Insights Into Teacher Stress, Exhaustion, and Wellbeing During COVID-19 As Seen Through The Eyes of a Busy Mindfulness Instructor
Kate Savage leads mindfulness training workshops for teachers in the Los Angeles area and she shares her experiences helping educators and students cope during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Q: What are some common hurdles and themes you are seeing among teachers during since COVID-19 started?
Kate: I see a combination of resilience and exhaustion.
Teachers are big-hearted people who get into this work to make a difference in the lives of young people. This combination of sincere intention and deep caring allows for resilience, as teachers have a North Star to follow in their day-to-day work. At the same time, there's a tremendous amount of "emotional labor*," involved in teaching, even at the best of times.
Now, with COVID-19, the deep political divide, racial injustice, unemployment, climate change, and an uncertain economy, teachers have more on their plates than ever. Whether staring into a screen, hoping their students will turn on their cameras and do their work or navigating in-person teaching with masks and social distancing, teachers are being asked to multi-task like never before. Our students look to us for safety and emotional self-control, and we do our best to offer them refuge in the storm, even as we may be dealing with intense issues of our own.
Some of the amazing resilience I've seen, even among young, new teachers, includes being able to prioritize their own self-care and genuine connection with students, over quantities of content and state standards. Almost every teacher I've known in my thirty years of teaching has held themselves to a high standard, and that hasn't changed, but these days I see a healthy balance of knowing one's limits.
As we say in the mindfulness community, “No one can pour from an empty cup," and this is why these practices are so vital in these times.
“No one can pour from an empty cup."
(* I borrowed the phrase “emotional labor” from Marc Brackett, PhD. at the
Q: How have you found things changed from the spring shutdown to now in the fall - in terms of teachers coping with their situations?
Kate: Last spring, teachers responded nimbly and quickly to the urgent emergency, as schools closed with little notice. Most of us assumed that it was going to be a shorter-lived shut down than it was, and so we rolled with the situation. Many teachers even embraced the novelty of online teaching by finding creative ways to use technology to enhance remote learning.
For those of us on traditional schedules, the summer was a welcome break, even as many of us engaged in technology and SEL (Social-Emotional Learning) professional development opportunities. As summer leaned into fall, some schools opened (and some later closed again), and some remained remote, but either way, there was a huge paradigm shift in the landscape of education in this country.
Now as we head into the winter, with huge spikes in Covid cases across the country and a challenging political scene, teachers have had to accept this landscape as the new normal, and it feels like a grim marathon at times. We must face so many unknowns, and constantly changing scenarios while responding with flexibility and grace.
Q: About a month ago, I realized when I would respond “I’m doing fine” that it was so far from the truth. I stepped away from work for a few days. What do you say to people in those moments when they face the reality that things are not okay.
Kate: Fortunately, mindfulness empowers us to turn with open awareness toward all experiences, even the most challenging, without shutting down, exaggerating, or giving in to despair. Through these practices, we can find refuge and stability within ourselves amidst the changes. When we practice, we often uncover the tender heart of our experience, and it can be painful to witness our suffering. But mindfulness not only helps us diagnose, but it also helps us to heal by supporting our clear-eyed perception of reality and the offering of self-compassion as we move through the ups and downs of life.
Q: Even though the mindfulness practices for teachers and students have been growing in our schools, what misconceptions persist out there?
Kate: Two of the most persistent and related myths about mindfulness are 1) that it will always create a state of calm or bliss, and 2) that it will help control the behavior of students in the classroom. While both these myths contain nuggets of truth, expecting these outcomes can be a trap.
Yes, often with sustained practice one can experience moments of deep calm, but if you're expecting only sweetness and light, at some point you'll probably be disappointed. Often when we practice, as mentioned above, we discover that we aren't calm, and that's OK because we have mindful tools to help us work with our emotions and thoughts.
In schools, teachers understandably want to have classrooms full of engaged, self-regulated students.
Mindfulness, for even very young children, can absolutely be immensely helpful with focus, emotional recognition and regulation, and interpersonal relations if taught in an embodied way by an experienced practitioner. However, too often teachers want a quick fix and don't recognize that the work needs to start with them. Even if teachers only practice mindfulness themselves and never offer it to students, this will make a huge difference in their ability to manage behavior in their classrooms.
Young people, even teens, look to the adults in their lives to regulate their nervous systems to ours; this is basic neuroscience (see mirror neurons, etc.). When kids practice mindfulness, just like adults, they may discover that all is not calm and that they are suffering, especially these days. As teachers, we need to meet our students where they are, know how to recognize trauma, and to stay present by using our own tools of mindfulness.
We also need to recognize and respect that students come from different backgrounds, cultures, and families with differing styles, that a mindful child may not be a quiet child, and that a mindful classroom may be buzzing with energy. If we are using mindfulness as a form of control or discipline, it can have truly destructive consequences for youth, and so we need to really examine our biases, intentions, and methods of delivery. It's also true that over time, practicing mindfulness in the classroom can bring a beautiful sense of natural rhythm, engagement, and connection between students and teachers.
