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 covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

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

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet 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.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.