Special Report

Can Yoga Help Prevent Teacher Burnout?

By Madeline Will — June 07, 2017 6 min read
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About 25 teachers lay on their backs, put their arms by their sides with their palms down, planted the soles of their feet into the floor—and then screamed as loud as they could.

They were doing a ‘tantrum’ yoga pose to release energy and stress in a professional-development session.

Donna Harrington, a yoga and wellness teacher at Innovation Academy Charter School in Tyngsboro, Mass., helped organize the five-week professional-development course, which was meant to teach self-care to teachers through yoga, meditation, and mindfulness.

The course took place this spring, at the peak of testing season.

“I’m just going to ... let [teachers] see how it feels to relax deeply, just be in this moment, not be worried about grading,” said Harrington, who taught two of the five classes. “Hopefully, they’ll come to the job a little more refreshed.”

Numerous studies have been done about the benefits of yoga and mindfulness for students. They suggest that the breathing exercises and physical poses can help improve students’ grades, behavior, self-esteem, and physical health. But practicing yoga and mindfulness has specific benefits for teachers, too, researchers and educators say.

“You can’t give what you don’t have,” said Catherine Cook-Cottone, an associate professor in the department of counseling, school, and educational psychology at the State University of New York’s Graduate School of Education in Buffalo. “If a teacher wants to deliver a sense of well-being, a sense of safety, a sense of self-regulation, a sense of active engagement without stress, he or she can’t do that if they can’t create that within their own bodies.”

In recent years, interest has grown from researchers, schools, and other organizations about how classroom teachers benefit from practicing yoga. At the University of Houston, researchers are studying whether the practice can help prevent teacher stress and burnout.

Teachers who practice yoga say it has given them an outlet for the daily stresses and frustrations of teaching. It also equips them with strategies to stay calm during chaotic moments and helps them understand and reflect on both their mindset and that of their students.

“I don’t get shaken too much. A lot of stressful things can be going on, but I’m always really good at keeping centered,” said Laura Baker, an English-as-a-second-language elementary teacher in Fairfield, Conn., who is also a certified yoga teacher. “With mindfulness, you’re able to connect with the student in a different way, person to person. I’m not just thinking of test scores.”

Yoga has another, more practical benefit for teachers of younger children, Baker said: It helps with “getting up off the floor multiple times a day.”

Getting Teacher Buy-In

While teachers who practice yoga speak positively about the effects it has had on their life and instruction, it can be difficult to persuade many educators to carve out the time to practice, researchers say.

Bradley Smith, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Houston and the director of the college’s school psychology doctoral program, has been leading yoga classes for teachers at KIPP Liberation Middle School in that city for two years. The class was originally designed solely for teachers, but few teachers have come, so Smith has opened it up to KIPP students, parents, siblings, and students at the university.

“The teachers that do it seem to enjoy it, but it’s usually about 5 percent to 10 percent of teachers in the school,” said Patrick Sajovec, a graduate student working with Smith on the research.

The two University of Houston researchers are looking at the impact of yoga or mindfulness activities on stress and burnout in teachers, as well as teacher and student well-being. They hope to study the stress-relieving effect of teachers practicing these exercises briefly every day of the week.

But “teachers don’t seem to be doing it spontaneously,” Sajovec said. “It works if you do it, but not everybody does it faithfully. ... We don’t want to add stress and burnout by making teachers come to yoga after school. Then you’re just increasing stress, and it’s not productive.”

The researchers are trying to attract more teachers by touting the benefits of yoga for their students.

“They’re usually thinking of how to take care of kids,” Smith said. “If we can do this backdoor approach, help them do the yoga for the kids, they tend to get the benefits of the yoga.”

Smith said in the future, he hopes to study whether teachers performing yoga with their own students is more impactful than having an outside yoga instructor come in.

Teachers’ reluctance has also been a challenge for Lisa Flynn, the founder and CEO of Yoga 4 Classrooms, a New Hampshire-based yoga and mindfulness program for schools that offers PD workshops to teachers across the country.

“If I started with, ‘This needs to start with you,’ they would shut me down before I could even open my mouth,” she said. But when she tells teachers of the benefits yoga has for students, they are more receptive.

Flynn teaches strategies teachers can use when the classroom gets chaotic: cleansing breaths, mindful movements, short visualizations, or simple yoga postures. When teachers model those strategies in their classrooms, it can improve student behavior and save time on classroom management, she said.

“If we’re really stressed, we’re really frantic, and we’re not grounded ourselves—you can pretty much guarantee that your classroom is going to be the same,” she said.

200 Hours of Training

Now, several yoga studios across the country offer specialized training for classroom educators. Two years ago, Breathe for Change became the first 200-hour wellness and yoga teacher training specifically designed for K-12 educators.

Ilana Nankin, the company’s CEO, was teaching preservice teachers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison at the time and was struck by how stressed her graduates were in their first year of teaching. “These passionate, like-minded teachers who were ready to change the world ... didn’t have the tools to take care of themselves,” she said.

Nankin, who started practicing yoga when she was an overwhelmed prekindergarten teacher with Teach For America and found that it “completely transformed [her] well-being,” decided to open her house up once a week to teachers who needed support and wanted to learn mindfulness exercises.

Those weekly sessions at her house have since expanded to annual retreats in New York City; Los Angeles; the San Francisco Bay Area; Austin, Texas; Madison, Wis.; and Washington. In those retreats, there’s a daily session on social-emotional learning, where teachers learn relaxation activities, visualization exercises, and other tools that they can share with students and use to build community in the classroom.

Breathe for Change trained 34 teachers its first year, more than 200 its second, and plans to train more than 600 in its third year. All the teachers who have gone through the training have reported reductions in stress, said Nankin, who hopes to eventually research teachers’ well-being and their students’ outcomes after the teachers are trained in yoga.

Meanwhile, yoga’s proponents say that all teachers can benefit from taking 30 seconds during the school day to take a few deep, mindful breaths or make a purposeful movement.

“It’s like hitting the reset button,” Yoga 4 Classroom’s Flynn said. “It’s like having an opportunity to start the day all over again.”

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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