Another misconception about mindfulness that I'd like to address is the "blank slate": the idea that one should have no thoughts at all while practicing.
First, this is a nearly impossible task, so let yourself off the hook! You are not "doing it wrong," or a "bad practitioner" if, when you sit, you notice that you can't stop thinking about your To-Do list or you find yourself re-hashing an old argument. We have habits of thinking, just as we have habits in other areas of our life, and as teachers and humans, we have SO much to deal with these days. Anxiety is high.
It took me a few years of practice to understand that my busy mind was trying to keep me safe, to get out in front of whatever challenges might be on the horizon, and to have compassion for myself as I saw this with more clarity.
Of course, our minds are abuzz with activity - look at all that's going on! And so, with mindful and kind attention, we attend to what's happening in our inner life, and we care for ourselves. We feel our seat and feet, noticing how gravity holds us. We take in a breath, noticing how it nourishes us, and we exhale gently, noticing how it relaxes us just a little. When the thoughts come storming in, we notice, say hello to the thinking mind with a friendly wave, and with a sense of humor and kindness, bring our attention back again to just this breath, just this moment. In this simple way, by starting over again in each moment, over time we change our minds.
Lastly, in education, it's important to emphasize that mindfulness can be and must be taught in a totally secular way. Just as our ethics are based in Judeo-Christian teachings, mindfulness has its origins in Eastern, mostly Asian wisdom traditions and religions, but we are not teaching spirituality. What's exciting is the huge number of scientific studies over the past five years backing up claims of the health benefits of mindfulness.
Though one must be careful not to overstate the claims, the evidence of mindfulness practices for overall wellness is very compelling.
Q: Can you tell us a story where you saw mindfulness practice impact a teacher or students’ state and situation?
Kate: I have so many stories! I'll share my own story as a teacher:
After I had established my own mindfulness practice for a couple of years and was teaching high school full time, my older teen son had a dramatic and drawn-out psychological breakdown. I was facing immense challenges in my personal life while having to show up professionally for my students each day. My daily practice enabled me to do this with some stability and grace, without denying or compartmentalizing in an unhealthy way.
While I had many hurdles at home, I found that during those months I was able to be fully in the moment when I was teaching and that I really enjoyed my students every day. At the end of that semester, I was very surprised to receive some of the most positive student reviews ever on their feedback forms! Although this hadn't been on my mind at all during the preceding months (I thought I was just doing a decent job despite circumstances), I give credit now to my mindfulness practice.
Later, I was teaching a group of middle schoolers who self-selected to join a lunchtime mindfulness class at a local public school. One boy I'll call M. had been encouraged to join by his mom and a school counselor. "I have ADHD," he told me quietly on the first day, seeming to be less than thrilled to be there. M soon proved to be an energetic, rambunctious, and funny kid, always quick with a joke and quite popular with his peers. His favorite mindful game was "Shake it Up," one that required drumming and lots of movement. As the first five-week session started winding down, M. asked to ring the mindful bell, and then the next week to lead us in a mindfulness of breath practice.
I noticed that he spent more time in his seat and made more eye contact with me and the other students. I was surprised to see him show up on the first day of the next session, as there was a lot of turn-over among the other students. I invited M to share what he had learned in the previous five weeks, and what things he thought the newcomers would want to know about the class. M said, "You may think it's boring at first, but you get to learn about yourself and how your mind works. Also, how your body and mind are connected. And there are fun games and people care about you.
And I found out I care about them, too."
Q: Any quick tips for the holiday season?
Kate: As the stress of the holidays gets added to all the other stressors we're already dealing with, it's tough not to be overwhelmed and let self-care fall to the bottom of your priorities. These are the times when we need mindfulness most, and it can also be the most challenging to find time to practice.
I had a teacher who once said, "When you have the time, you need to try to practice at least ten minutes a day. When you don't have the time, you need to practice at least 20 minutes a day." This is so true. To make it easier, I recommend finding at least two minutes a day to sit, and if you can manage five minutes, even better. If this seems impossible, take a moment each day to slowly take five mindful breaths. Consistency is more important than quantity. And above all, please be kind to yourself in the process. Your practice at any given moment is a gift to yourself that you can pick up anytime, anywhere. And you can always return to it, no matter how long it's been since you last practiced.
To help teachers build their mindfulness practices for the holidays, I invite you to drop-in my 4-session workshop series called Year-end Mindfulness starting in November 2020.
Kate Savage is Certified Mindfulness Instructor who has designed and led mindfulness trainings for teachers, university students, those in at-risk youth programs, and students in public and independent schools. Before focusing on mindfulness, she taught visual arts at 6-12 grade levels for over 15 years in Los Angeles.
She is currently moderating teacher conversations around mindfulness in the