Patricia Chillón-García understands the stress that educators face. A teacher herself at Tierra Encantada Charter School, where she is immersed in an environment filled with anxious students, mounting paperwork and impending teacher evaluations, among other challenges, she has felt the pressure as well, day after day.
“We have this feeling of urgency, that we have to get everything done right away, and we don’t have time for all of it,” Chillón-García told a group of teachers and school administrators who had gathered Saturday at the Mountain Cloud Zen Center in Santa Fe.
“You cannot be present in the moment because there are so many things going on,” she said, adding that such chaos can make a teacher feel like a failure.
In an effort to address the problem, Chillón-García and about 50 other education professionals from around the state attended a daylong workshop on how to adopt a mentality of “mindfulness.”
The workshop, called The Heart of Teaching, was no ordinary teacher training. There were no laptops or cellphones. No notebooks, pencils or pens. The educators wore sweatpants and T-shirts and started the day with a 20-minute yoga class. They also engaged in several lengthy sessions of doing nothing but breathing, giving in to the moment.
At times, the workshop participants behaved as well as any teacher could hope for — sitting upright and at attention, listening in silence.
The group even refrained from speaking during lunchtime, deemed a period of “Noble Silence.”
Mindfulness, a practice perhaps best described as paying attention to what is going on in the moment without applying judgment to it, is a movement gaining momentum in classrooms nationwide as studies show anxiety in schools is on the rise. The practice involves getting students to slow down and focus.
That’s not an easy task for educators accustomed to working in a climate that one workshop participant described as “a constant storm” of unpredictable energy and activity.
Saturday’s training, initiated by the nonprofit Rio Grande Mindfulness Institute, located at the Zen Center, comes on the heels of the release of two national surveys that say both teacher and student stress levels are increasing.
In October, the University of California, Los Angeles released a study that said more than half of all educators surveyed reported seeing students with “high levels of stress and anxiety,” which is, in turn, stressing out the teachers.
That same month, the American Federation of Teachers and the Badass Teachers Association released the results of a survey that said educators feel stressed out at work about 61 percent of the time, and that 58 percent of those surveyed said their mental health was suffering as a result.
Educators taking part in the mindfulness session said they understand that. Many spoke about the challenges they face trying to maintaining an emotional balance as they try to help their students do the same.
“I’ve got all these great tips for math. I can teach kids algebra,” one teacher said. “But I don’t even know how to make a 14-year-old boy sit for five minutes and not be aware of the girl sitting next to him or his best friend sitting across the aisle.”
She wasn’t alone. Several educators interviewed at the event said it is easy to forget the need to ground themselves and their students before they start a class.
Meditation and mindfulness practices can make a difference, several said.
Joaquin Martinez, a history and government teacher at Santa Fe Public Schools’ Academy for Technology and the Classics, a charter school for students in grades 7-12, said he takes time out of classroom teaching every day to get his students focused through silent breathing exercises.
“That 20-minute investment pays off in 40 minutes of high-caliber focus and commitment to learning,” he said.
Martinez has tracked the payout through increased Advanced Placement scores among his students, he said. Such practices also help students feel safe and connected, he said.
Helen Young, a physical education teacher at El Camino Real Academy in Santa Fe, agreed. She incorporates yoga into her gym classes now.
“If I can take two minutes out of the day to help my students with stress release … it pays off in improving attendance, better social behavior and less bullying,” she said.
More importantly, the approach can give teachers confidence, boost their morale and remind them that they can and should slow down and breathe as they face the challenges of the day, said John Braman, co-director of the Rio Grande Mindfulness Institute.
This is the fifth workshop the center has offered since October 2016, Braman said. Fellowship grants covered the cost for most of the educators, while other participants paid between $25 and $100 on a sliding scale.
“We started this effort about a year ago, offering a ‘renewal’ program for stressed-out teachers, which is most teachers,” Braman said. “We want to help them develop a tool box to go beyond the need to teach to standardized tests and fulfill other state requirements.”
Katie Norton, a first-grade teacher at Acequia Madre Elementary School in Santa Fe, said that approach has been working for her. She has been practicing some aspects of mindfulness in her classroom for more than three years following a training session in California.
For example, a schoolwide “mindful-minute brain break” every day at 10:25 a.m. helps the Acequia Madre kids refocus on studies following recess, she said.
And for her, incorporating a few minutes of mindfulness practice into the classroom “makes it more joyful for me and more joyful for the kids because I am mindful of the reason why I teach. … I teach because I want to connect with my students,” Norton said. “It’s not so much about the intellect and the mind as being about the heart and being a good citizen and good human being.”
Though studies on mindfulness are few, Oxford University and United College London announced in 2015 that they are collaborating on a seven-year research project to track the effects of meditation and mindfulness on 7,000 American teenagers.
Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or firstname.lastname@example.org.