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.

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, the home base for the mindfulness revolution.  For a comprehensive view of mindfulness programming and research in education visit and click on the link to the Initiative on Contemplative Teaching and Learning. It may just change your life for good.

First Person

As historians and New York City educators, here’s what we hope teachers hear in the city’s new anti-bias training

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza and Mayor Bill de Blasio just committed $23 million over the next four years to support anti-bias education for the city’s teachers. After a year in which a white teacher stepped on a student during a lesson on slavery and white parents used blackface images in their PTA publicity, it’s a necessary first step.

But what exactly will the $23 million pay for? The devil is in the details.

As current and former New York City teachers, and as historians and educators working in the city today, we call for the education department to base its anti-bias program in an understanding of the history of racism in the nation and in this city. We also hope that the program recognizes and builds upon the work of the city’s anti-racist teachers.

Chancellor Carranza has promised that the program will emphasize training on “implicit bias” and “culturally responsive pedagogy.” These are valuable, but insufficient. Workshops on implicit bias may help educators evaluate and change split-second, yet consequential, decisions they make every day. They may help teachers interrogate, for example, what decisions lead to disproportionately high rates of suspension for black children as early as pre-K, or lower rates of referrals to gifted programs for black students by white teachers.

But U.S. racism is not only split-second and individual. It is centuries deep, collective, and institutional. Done poorly, implicit bias training might shift disproportionate blame for unequal educational resources and outcomes onto the shoulders of classroom teachers.

Anti-bias education should lead teachers not only to address racism as an individual matter, but to perceive and struggle against its institutional and structural forms. Structural racism shapes the lives of students, families, and communities, and the classrooms in which teachers work: whether teachers find sufficient resources in their classrooms, how segregated their schools are, how often their students are stopped by police, and how much wealth the families they serve hold. Without attending to the history that has created these inequities, anti-bias education might continue the long American tradition of pretending that racism rooted in capitalism and institutional power can be solved by adjusting individual attitudes and behaviors.

We have experienced teacher professional development that takes this approach. Before moving to New York, Adam taught in Portland, Oregon and participated in several anti-bias trainings that presented racism as a problem to be solved through individual reflection and behaviors within the classroom. While many anti-racist teachers initially approached these meetings excited to discuss the larger forces that shape teaching students of color in the whitest city in America, they grew increasingly frustrated as they were encouraged to focus only on “what they could control.”

Similarly, at his very first professional development meeting as a first-year teacher of sixth grade in Harlem, Brian remembers being told by his principal that neither the conditions of students’ home lives nor conditions of the school in which he worked were within teachers’ power to change, and were therefore off-limits for discussion. The only thing he could control, the principal said, was his attitude towards his students.

But his students were extremely eager to talk about those conditions. For example, the process of gentrification in Harlem emerged repeatedly in classroom conversations. Even if teachers can’t immediately stop a process like gentrification, surely it is essential for both teachers and their students to learn to think about conditions they see around them as products of history — and therefore as something that can change.

While conversations about individual attitudes and classroom practices are important, they are insufficient to tackle racism. Particularly in one of the most segregated school districts in America, taking a historical perspective matters.

How do public school teachers understand the growth of racial and financial inequality in New York City? Consciously or otherwise, do they lean on tired but still powerful ideas that poverty reflects a failure of individual will, or a cultural deficit? Encountering the history of state-sponsored racism and inequality makes those ideas untenable.

Every New York City teacher should understand what a redlining map is. These maps helped the federal government subsidize mid-twentieth century white suburbanization while barring African American families from the suburbs and the wealth they helped generate. These maps helped shape the city, the metropolitan region, and its schools – including the wealth or poverty of students that teachers see in their classrooms. This is but one example of how history can help educators ground their understanding of their schools and students in fact rather than (often racist) mythology.

And how well do New York City educators know and teach the histories of the communities they serve? Those histories are rich sources of narratives about how New Yorkers have imagined their freedom and struggled for it, often by advocating for education. Every New York City teacher should know that the largest protest of the Civil Rights Movement took place not in Washington D.C., not in the deep South, but right here. On February 3, 1964, nearly half a million students stayed out of school and marched through the city’s streets, demanding desegregation and fully funded public schools. Every New York City teacher should know about Evelina Antonetty, a Puerto Rico-born, East Harlem-raised advocate who organized her fellow Bronx parents to press for some of the city’s first attempts at bilingual education and just treatment for language minority students in school.

Even if they don’t teach history or social studies, educators can see in the 1964 boycott and in Antonetty’s story prompts to approach parents as allies, to see communities as funds of knowledge and energy to connect to and build from. The chancellor’s initiative can be an opportunity to help teachers uncover and reflect on these histories.

