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The Mental Practice That Could Reduce Teacher Burnout

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA

It’s a standardized testing day at Miller African-Centered Academy in the Hill District. But before one class of third graders starts the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments, Kathy Flynn-Somerville turns off the lights and has them just listen. She teaches them calmness strategies like being quiet, present and taking deep breaths.

But students aren’t the only ones employing these mindfulness strategies in the classroom. 

“It’s stressful to me to see them stressed, and stressful to know I can’t help them,” says Joan Germany. She’s been teaching for 23 years, and says that stress never really goes away.

Up to half of new teachers quit within their first five years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Some educators say mindfulness practices could help reduce high burnout and turnover rates. The secular practice that’s taking over yoga and meditation classes has been making its way into the classrooms across the country.

Joan Germany is part of a small group of Pittsburgh Public Schools teachers learning to use mindfulness to help manage classroom stress.

Amy Boyd says in her 26 years of teaching, she’s seen the profession get even harder.

“Sometimes our students come in and they can’t focus on reading or on the mathematics or on writing, because something has happened at home,” Boyd says. “Sometimes you have students that come in hungry, or they come in tired. As a person with compassion, to try to force them to do something they are not physically or emotionally ready to do, I find that to be my biggest challenge.”

Boyd says those personal challenges can have an effect on the whole class.

“If I lose it, then it’s so much easier for them to lose it,” she says.

Krista Turksma is one of the founders of CARE, or Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education. That’s the system this teacher mindfulness approach comes from. 

“Who’s taking care of the teacher?” she asks. “They give and give and give. I’ve been in education for the last 40 years and I’ve seen so many changes in education and the skills that children come into school with, and what is on the teacher plate, and it got higher and higher and higher, especially the last couple years with this mandatory testing.”

This year, Turksma trained a cohort of Pittsburgh educators in CARE. Some are on track to become facilitators themselves and train more people locally.

Turksma says teacher training is still mostly about implementing curriculum, leaving out a lot of the emotional skills they need for the job.    

“As a teacher you’re stuck," Turksma says. "You’re stuck in your classroom. You can’t leave. So, what happens for a lot of teachers is we suppress our emotions.”

She says CARE’s researchers have found that mindfulness can reduce stress and make teachers more effective.

“Our teachers are more in the present moment, so when I’m teaching math, I’m just teaching math, I’m not ruminating about what I didn’t get done yesterday or what I have to do tomorrow,” Turksma says. “I’m just teaching in the present.”

Educator Kathy Flynn-Somerville says she has the support of her principal and superintendent, but wants to see mindfulness spread throughout the entire district. But she says there’s some pushback from people who think it might sound like a new age philosophy.

“Exposure is critical, then people can decide,” Flynn-Somerville says. “But I do want to emphasize it is secular.”

She also says a lot of people tell her they just don’t have the time for mindfulness.   

“Actually if you take the time to do it, you’re going to find yourself managing things that take up all this other time, very differently,” she says.

Turksma says demand for CARE training is high, making her optimistic about eventually reducing teacher burnout. She also says her research has found teachers’ mindfulness had an impact on student engagement and productivity.

The Journal of Educational Psychology is currently reviewing CARE’s preliminary findings that the program improves academic outcomes. 

Virginia reports on identity and justice for 90.5 WESA. That means looking at how people see themselves in the community, and how the community makes them feel. Her reporting examines things like race, policing, and housing to tell the stories of folks we often don't hear from.