or companies are trying to turn the tide, having teachers on the ground who understand the product or can build and maintain the relationships with local companies is the difference between a great idea that gets lost in action and a great idea that makes a difference.
4. Community Stability is based on teacher sustainability.
12.5 million dollars is what Oakland Unified alone spends on re-hiring, training and recruiting new teachers. And these are only dollar amounts. Can we put a number on the relationships built with families, the field trips or tutoring programs left behind, the pieced together knowledge of best health clinics, who and how to call CPS, the grocery store that gives teacher discounts, the way Tyree best learns his math. If you aren’t there, who is going to pass it on? Our students also lose. Their loss is not only an adult in their life that they relied on for emotional support, but also that sense of community that comes from know the students above and below them had the “same” experience.
We’ll discuss more about the power behind teacher stability in our next piece. In the midst of an ever changing world, and one in which many students face daily trauma, teachers can be a powerfully stabilizing force in the lives of students, IF they can weather the rigors of teaching and stay in the classroom. That’s our goal at The Teaching Well: keep teachers joyfully and healthily in classrooms. Can you see it?
Join us at the Well!
As an educator for six years in Middle Schools throughout Oakland, I know the joy of being a public school teacher: the constant barrage of hugs that come every day, watching students learn how to time jokes, how to engage with their peers, learning how to be themselves, seeing them grow as learners and thinkers, the joy that comes from seeing a group of students defend their opinions with facts and civility.
There is nothing that has fully filled that space of joy since leaving the classroom.
However, I did leave. I had set a pace for myself that I could no longer keep up with. I had forgotten, over time, that my health and wellness mattered. I spent hours, day in and out, doing what was best for kids and slowly, over time, it began to erode my personal balance. Examples looked like:
- Removing a workout by taking on an extra hour of tutoring each week
- Eating most of my meals on the run, either in the car, while grading papers, or while lesson planning
- “Holding off” illness until the holiday, weekends, or breaks
I left because these micro-exchanges turned into long-term disease. By year three, I was 30 lbs heavier, exhausted, and most importantly feeling that my absence was necessary, irrelevant of the impact on my students and school.
My story is not unique. In Oakland, 70% of all teachers leave the classroom within 5 years (2012 study) and nationally it is not much better (45%). In the teacher community it is not abnormal for March Madness to mean more than basketball or for a teacher to accept that ⅓ to ½ of the their staff will not return in the fall. When taking home the trauma of our students lives or juggling roles of educator, therapist, and social worker, each year we are asked to do more whether or not funding comes in and the urgency is REAL. Teachers burn out and they leave schools that desperately need them.
Turn over has a cost. A report in Forbes Magazine estimated that teacher attrition costs the U.S. around $2.2 billion each year. Others at Forbes estimate that it can be as much as $7.3 billion a year. By state, this costs anywhere from $2 million in Delaware, to $235 million in Texas.
Equity for all students means long-term change. Long term change means teachers need to be able to stay in the classroom.
Self-Care for teachers is not about us. It is about being the most effective care-givers and members of society we can possibly be. It is about celebrating the wins of our students and watching the whole family come through your school. It is about your joy working for youth buoying your efforts in spite of low salary or challenges that many of our districts and schools face. It is about building resilience to stay on the front line and make a difference.
When excellent teachers stay in the classroom, students win. When they burn out and leave, everyone loses. That’s why we started The Teaching Well—we want to combat burnout and bolster sustainability. In our bi-monthly blog series, we will continue to give you most of the socio-historical contexts about problems with teacher sustainability as well as introduce you to some of the solutions we provide. Its time for all of us to go back to the well—the communal source of stability and wellness—a place where we can join together and thrive for the benefit of our entire communities. Welcome to The Teaching Well. Join us, and tap the well within.
Here’s to thriving,
Kelly Knoche, Founder