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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

6 Improvements Inspired by Practicing Mindfulness

By Peter DeWitt — October 07, 2018 5 min read
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At first glance, it may seem as though practicing mindfulness is not related to education. However, a month ago I wrote a blog post on mindfulness for educators, which you can read here. In the post I mentioned some studies focusing on the mental health of educators which are quite alarming.

Those studies are

McLean et al (2017),

Examined the trajectories of depressive and anxious symptoms among early-career teachers as they transitioned from their training programs into their first year of teaching. In addition, perceived school climate was explored as a moderator of these trajectories. Multilevel linear growth modeling revealed that depressive and anxious symptoms increased across the transition, and negative perceived school climate was related to more drastically increasing symptoms."

In addition to the study, we find that principals are not immune to stress and burnout either. Queen and Schumacher (Principal Magazine. 2006) found that,

As many as 75 percent of principals experience stress-related symptoms that include fatigue, weakness, lack of energy, irritability, heartburn, headache, trouble sleeping, sexual dysfunction, and depression."Van der Merwe et al (2011) found that, "school principals experience high levels of stress that hamper their self-efficacy and inhibit their executive control capacities."

Mindfulness is a very personal choice, and it often happens when we are tired of being reactive all the time. We come to the exercise of mindfulness after we have become burned out because we take on so much in our personal and professional life. After all, what the public may not always understand when thinking about what happens in school is that educators deal with highly stressful situations on a daily basis.

Some of those situations are:

  • Increased academic accountability
  • Students who experience trauma
  • Students who have mental health issues
  • Adults who are supposed to work together through collaboration on district or building initiatives
  • High caseloads of students
  • Creating safe spaces for minoritized populations
  • Working with families who expect too much or come in too little
  • Negative rhetoric at the national or state level from politicians who say schools don’t do enough
  • Our own personal struggles wondering if we are doing enough to help meet the needs of our students

That stress becomes so heavy of a burden that educators forget one very important aspect of education. That important aspect is that they have, and take, the opportunity to have a deep impact on the lives of students every single day, and work very hard to achieve that. We hardly ever turn off that desire because it doesn’t go on and off like a light switch.

Research Says!
Sometimes, however, we need to take a step back and breathe. Do you ever do that? Just take a brain break? I bet you don’t take one as often as you should. I bet you do not prioritize it in your daily practice because you are busy helping so many others become their best selves. We all need to take time to breathe on a purposeful level every day.

In fact, a recent study (which you can read here) showed that 10 minutes of breathing through mindfulness practiced by a control group had an enormous impact on the way we approach our day, and the way we live our lives.

The researchers write,

It is curious that simply focusing on the breath in a balanced way can have such an effect on concentration and working memory. We think this is happening because meditation is a form of brain network training, where the same brain networks are repeatedly activated and so become more efficient. It seems that this form of meditation targets core brain networks, interconnected areas of the brain that work together and play a key role in many cognitive tasks.

In this article by Kelle Walshe, she writes

The research is strong for mindfulness’ positive impact in certain areas of mental health, including stress reduction, emotion and attention regulation, reduced rumination, for reducing mild to moderate depression and anxiety, and preventing depressive relapse.

What I’ve learned
As someone who practices mindfulness through meditation, it has been a source of self-reflection, which has resulted in positive benefits in my life. In fact, there are at least six areas of growth I have experienced this year, and meditation and mindfulness has been partly responsible for those changes.

They are:
More gratitude- It’s not that I haven’t been thankful, because I have. I’m grateful for the opportunities that I have, but sometimes I work so much that I forget to be thankful. What I find is that I take a little more time out to have gratitude for things that come up. Whether it’s extra time with family, or even that negative issues offer learning lessons, I have felt more gratitude.

Less comparison- We all do this, don’t we? We compare ourselves to others. We see our friends on social media and worry that we aren’t doing enough. I had a x-country coach a long time ago say that the only person we are really racing is ourselves (Ok, maybe he stole it from a Nike commercial!) but mindfulness teaches us to not compare ourselves to others as much. We need to worry about being our best selves.

More focused- When we spend time working on our personal areas of focus, it translates into other parts of our lives. I find that I listen more deeply, and follow Stephen Covey’s rule more closely.

Less resentful- We have a habit of carrying our past with us. We replay conversations and situations in our minds over and over again. I don’t do that as much anymore. The act of letting go is a big lesson learned.

More sleep- Many of us may have a glass of wine or three before bed. Replace that wine with ten minutes of meditation and you will be amazed at how much better you sleep. It’s not that you won’t wake up in the middle of the night anymore, but you will learn to react differently when your eyes open at 2 am.

Less stress- We carry our stressful days on our shoulders. Stress builds up when we don’t take the time to process it in a positive way. I’m not talking about complaining to a friend. I’m referring to when we can process it out with a friend who will act like more than an echo chamber. Ten minutes in the morning and ten minutes at night of meditation can work wonders for our stress levels.

In the End
Educators are well known for putting more and more on their plates. Even when we are offered the opportunity to take something off our list of duties we resist because we are control freaks. We worry that giving something up on our list is a weakness, or we don’t believe anyone can do it better than us. Practicing mindfulness allows us to think deeply about all of those tasks on our list, and process through whether they are important or not.

There is an opportunity cost associated with practicing meditation and mindfulness every day. If we take ten minutes in the morning and ten minutes at night to practice this, it means we don’t do something else for those twenty minutes. However, what lose in that twenty minutes is some of our stress, and what we gain is so much more positive.

And, so you understand that I practice what I preach, I am going to take another break from writing this blog. I need to take a moment to step back and breathe. I hope you will do the same.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including his new narrative book Coach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018) that focuses on all the success and issues that play out in school, and how they can be solved. Connect with him on Twitter.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.