GPS4Kids is a collective impact initiative established to ensure all children in Westchester County thrive regardless of race or zip code. Through a diverse group of stakeholders, we aim to uplift good policies and best practices that will keep children in school, improve youth-adult relationships and increase race equity. Occasionally, we will have GPS4Kids stakeholders reflect on their work in relation to the GPS4Kids goal. The following entry comes from Laura Caruso, the Executive Director of Pelham PACT, offering insight on what is needed to “Keep Children in School”.
There is no job harder than teaching, and I say this from experience. I am the mother of two middle schoolers, and the 25+ eight-year-olds in my class were also my children during the years I taught. Like many in the profession, I cared for my students immensely, and this did not stop with instruction. Teaching was all consuming for me, and while that level of commitment made me an excellent teacher, it is also why I burned out after only five years.
After reading the NPR piece, “Teachers Are Stressed, And That Should Stress Us All,” the content immediately resonated with me. But, I began to wonder whether others actually realize what happens to a teacher when he/she feels stress, and lacks the proper tools to handle it. Beyond the obvious negative health effects on the teachers themselves, there are now several studies that describe the effects of teacher stress on student learning and well-being.
According to a recent report published by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 46% of teachers report high daily stress, which compromises their health, sleep, quality of life, and teaching performance. When teachers are highly stressed, students show lower levels of both social adjustment and academic performance.
A More Mindful Westchester
I am grateful to be a part of a district-wide wellness effort in Pelham, NY, where I live, work, and send my two middle-school aged children to school. In my position as Executive Director of Pelham PACT, I participate in the District’s Wellness Committee. Our Assistant Superintendent oversees this cross-sector group, which includes extensive and authentic practices and changes for Pelham teachers.
After studying the social-emotional landscape in the classrooms, and designing a three-year plan to bring consistent practice into each school, the District is in the middle of the first year of implementing a broad effort to address the social and emotional health and wellness of Pelham’s students and teachers. The effort is one of the District’s top priorities as outlined in their strategic plan, and the Wellness Committee is a major part of this implementation.
So far, staff at the elementary, middle and high school levels have undergone training in using yoga and mindfulness strategies in the classroom, and students in 3rd grade and all special education students receive regular instruction in using these strategies. These professional development sessions have been incredibly popular with teachers and other youth-serving staff. The discussion around this initiative is ongoing and the ideas are robust, all of which serves to benefit teachers and students. CARE for Teachers is one organization that is currently working in New York City schools to implement some of the tips found here.
The Fix is Not Quick, but it makes Common Sense
The practice of mindfulness must be intentional, consistent, and practical to the classroom teacher, or it will not work its way into their practice. When the investment in this approach comes from the District level, there is a unified message and commitment. If school leadership does not prioritize the emotional health of its teachers, it is highly unlikely that teachers will stop to do it. That is not because teachers do not value it, it is because teachers never really “stop.”
A teacher’s job is constant; the day is constant; students’ needs are constant; administrators’ expectations are constant; planning and grading is constant. Unless the environment around a teacher is set up with an inherent value placed on social and emotional health, then it is less likely to happen. Unfortunately, teachers don’t have time to breathe unless you remind them to do so. The more administrators and the general public see value in mindfulness training for teachers, the better off our children will be.
- Calmer Transitions – When it’s time to move on to lunch or PE, get students to take three deep breaths and then listen to the sound of a bell. Have students listen quietly until the sound fades away before moving on.
- Take 5 (suggested by a CARE participant) – For children too young or too restless to do regular meditation, have them sit and quietly take note of five things they can see; then shut their eyes and count five things they can hear; then notice five things they are touching.
- Quiet Corner or Peace Corner – Described in Montessori and the Inner Resilience program, this strategy sets up a space in the classroom where children can go to deal with difficult emotions. It might have pillows and be stocked with stuffed animals, calming books, or smooth stones. It should be inviting, and not feel like a punishment.
- Mindful Walking and Centering – For teachers, who are always on their feet: When standing, focus on the sensation of the weight on the feet and the pressure of the feet on the floor. When walking, maintain the awareness of weight shifting from one foot to the other.