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“It’s Not You, It’s Me”: Three Mind-Body Interventions for Teachers

High School Teacher Sitting Outdoors With Students On Campus practicing mindfulness

“Teaching is not what it used to be,” says a 40-year veteran teacher at my building. I’ve been around for 10 years, but I can agree, things have changed a lot in the past decade. It’s hard to pinpoint the change is or articulate where it’s coming from. However, I think most teachers can agree that things are increasingly more… stressful.

In the hallway, a typical greeting consists of a grunt or at best, “It’s Friday.” Conversations in the staff lounge center around the uncertainties and anxiety facing our teaching profession from the greater political cultural climate. A recent survey cited 51% of teachers feel significant stress at work several times a week. While technology and innovation have considerable benefits, the new skills and information we are expected to personally process and then apply to our instruction has teachers feeling like hamsters on a wheel. Not to mention the data on us! Teacher performance is being continually monitored and tracked by standardized testing.

Teacher stress has an unmeasured impact:

As I sit at my back table, administering a reading test, I look up and see the little girl sitting in front of me. Except, I see her, seeing me. Hunched shoulders. Furrowed brows. Clenched jaw. My body communicates what my brain can’t fully comprehend. I am stressed. Much to my surprise and horror… her body language was matching mine. She was mirroring me.

This realization hit me hard. I noticed students all around exhibiting stress signals. Hiding under tables. Making excuses to leave the classroom and wander the halls. Destroying classroom supplies. These behaviors were symptoms of emotional turmoil, and it was standing in the way of students achieving their academic potential.

Now, I know that many of these issues are complex and multilayered. I am by no means blaming teachers for all behavioral problems. However, the first step to an emotionally regulated classroom is to be emotionally regulated yourself.

YOU are the intervention.

The good news is, even if your brain is not yet convinced, you can begin with your body.

Here are three tips to get started.

3 Mindfulness Tips for Teachers

#1: Set daily intentions— for yourself, and for your classroom

Before you get out of bed, think about how you want to show up today. Words like strong, healthy, at ease, organized, peaceful. Imagine what it looks like and feels like.

Now imagine the one thing that would make your classroom great today. This intention could be, “students working well together in pairs” or “excitement for a new project.” Visualize these intentions then write them down. I have found that writing an intention down and visualizing the outcome takes less than a minute. And most days, this fortune actually comes to fruition. A worthy time investment.

#2: Take a breathing break to reduce stress

Teachers never stop. Heck, we usually don’t even slow down. I have seen teachers eating their lunch while walking down the hallway! During your prep, your lunch, transitions between classes… intentionally take 5–10 breaths. Inhale for 2 counts and exhale for 4 counts. I even like to close my eyes and bring back my intention from the morning.

#3: Unwind your nervous system

Good ol’ fight or flight. Your body doesn’t know if you are running away from a hungry predator or if you are preparing to be observed by your principal. All it knows is, it’s time to send in the stress hormones!

Your frontal cortex can’t talk its way out of this response to teacher stress. “Body, I am not being chased by a predator, it’s just my annual observation.” However, there are key trigger points in the body that activate when the sympathetic nervous system kicks in. This means, if we can release the body, the brain will believe that everything is okay.

  • Jaw: Inhale breath and when you exhale stick out your tongue. For added effect add a nice long “hah” sound. I even like to massage the opening that is created next to my ears while my jaw is open.
  • Eyes: Rub your hands together to create heat and place them on your eyes. And/or gently smooth out the brow line from center to outer eye, say to yourself “soft eyes”. (Yes, unfurl that teacher brow.)
  • Shoulders: Interlace fingers behind your back for a chest expansion and take three slow deep breaths. Teachers spend a great deal of time hunched over students, and simply opening the shoulders can be a total mood changer.
  • Hip Flexors: Lunge back with right foot and left foot forward in a bent knee lunge, take a few breaths, then switch sides. Your hip flexors and psoas are your flight muscles, so release them!

Why Mindfulness is Important for Teachers

I began to realize that same little girl, mirroring my furrowed brow and hunched shoulders, began to mirror my deep breathing. When doing a backbend stretch during a transition she commented, “It feels good to stretch, doesn’t it?” Yes. It does.

This isn’t the magic bullet. However, when we release the tension and anxiety held in the body, teachers are able to be present.The present moment has no stress. This intervention for your body is an important first step for creating a peaceful classroom for your students.

As I began this mindfulness work, I noticed other things around me begin to shift. I realized that being overwhelmed is often as unproductive as doing nothing. I changed my focus and redefined what was important.

This process led me back to my students. How can I bring this mind-body awareness into my instruction? I began working with 1000-petals, an organization training educators in Mindful Movement, to integrate these strategies via Social Emotional Learning standards and Academic Learning Standards. The results were amazing. Follow this blog series to learn more about creating a positive, emotionally regulated classroom through mindful movement.

Stephanie Kennelly is a third grade teacher in West Saint Paul, Minnesota. Contact her here for comments and questions.