First Person

Voices: "Mindfulness" in schools to combat stress

Former school principal turned leadership consultant Rona Wilensky argues that as long as schools remain bastions of stress students won’t learn.

I first began my career in education reform in 1984 and in all these years I have never seen more pressure on adults and children in schools.

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Race to the Top, state level legislation tying teacher and administrator evaluations to student test scores and mandates that teachers master complex new pedagogies to implement the Common Core – not to mention years of budget cuts – have raised the stakes and necessarily, the fears and anxieties of adults working in schools. And in an enterprise as deeply inter-personal as teaching, the stress these initiatives create in school staff is directly transmitted to students. For as every parent or teacher knows, young people are brilliant detectors of the emotional temperature of the adults they depend on.

At the same time, the non-school pressures on children, especially poor children of color, intensified with the recession and slow economic recovery. Unemployed parents, housing disruptions, physical and mental health crises, crime and poverty continue unabated, burdening children with worry about their day-to-day survival.

In short, schools transmit and receive high levels of stress on a daily basis.

Coincidentally, embedded in most of the new policy initiatives is an implicit theory of change – that intense expectations on adults and children in schools will lead to unprecedented new levels of learning in the craft of teaching and the education of children.   Unfortunately, this model of change flies in the face of strong evidence that stress and deep learning are, in fact, negatively correlated.

Research has shown that under some forms of pressure we can get very good at tightly focused attention as well as memorizing information or displaying what we have memorized. However, narrow focus and memorization – while useful – are no longer our priority goals for teachers or students.

The research that is more relevant to the current situation shows that chronic states of stress usually compromise the body, the emotions and the mind in ways that interfere with the very kind of learning we say we want: high-level, creative, inter-disciplinary and collaborative problem-solving.

Stress has been implicated in weakened immune systems, which lead not only to more frequent short-term illnesses but also to the onset of chronic diseases, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and cardiovascular disorders in both adults and children. As all of us know too well, illness in any form drains energy, motivation and the capacity to be physically present – all of which are essential to mastering complex learning tasks.

Chronic stress is also associated with anxiety, depression and disordered sleep – further interfering with learning. And it can heighten emotional reactivity, which compromises healthy relationships, effective communication and good decision-making – key elements in the 21st century skill set.

Stress exerts its negative effects on learning by compromising the workings of the pre-frontal cortex, the very site of the executive functions crucial to the development of other traits we say we want:  creativity, cognitive flexibility, self-control and discipline.

In short, there is a high likelihood that the stress we have created for educators and the stresses we ignore in our students’ lives will undermine our best efforts to raise the bar and close the achievement gap.

Combatting stress in schools

What can be done?  It is unlikely that educational or economic policies will change in the short run, although I certainly encourage and applaud efforts that tackle them head on. In the meantime, we need a strategy to prevent what cannot immediately be changed from derailing our best intentions. What I’m about to offer may seem like small potatoes, but it has a strong track record in the worlds of physical and mental health and is an emerging intervention in myriad other sectors, such as the military, business and the other professions. I encourage schools to both acknowledge the almost unbearable intensity of the situation we are in and intentionally support the use of stress-reducing strategies, including mindfulness practices.

Conventional stress reduction looks like a laundry list of New Year’s resolutions – eat better, sleep more and exercise daily – all important and useful antidotes to the toxicity that stress creates. More and more, however, stress reduction prescriptions include a recommendation to begin and sustain a regular mindfulness practice, which affects an even deeper level of change. Dubbed the “mindfulness revolution” by Congressman Tim Ryan of Youngstown, Ohio, in his book The Mindful Nationadvocates, including myself, recommend formal practices in which we learn to train our capacity to be fully present in the moment and notice when our minds have wandered, to cultivate kindness toward ourselves and others and to develop new ways of relating to habitual thoughts and emotions.

Early research has shown that regular mindfulness practice has transformative effects on our ability to cope with intense challenges in our lives: it leads to better regulation of anxiety, depression and emotional volatility; replaces reactivity with responsiveness by helping to create a space between stimuli and action in which we can more thoughtfully weigh our choices; and supports commitments to engage in more self-care and finding a balance between “doing” and “being” in our lives.

Across the nation, including Colorado, evidence-based programs in mindfulness are being offered to educators and students as an important strategy for increased well being in difficult times. When adults are calmer and more present, students feel seen and cared for, laying the social and emotional foundation for the hard work of high-level learning. When students learn to regulate their own stress, they develop a sense of efficacy that empowers them to take greater responsibility for their own lives and learning.

If you’d like more information about mindfulness in general, visit www.mindful.org, the home base for the mindfulness revolution.  For a comprehensive view of mindfulness programming and research in education visit www.garrisoninstitute.org and click on the link to the Initiative on Contemplative Teaching and Learning. It may just change your life for good.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

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I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.