Ansley first taught at a small high school in central Harlem, in a building that earlier housed Junior High School 136. J.H.S. 136 was one of three Harlem schools where in 1958 black parents protested segregation and inequality by withdrawing their children from school – risking imprisonment for violating truancy laws. The protest helped build momentum for later educational activism – and demonstrated black Harlem mothers’ deep commitment to securing powerful education for their children.

Although she taught in the same school – perhaps even the same classroom – where boycotting students had studied, Ansley didn’t know about this history until a few years after she left the school. Since learning about it, she has often reflected on the missed opportunities. How could the story of this “Harlem Nine” boycott have helped her students learn about their community’s history and interrogate the inequalities that still shaped their school? What could this story of parent activism have meant for how Ansley thought about and worked with her students’ parents?

Today, teaching future teachers, Ansley strives to convey the value of local and community history in her classes. One new teacher, now working in the Bronx, commented that her own learning about local history “taught me that we should not only think of schools as places of learning. They also are important places of community.”

The history of racism and of freedom struggles needs to be part of any New York City students’ learning as well as that of their teachers. Some of the $23 million should support the work of local anti-racist educators, such as those who spearheaded the Black Lives Matter Week of Action last February, in developing materials that help teach about this history. These efforts align with the chancellor’s pledge for culturally responsive education. And they offer ways to recognize and build on the knowledge of New York City’s community organizations and anti-racist education networks.

Attitudes matter, and educators – like everyone – can learn from the psychology of bias and stereotype. But historical ignorance or misrepresentation has fed racism, and history can be a tool in its undoing.

That would be a good $23 million investment for New York and all of its children.

Ansley Erickson is an associate professor of history and education at Teachers College, Columbia University and a former New York City high school teacher.

Brian Jones is the associate director of education at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library and a former New York City elementary school teacher.

Adam Sanchez is a teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City and an organizer and curriculum writer with the Zinn Education Project.

First Person

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, 8 essays from educators who raised their voices this year

PHOTO: Incase/Creative Commons

Teachers are often on the front lines of national conversations, kickstarting discussions that their students or communities need to have.

They also add their own voices to debates that would be less meaningful without them.

This year, as we mark Teacher Appreciation Week, we’re sharing some of the educator perspectives that we’ve published in our First Person section over the last year. Many thanks to the teachers who raised their voices in these essays. Want to help us elevate the voices of even more educators? Make a donation in support of our nonprofit journalism and you’ll have the option to honor an important educator in your life.

If you’d like to contribute your own personal essay to Chalkbeat, please email us at

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

After racial violence erupted in Virginia last year, New York City teacher Vivett Dukes called on teachers to engage students in honest conversations about racism.

“We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away.”

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

Too often teachers are blamed for bad curriculum, writes Tom Rademacher, Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. And that needs to stop.

“It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human, and teaching is both creative and artistic, would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power.”

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

Two of Ilona Nanay’s best students started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. But their educational careers came to an end after graduation because both were undocumented and couldn’t afford out-of-state tuition.

“By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams.”

I’m a Florida teacher in the era of school shootings. This is the terrifying reality of my classroom during a lockdown drill.

K.T. Katzmann is a teacher in Broward County, Florida. In this essay she shares what it’s like knowing that you could be the only thing between a mass shooter and a group of students.

“The experience of being isolated, uninformed, and responsible for the lives of dozens of children is now universal to our profession, whether because of actual emergencies or planned drills.”

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives.

Alex McNaughton teaches a human geography course in Houston. After Hurricane Harvey, he decided to move up a lesson about how urbanization can exacerbate flooding.

“Teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.”

How one Harlem teacher gave his student — the ‘Chris Rock of third grade’ — a chance to shine

Ruben Brosbe, a New York City teacher, has a soft spot for troublemakers. In this story, he shares how he got one of his favorite pranksters, Chris, to go through a day without interrupting class.

“Dealing with him taught me a valuable lesson, a lesson I’ve had to learn again and again: At the end of the day, everything that we want to accomplish as teachers is built on our relationships. It’s built on me saying to you, ‘I see you,’ ‘I care about you,’ ‘I care about what you care about and I’m going to make that a part of our class.’”

Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

Being a black educator can be isolating, writes William Anderson, a Denver teacher. He argues that a more supportive environment for black educators could help cities like Denver improve the lives of black students.

“Without colleagues of the same gender and cultural and ethnic background, having supportive and fulfilling professional relationships is much harder.”

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

For years, Memphis teacher Carl Schneider walked his students home to a nearby apartment complex. Then a photograph of him performing this daily ritual caught the attention of the national media. In this essay, Schneider reminds readers that he shouldn’t be the focus — the challenges his students face should. His call to action:

“Educate yourself about the ways systemic racism creates vastly different Americas.”


Thanks to our partners at Yoobi for supporting our Teacher Appreciation campaign.