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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

Educators Need Mindfulness. Their Mental Health May Depend On It.

By Peter DeWitt — August 19, 2018 4 min read
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In a very powerful and popular guest post (Finding Common Ground. 2018) called, Kids Need Play and Recess. Their Mental Health May Depend On It, superintendent Michael Hynes cites Dr. Peter Gray of Boston College when he writes,

In fact, Dr. Peter Gray a research professor at Boston College found that, "Rates of depression and anxiety among young people in America have been increasing steadily for the past 50 to 70 years. Today, by at least some estimates, five to eight times as many high school and college students meet the criteria for diagnosis of major depression and/or anxiety disorder as was true half a century or more ago." If that doesn't alarm you as a parent, educator or as a concerned citizen, I'm not sure you have a pulse. The fact is, we have an existential mental health crisis in K-12 education and beyond. The question is, what can schools do about it?

It’s not just children who are at risk these days.

As a former school principal, and even in my present role as a consultant, I have had a hard time calming down my active mind. I often find myself asking what I should write next, how can I improve on my practice, and what did I do wrong to make someone want to provide me with negative feedback.

As a principal and teacher, I often could not shut off the bad interactions I had with colleagues or parents. When I experience a negative interaction I would carry it with me like a heavy weight on my shoulders. Do you ever feel that way? If you do, you are clearly not alone.

There are countless school counselors, teachers, nurses and school leaders who feel stress on a daily basis and that begins to bleed into their daily lives. Besides stress many of these school personnel are working with students who experience trauma at home. Those adults working with this fragile student population are at risk of experiencing vicarious trauma because they just cannot shake off the heaviness of working with students who seem to be living through so much turmoil.

For example, in School Counselors’ Perceived Stress, Burnout, and Job Satisfaction (2018), Mullen et al cited numerous studies that showed,

School counselors can face multiple and competing demands, leading to symptoms of stress, empathy fatigue, emotional exhaustion, counselor impairment, and eventual departure or resignation from their jobs (Maslach, 2003; Mullen & Crowe, 2017; Stebnicki, 2008).

When looking at new teachers within their first few years of the profession, 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."

Principals are not immune to stress and burnout either. In fact, 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.”

Additionally, 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.”

Ten minutes in the morning
What we all have experienced, is that when we are busy and feel stressed, even the slightest of things can negatively impact how we move about our day. I use to feel like I woke up in the morning and hit the ground running. The problem is that when we hit the ground running, we sometimes leave ourselves behind.

There are numerous ways to approach the issue of stress and burnout among principals, educators, nurses and counselors. We always should step back and look at how we spend our time. Do we add to our stress by reinventing the wheel each time we have to do a new task; do we look for ways to build collective efficacy because many hands make light work; or do we try to take some of the work off our plate because we spend too much time being martyrs thinking we have to do everything when we really don’t?

Besides all of that, do simply try to give ourselves 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes at night to focus on breathing? Yes, 10 minutes.

For full disclosure, I have always been a fan of calming techniques like meditation but I did not think I was doing it right, so I quit. However, over the last few months I have made a commitment to meditate (I use an app named Calm) 10 minutes in the morning and 10 at night.

You may think that my life as a consultant/author is glamorous. I travel from city to city meeting wonderful people and seeing amazing places. That’s true some of the time, but not all of the time. My life revolves around being in hotels a few times a week about 45 to 47 weeks a year. Participants do not always love being on the receiving end of professional development (surprise!), and I sometimes work all day in one city and get on a plane to travel by night to the next.

Some of the same stress I felt as a consultant mirrored how I felt as a principal and teacher. So, I sat back and learned how to make a conscious effort to breath in the morning and at night before going to sleep. What I found is that I am less stressed, love the lessons taught by my app, and sleep much, much better. Educators can find the same benefits.

In fact, Van der Merwe et al found that,

Participants' main stressors, their reaction to stress and the influence of controlled breathing on their stress relief were investigated through individual interviewing. It was found that school principals' main stressors related to extensive workloads carried out in an environment of resource constraints. The regular practising of controlled breathing resulted in a decrease of the levels of stress experienced with main improvements related to revitalized energy levels, restored clarity of thinking and improved interpersonal relationships."

This is supported by the work of Valerie Brown. In a guest post titled Mindful Leaders Are Key For Transforming Schools (Finding Common Ground. 2016), Brown writes.

Mindfulness improves a school leader's ability to notice and to focus, slow down, stop, pause, breath, and avoid automatic reactions that you might later cause regret. The capacity to focus in the moment is a hallmark of leadership excellence. Connecting with others, taking a genuine interest in the well-being of another, listening for what is said and what is left unsaid, supports true understanding and promotes a trustworthy school community. This strengthens the leader's capacity to influence others in a positive way.

In the End
We are all at risk of burnout and stress, all of which negatively impacts our mental health. Our students need brain breaks and recess in order to ensure that they feel less stress, and Hynes so keenly pointed out, but adults need brain breaks as well, and sometimes it’s as easy as waking up in the morning and making breathing a part of our morning routine.

Mindfulness, meditation and breathing may not solve all of our issues, but through the experience of focused breathing, we will become less stressed, sleep better, and take more time to make better decisions which could have positive effects on our mental health. No, this is not rocket science, but sometimes it’s the simplest of ideas that have the greatest benefits.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (Corwin Press. 2016), School Climate: Leading with Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press. 2017), and Coach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018). Connect with him on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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.