Remy Low

Teachers deliver powerful mindfulness programs for students. Now they might need space to strengthen their own minds.

Since the first confirmed case of COVID-19 appeared in Australia in late-January 2020, the country has been through various waves of community infections. Each cresting period has brought with it significant disruptions to the everyday lives of people through movement restrictions, workplace closures, and – not least – school shutdowns. Amidst the ongoing peaks and troughs of the pandemic, it is unsurprising that many young people are feeling anxious. And with good reasons: With tests and exams, family expectations, social pressures, and limited decision-making power, it’s tough enough being a young person without an apocalyptic sci-fi scenario playing out IRL – not to mention being stuck at home through it all! A range of services have thus sprung up to support young people’s wellbeing in these difficult times, many sponsored by Federal and State Government departments of education. And the practice of mindfulness meditation taught through online videos and popular apps like Smiling Mind are among these.

But what about teachers?

Well, aren’t teachers adults who can “fend for themselves”? They have some income (though not enough for the work they do) and some decision-making autonomy to, say, pick up an online fitness class, have their favourite comfort food delivered, or pick up some (18+) drinks to tide them over their woes. Ok, sure. But this fact should not preclude them from consideration and resourcing when it comes to wellbeing initiatives, including mindfulness practices that are tailored to their needs.

Many wellbeing trends that make their way into educational spaces tend to be focused on students. As I’ve mentioned, this is a vital thing given the pressures that they face. However, teachers have often been overlooked in wellbeing plans, except as the ones who will be responsible for the delivery of whatever program is decided to be of use to students (usually by someone who is not a teacher). Until recently, mindfulness in education has not been different. Of the numerous studies done to gauge its uses for enhancing wellbeing in educational contexts – and there have been plenty in the past two decades – only a small fraction has been dedicated to studying its effects on teachers. Thankfully, that is changing.

So then, in a nutshell, what’s mindfulness supposed to do for teachers?

Perhaps I am being a stereotypical academic here, but I find it very difficult to do nutshells. “It depends” is my usual go to. I know this is highly unsatisfying, especially from someone who has recently completed a small book supposedly addressing this very question. But to me, it depends on what teachers feel is at issue in their work and lives, or more specifically, how they frame the problems they face.

For instance, let’s say teachers were to name the main problem they face as stress. Apart from its everyday uses (e.g. “Ikea instructions stress me out”), “stress” is also a clinical term used in health circles to denote the “physiological or psychological response to internal or external stressors”. By looking specifically at the ways the body, the brain, and the psyche respond to external pressures, clinically inclined researchers explore treatments that can intervene at these levels to help lessen internal stress responses, hence improving health outcomes. Mindfulness as popularly promoted today tends to draw from research along these lines. For teachers, the relatively small amount of research focusing on how mindfulness practices like meditation can have positive effects on their perceived work-related stress does appear promising.

Yet the question arises: what about those “external stressors”? Sitting still and focusing on my breathing for 10 minutes a day may well reduce cortisol levels in my body and stop unhelpful rumination, but won’t these come up again when the next pile of marking and paperwork floods in, or when I turn up to work at my understaffed childcare centre ravaged by low remuneration rates, or when teachers get hauled up yet again by politicians and the media as scapegoats? Yes, these are likely to bring back the stress. That’s why there is also an emerging tendency in mindfulness research to look at how practices like meditation can not only help to relax stress responses, but also heighten our awareness of social connectedness and the broader forces that try to tear us apart. Often written from the first-person perspectives of teachers themselves – many of whom are women, people of colour, and engaged in social causes – this newer type of writing on mindfulness looks not only at how it helps with personal coping, but also how it could facilitate broader social change to eliminate some of those “external stressors”.

Of course, even with significant personal and social changes, some things will continue to stress us out. Uncertainty, illness, ageing, death, decay, loss – these things loom over us, even without a global pandemic exposing the frailties of our social order to remind us. Life is precarious, try as we might to use power and privilege to temporarily shield ourselves from this fact. And it is to this deeper existential unease that Buddhist thought proposes mindfulness. It is an open secret that Buddhist thought represents the longest running body of work on mindfulness and how to cultivate it through meditative practices, much as clinically oriented mindfulness researchers and promoters may try to dissociate from this history. No doubt such “secularising” efforts have made mindfulness practices more appealing to wider audiences beyond any requirement to subscribe to Buddhism. This isn’t a bad thing per se. But it would be a shame for teachers (and people in general) to lose sight of how mindfulness can help unknot the suffering tied up with those unavoidable aspects of life – plus offer guidelines on how not to be a jerk while we work things out mindfully.

What is mindfulness supposed to do for teachers? It it depends on what you think the problem is. Perhaps an easier question might be: can mindfulness help teachers to work and live better? In different ways, I believe it can.

Remy Y.S. Low is Lecturer in the Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney, Australia. He is also a recipient of the University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Early Career Teaching for his use of contemplative pedagogies (including mindfulness) in teacher education.