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An Antidote to Teacher Burnout: How Yoga and Mindfulness Can Support Resilience In and Out of the Classroom

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A movement to bring yoga and mindfulness to children is blooming. Many schools have implemented contemplative programming to help kids thrive, and research studies document the positive effects of yoga and mindfulness practices for children. But, what about the teachers, administrators, and other school personnel who work with children on a daily basis?

It’s no secret that teacher burnout is a pressing issue in our educational system. A shocking statistic: nearly one third of all newly recruited teachers are either resigning or reporting burn out in their first 3 to 5 years of professional experience. Gallup’s State Of America’s Schools 2012 Report says nearly 70% of K-12 teachers surveyed do not feel engaged in their work. The study said they are likely to spread their negative attitudes to co-workers and devote minimal discretionary effort to their jobs.

Even more so, 8.7 percent of educators reported major depression symptoms in the NSDUH study. "Teachers have to deal with low starting pay, stressed parents, misbehaving kids, and demanding administrators, all of which are potential threats to emotional health”.

Besides the effects on teachers personally, the teacher stress has also been linked to student achievement, making this an even greater concern. The classroom can be a challenging environment, and everyone in this environment contributes to the success of the educational system.  As a society, we need to be more insightful and proactive in addressing the challenges faced by educators today. After all, a teacher's role cannot be underestimated.

In his classical 1971 book, Dr. Ginott powerfully noted:  "As a teacher, I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess tremendous power to make a child's life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal". 

What does research say? 

Among many studies linking yoga and mental health, there is a significant research agenda studying the effects of contemplative practices specifically on teachers.

A recent study published in the Mindfulness Journal by Dr. Patricia Jennings, examined data from early childhood educators on indicators of well-being, mindfulness, and self-compassion. The results from the teachers' self-report surveys, independent observations of classroom quality and interviews about the most challenging children in the classroom, suggest that teachers' self-care practices significantly impact their ability to create and maintain effective and supportive classrooms.

A randomized controlled trial led by Dr. Margaret Kemeny found that teachers who participated in an eight-week intensive meditation and emotion regulation training intervention experienced less negative emotions, depressive and anxious thoughts, and were more positive and mindful as compared to the group of teachers who did not take the course. “What’s more, after beginning to meditate, the teachers were also more compassionate and empathetic to others."

In a great video, Dr. Richie Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, reports on his team’s recent study showing that mindfulness meditation fights teacher burnout. "Imagine a teacher in her classroom attempting to teach material that he or she is focused on, and a child has an emotional outburst," Dr. Davidson said. "To some teachers that outburst would really jangle their performance. But others are able to respond appropriately - with the help of mindfulness training”.

Another study published by Drs. Mark Greenberg, Patricia A. Jennings, Jennifer L. Frank, and others, is a randomized controlled trial on the program called Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education (CARE for Teachers), which is a mindfulness-based professional development program “designed to reduce stress and  improve teachers' performance and classroom learning environments” . Teachers who participated in the study viewed CARE as a feasible, acceptable, and effective method for reducing stress and improving performance.

What can yoga and mindfulness practices do for school teachers?

Here is a summary of benefits backed up by research, which were also echoed at the 2014 Yoga in Schools Symposium at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health:
- Improved self-awareness of thoughts, emotions, and causes for behaviors
- Improved conflict resolution ability
- Improved empathy and compassion, for self and others
- Reduced stress, burnout, depression and anxiety
- Reduced reactivity and negativity

Many anecdotal accounts also confirm that education professionals long for stress reducing, emotionally balancing self-awareness and mind-body practices. After every school Yoga 4 Classrooms residency program, we ask the participating teachers about their experiences with our program, including the impact of yoga and mindfulness on their own well-being and professional and personal development. Here are just a few quotes from school teachers who attended a Yoga 4 Classrooms Professional Development Workshop and/or who had classrooms where the Yoga 4 Classrooms residency was implemented:

"Teaching is so stressful and hard sometimes. This helps both myself and my students feel more joy and less stress every day. Thank you for sharing this gift!"
“Now I am interested in taking a few yoga classes.  I love the idea of taking a moment with the class and finding Zen within the day.  I find that shared experiences build community."

“Y4C has helped many of my students with anxiety be calmer in certain subject areas and before tests - especially math. It has helped many of my students to be more aware of what helps them be the best they can be. It has really helped me be more patient and calmer, have more energy in the afternoons."

"Practicing yoga in the classroom helps me feel more relaxed. I am more patient with the children. I am able to remain calm during stressful and anxious situations that may occur during the day."

The bottom line is this: it is not enough to teach mindfulness to students - at Yoga 4 Classrooms, we believe school leaders, teachers and other school professionals need to nurture themselves. Embodied contemplative practices can provide an amazing opportunity leading to personal transformation, providing the foundation for systemic transformation. Embracing the concept of self-care and personal mindfulness, teachers will not only improve their own well-being, but also support their classrooms and the larger community.

From our standpoint, there is no doubt teacher health and resilience should be made a priority in education policy. What are your thoughts?

For more information about contemplative practices for educators:

Using Mindfulness for Teacher Wellbeing - Happy Child

Developing Mindfulness for School Leaders - Education Week

Garrison Institute’s CARE for teachers program


Marina Ebert, MA serves as Director of Research and Relationship Development for Yoga 4 Classrooms. She also is a research assistant at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

Lisa Flynn, E-RYT, RYT 500, RCYT, is the Founder and Director of ChildLight Yoga and Yoga 4 Classrooms. Lisa's books include the Yoga 4 Classrooms Card Deck (2011) and Yoga for Children: 200+ Yoga Poses, Breathing Exercises, and Meditations for Healthier, Happier, More Resilient Children (Adams Media, 2013).

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