Last September, Eva waited impatiently at the copier, her blood pressure rising as she realized she would be late for class yet again. She could barely make eye contact with her colleagues, her aggravation impeding any casual conversation.
At a staff meeting that afternoon, Eva overheard two teachers talking about their foray into mindfulness. She skeptically listened to them describe deep breathing and other relaxation techniques. Although she couldn't imagine sitting around meditating, she recognized that her stress level wasn't sustainable and she wanted to make a change.
AMLE2016 conference attendees practice "ballooning," a mindfulness strategy.
By the time February arrives, many educators feel like Eva. We have survived the frenetic start of a new school year and juggled the holiday madness with work and family demands. But as we settle into a more natural rhythm, we start to feel the fatigue that comes with the monotony of winter. As we all strive to achieve the elusive work-life balance, mindfulness strategies can help us stay centered, focused on the present, and better equipped to deal with the inevitable bumps in the road.
When we put our own oxygen masks on first, everyone benefits. We become less reactive educators, better friends, calmer parents, and more giving colleagues. Here are ten mindfulness strategies educators can use at school and at home.
Put lost time to work for you
Whether we are waiting in a grocery line, for the copier, or at a stoplight, we can take advantage of any found time to be mindful. This might mean tightening and releasing our muscles, taking a trip to an imaginary happy place, or simply noticing the details of our natural surroundings.
Educators have very little time to pause between classes or before responsibilities such as bus duty. We are so busy, we may not even notice when we need to use the restroom. Even scattered moments can be transformed into structured mindfulness sessions. Eva chose to join her colleagues for an after-school staff-led mindfulness group. In just 15 minutes, she was able to disconnect from the stress of her workday and feel emotionally ready to enjoy her family.
Make the most of mealtimes
We can set aside the ungraded papers and the unread emails and concentrate on the simple act of chewing. Although we may have mere minutes to scarf down our lunch during the school day, it doesn't take much time to mindfully focus on our food. Take care to notice the smells, the texture, and whether it's crunchy or salty. Often, we multitask as we eat. When we dine with family or friends, we can practice the art of slowing down and really listening to each other.
Have an attitude of gratitude
Practicing gratitude reduces stress. At the Campbell Soup Company, the CEO spent a small portion of every day writing notes of gratitude to his thousands of employees. Regardless of our role in the building, we do more than just please individuals through acts like these. We also create a positive work climate in which people feel valued. When we feel appreciated, we are more likely to treat others kindly. There are many ways to incorporate gratitude in schools. We can provide opportunities for staff to thank one another, whether through bulletin boards, personal notes, or newsletter shout-outs. This can be done any time, even informally.
Stretch beyond yoga
We tend to think of yoga first when we talk about mindful exercise, but any sport can be performed in a mindful way. We can bring awareness to our bodies in space, the rhythm of our footsteps, or the sounds of our equipment making contact with a ball. We might consider removing our earbuds to focus on the natural sounds in the environment.
Tweet and text mindfully
Technology is an area ripe for mindful behavior. We spend so much time checking emails, tweeting, texting, using apps, and surfing the Internet. We can follow Twitter feeds devoted to mindfulness. We can download breathing and meditation apps, and we can use our phones to set reminders to take a pause and slow our frenetic pace. It's equally important that we establish technology-free time.
Utilize your senses
Whether we are holding an object and describing its properties, noticing the sun against our skin, or savoring the taste of our morning coffee, connecting with our senses brings us into the moment. We can listen to music mindfully, focusing on either the lyrics or the rhythm or even a particular instrument. When we enter a room, we can take in subtle details we might normally miss.
Find your inner child
Drawing isn't just for kids; nowadays, adults can find a variety of mandala coloring books for relaxation. We can play Jenga with our students or our own children, and toss balls or use yoyos. We can make stress balls using balloons and flour, or we can swat the balloons, imagining that they represent specific worries. We can use visual imagery to go on a magic carpet ride, or play with putty or pizza dough, concentrating on how they feel in our hands.
Every classroom needs a little glitter
We can bring small moments of mindfulness to our classrooms. We can shake homemade glitter jars to mark transition times. We can use chimes to draw kids' attention or to do sound awareness exercises. We can ask them to rate their stress on a 1-10 scale, then turn on music for a 90-second dance party. After they get a chance to move around, they can reassess their stress level.
Don't forget to breathe
We all can do breathing exercises. Kids can focus on their breath using bubbles, Hoberman spheres, or apps. We can even have them hold real or imaginary hot cocoa, alternately inhaling the smell and exhaling to cool it off. No one needs any special supplies to breathe, but we do need to practice so we can access different techniques when faced with stressful situations.
With practice, these strategies do more than help us relax. When we take the time to center ourselves, we build our capacity for empathy and feel an increased sense of gratitude for the little things.
On a recent commute home, Eva was stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. As she felt that first surge of stress, she realized she had a choice. She could let her exasperation dictate her state of mind, or she could use the time to ease the transition between work and home. Instead of anxiously checking her watch, she turned on calming music and focused on the lyrics.
As she peered out her rearview mirror, Eva became aware that her active choice to be mindful had freed her from both the endless line of cars and the emotional remnants of a demanding workday.
Rebecca Best, LPC is a school counselor at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in Bethesda, MD
Phyllis L. Fagell is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, MD, and a regular contributor to The Washington Post. She is the author of Middle School Matters (Da Capo Press, forthcoming 2019).
Published in AMLE Magazine
, February 2018.