Finding Our Center: How Self-Care and Mindfulness Can Benefit Both Teachers and Their Students

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I recently flew to D.C. for a conference and as we prepared for take off the flight attendant recited a very familiar phrase: "In case of emergency, please secure your oxygen mask before assisting others." 

In my work of teaching mindfulness to children and teachers, I've come to realize the importance of this phrase. We can't offer to others that which we do not have for ourselves. Its just as important for teachers sharing mindfulness practices with their students to embody these practices for themselves.

As soon as teachers get overwhelmed, their social-emotional health goes to the bottom of the to-do list. So what does that mean for their students? 

Children mirror the nervous systems of the adults around them so if you have a stressed out teacher, you will see stressed out kids. A Canadian-based study released last year found a connection between teachers' burnout levels and students' levels of cortisol, a hormone that is released during stress. When teachers were feeling burned out or exhausted, students were more stressed.

So how do we ensure teachers and children are not only performing their best but feeling their best? How do we provide a pathway to reduce our stress levels and take time to build self-care into the school day without adding one more thing "to-do" in their busy days?

We find our center. We dedicate 10 minutes each day for our mental, social, and emotional, health. And we do it together.

Schools have found that incorporating a mindfulness practice into their day has played a fundamental role in the attainment of academic outcomes. Learning to channel attention to productive tasks, to sustain motivation when work becomes demanding, and to handle the frustrations of sharing, learning, and communicating with peers are skills that depend on the ability to understand and manage emotions. These are competencies that children and adolescents learn alongside more traditionally academic ones.

Demands for these types of interpersonal, intrapersonal, and problem-solving skills only increase as students progress through the school years.

Although the emphasis on academic achievement often captures most of the conversation, important gains are being made by those who take a more holistic approach to education. 

I believe a more inclusive and holistic approach to education will level the playing field for all students and that mindfulness education provides a pathway for teachers and students to find their center, together.

 

Self-Compassion

I recently presented to staff at a local college and as I lead the mindfulness meditation, I asked them to think of the last time they did something nice for themselves. For most people, the practice of self-compassion is often identified with the practice of self-care. And self-care is a really, really good thing. But self-compassion goes deeper than that in my mind.

Mindfulness is typically defined as being in the present moment. But what happens when we are new to the practice or become distracted or slip out of that present moment awareness? We become frustrated. We begin to judge our experience. We think we can’t possibly do this. That is why the #1 reason people stop meditating consistently is because they think they can't do it. But just like a muscle, the more you use it the stronger it gets. Consistency is key.

It’s important to identify your intention before you even begin. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) states, “without intention you’ll be tempted to give up.” So entering the practice with an intention, an open heart, open mind, and a heaping dose of self-compassion is paramount.

Self-compassion goes beyond accepting our experience as it is. It adds another element of embracing the experiencer (i.e., ourselves) with kindness and curiosity when our experience is less than desirable. Self-compassion also includes an element of wisdom- recognition of our common humanity. This means we are all flawed, perfectly imperfect individuals.  Every last one of  us.

And what if there was no right or wrong way to practice mindfulness? No striving? What if we simply come to the practice to befriend ourselves?

From an early age we are taught to strive constantly and to "get ahead" meant competing. We were taught to  build our self-esteem by competing successfully with others. Yet competition is a losing battle. Psychologists have discovered that when our self-worth rests on the premise of successfully competing with others, we are always teetering on the edge of losing. This social comparison and competition fosters disconnection by causing us to view others as obstacles to overcome in order to keep our position. I don’t know about you, but that sounds exhausting. And I don’t ever want to view another human being as an obstacle to getting something that I want.

Mindfulness meditation cultivates a sense of connection with oneself and others. It reminds us of our human connection and that we aren’t alone in our suffering. There is nothing to be ashamed of when difficult or painful feelings come up. You have a heart. It beats in your chest. It was put there so you could FEEL. But there are two pitfalls that come up when we are faced with challenging emotions and difficult feelings.

The first pitfall is that we can become attached to those feelings and begin to indulge in them. This leads to the victim mentality. And when you begin to own those feelings you see them as WHO you are. We get stuck there. But you are not your feelings, my friends. They are real, yes. But no feeling is final.

The second pitfall is resisting difficult feelings completely and pushing them away. But what we resist persists, so we must face these head on by learning to sit with our sh*t.  That is the only way we have the freedom to release.

Check-in with yourself right now. How are you feeling? Be honest. What are you resisting? Or what have you been holding on to for far too long? Be compassionate with yourself and know that experiencing difficulties is inevitable. When we can be compassionate and kind to ourselves that has a ripple effect in our lives. We can't give to others which we don't have for ourselves, so when we can be more compassionate and forgiving of ourselves we can begin to offer that for others.

So go easy on yourself. Remember our common humanity. We are all in this together.