As teachers we give a lot: We invest our time and energy in our work, and we give something personal of ourselves to our students. This may often feel stimulating and rewarding, but over time we may also be in danger of burnout. Teaching can be both nourishing and depleting, and if the overall balance swings towards the latter then sustainability and health can be at risk. Knowing how best to deal with these demands and to manage our stress effectively not only helps us on a personal level, it can also enhance our professional lives.
Understanding ourselves—our minds, bodies, and emotions—is a key 21st-century life skill.
In order to be successful and resilient in this age of distraction and complexity, there are some basic competencies that we (meaning we as teachers, as well as our students) have to learn or, perhaps, rediscover. We need to consciously cultivate our skills of:
- Emotional regulation
If we know more about how to use our minds effectively and if we value these key life skills, should they not be more central to our school curricula?
What We Want For Our Children, We Need For Ourselves.
It is becoming increasingly important that we value and develop self-awareness and self-management capacities in our students. For this to happen, we need educators who are emotionally and socially intelligent as well as intellectually and academically knowledgeable.
Social neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology provide us with ample evidence that deep and effective learning for our students is highly dependent on a range of relational skills and capacities, as well as on the teacher’s embodied presence (Cozolino 2013). Developing these capacities in ourselves, as best we can, needs to become a normal part of the job description.
The role of the teacher is vital. It is powerful and it needs our attention.
The importance of the role of the teacher is not fully recognized in many societies. Education may be highly valued, but teachers sometimes less so. We must make a conscious effort to honor our teachers, and to appreciate and value their contributions.
I say this not just because it aligns with my own experience, but also because of the significant scientific research in this area, particularly in social neuroscience. Our engagement in the present moment and our authentic connection to ourselves and others have a significant, often unrecognized impact on the efficacy of our teaching, and of course on the learning of our students.
How we teach is as important as what we teach.
Teach Your Children Well
Training in mindful awareness has been shown to:
- Increase attention skills
- Deepen self-awareness
- Improve emotional regulation
- Enhance collaborative competencies
When a more mindful awareness of our minds, our bodies, and our emotions is incorporated into the school culture, then we are helping to nurture the overall wellbeing of our school community. Combined with a focus on understanding others and understanding our place within the environment, mindful awareness training becomes an invaluable component of 21st-century education.
Taking care of ourselves so that we can continue to teach well and enjoy teaching is just about the most significant thing we can do. Not just for our own benefit but because of the impact that we have on children and young people.
The Oxygen Mask
As a parent on a plane our instinct might be to help our children first if there was a problem, but we are instructed to get our own oxygen supply sorted before we help others. As teachers, we naturally focus on the needs of our students rather than on our own needs. But it is only when we know how to take care of ourselves —to nourish ourselves and to find balance—that we can effectively model these skills and help develop them in our students.
‘Developing groundedness and not allowing myself to be pulled around by the wind is all down to the learning I’ve done through mindfulness and the daily practice helps with that. We do work hard and it’s a career that sucks a lot out of you. You have to give a lot of yourself and those moments of stillness feel like recharging. The job requires you to be so sociable and I’m actually quite introverted. I recharge through being on my own – and doing that mindfulness practice sometimes feels like the equivalent of half a day’s walk out in the hills.’
We aren’t teachers.
We are people.
People who teach.
And we’re doing the best we can to help young people learn to do the best they can. As teachers, as individuals, there is only so much we can do in the world. But every step we take towards realizing our own authenticity and connectedness is a step towards engaging more deeply with ourselves and with our students. Our role, as people who teach, is crucial.
Is mindfulness the answer to all life’s problems? I don’t believe so. But I do believe that in seeking to validate and support the inner experiences of students and teachers we are asking deep questions—transformative questions—about what really matters in education, about the sustainability of a teaching career, and about the nourishment of teachers and students.
Cozolino, L. (2013) The Social Neuroscience of Education: Optimizing Attachment and Learning in the Classroom. New York: Norton.