“Teaching is not what it used to be,” says a 40-year veteran teacher at my building. I’ve been around for 10 years, but I can agree, things have changed a lot in the past decade. It’s hard to articulate exactly what the change is or where it’s coming from. However, I think most teachers can agree that things are increasingly more… stressful.
Passing in the hallway, an appropriate greeting consists of a grunt or at best, “It’s Friday.” Conversations in the staff lounge center around the uncertainties and anxiety facing our teaching profession from the greater political cultural climate. A recent survey cited 51% of teachers feel significant stress at work several times a week. While technology and innovation have considerable benefits, the new skills and information we are expected to personally process and then apply to our instruction, has teachers feeling like hamsters on a wheel. Not to mention the data on us! Teacher performance is being continually monitored and tracked by standardized testing.
As I sit at my back table, administering a reading test, I look up and see the little girl sitting in front of me. Except, I see her, seeing me. Hunched shoulders. Furrowed brows. Clenched jaw. My body communicates what my brain can’t fully comprehend. I am stressed. Much to my surprise and horror… her body language was matching mine. She was mirroring me.
This realization hit me hard. I noticed students all around exhibiting stress signals. Hiding under tables. Making excuses to leave the classroom and wander the halls. Destroying classroom supplies. These behaviors were symptoms of emotional turmoil, and it was standing in the way of students achieving their academic potential.
Now, I know that many of these issues are complex and multilayered. I am by no means blaming teachers for all behavioral problems. However, the first step to an emotionally regulated classroom is to be emotionally regulated yourself.
YOU are the intervention
The good news is, even if your brain is not yet convinced, you can begin with your body.
Here are three tips to get started.
- Set an intention for the day for yourself and your classroom
Before you get out of bed, think about how you want to show up today. Words like strong, healthy, at ease, organized, peaceful. Imagine what it looks like and feels like. Now imagine the one thing that would make your classroom great today. This intention could be, “students working well together in pairs” or “excitement for a new project.” Visualize these intentions then write them down. I have found that writing an intention down and visualizing the outcome takes less than a minute. However, most days, this fortune actually comes to fruition. A worthy time investment.
2. Take a breathing break
Teachers never stop. Heck, we usually don’t even slow down. I have seen teachers eating their lunch while walking down the hallway! During your prep, your lunch, transitions between classes… intentionally take 5–10 breaths. Inhale for 2 counts and exhale for 4 counts. I even like to close my eyes and bring back my intention from the morning.
3. Unwind your nervous system
Good ol’ fight or flight. Your body doesn’t know if you are running away from a hungry predator or if you are preparing to be observed by your principal. All it knows, is it’s time to send in the stress hormones! Your frontal cortex can’t talk its way out of this response. “Body, I am not being chased by a predator, it’s just my annual observation.” However, there are key trigger points in the body that activate when the sympathetic nervous system kicks in. This means, if we can release the body, the brain will believe that everything is okay.
Inhale breath and when you exhale stick out your tongue. For added effect add a nice long “hah” sound. I even like to massage the opening that is created next to my ears while my jaw is open.
Rub your hands together to create heat and place them on your eyes. And/or gently smooth out the brow line from center to outer eye, say to yourself “soft eyes”. (Yes, unfurrow that teacher brow.)
Interlace fingers behind your back for a chest expansion and take three slow deep breaths. Teachers spend a great deal of time hunched over students, and simply opening the shoulders can be a total mood changer.
Lunge back with right foot and left foot forward in a bent knee lunge, take a few breaths, then switch sides. Your hip flexors and psoas are your flight muscles, so release them!
I began to realize that same little girl, mirroring my furrowed brow and hunched shoulders, began to mirror my deep breathing. When doing a backbend stretch during a transition she commented, “It feels good to stretch, doesn’t it?” Yes. It does.
This isn’t the magic bullet. However, when we release the tension and anxiety held in the body, we are able to be present.The present moment has no stress. This intervention for your body is an important first step for creating a peaceful classroom for your students.
As I began this body work, I noticed other things around me begin to shift. I realized that being overwhelmed is often as unproductive as doing nothing. I changed my focus and redefined what was important.
This process led me back to my students. How can I bring this mind-body awareness into my instruction? I began working with 1000-petals, an organization training educators in Mindful Movement, to integrate these strategies via Social Emotional Learning standards and Academic Learning Standards. The results were amazing. Follow this blog series to learn more about creating a positive, emotionally regulated classroom through mindful movement.
Stephanie Kennelly is a third grade teacher in West Saint Paul, Minnesota. Contact her here for comments and questions.
Guest Post by: Stephanie Kennelly
From a young age, I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. As I got older, however, I began to get the impression that becoming a teacher wouldn’t be challenging enough for me or wouldn’t be reaching high enough to match my academic performance.
Perhaps this was because in high school, when my classmates and I began talking about what we wanted for our futures, I’d hear someone say, “I’m not sure what I’ll do, I want to coach football, so maybe I’ll teach or something.” Or something…was teaching so unimportant that it was a way into something better? Perhaps it was learning the difference in a teacher’s salary and doctor’s salary that told me that educators weren’t valued as much as other professionals. Along the way, the image I’d had of a teacher challenging students and igniting curiosity was replaced by a teacher asking students to copy definitions from a textbook. I began to believe that teaching was not a competitive, respected, or prestigious profession. My high-achieving friends dreamed of being lawyers, scientists, and engineers; teacher was not what the “best” would boast to pursue.
Even as I entered the profession, I continued to believe that teaching was easy. How hard can it be? My education fit the standard model of textbooks, papers, class discussions, and tests. What else was there? After college, I decided to spend some time in the classroom before graduate school. I learned about alternative teacher certification programs that supported underserved students and was motivated to make a difference and return to my childhood dream of teaching. I thought, of course I can do this.
My “Aha! Moment” as an educator came not at once, but all throughout my first year in the classroom. My simplistic understanding of the teaching profession could not have been more inaccurate. My appreciation of what it takes to be an effective teacher now came from experience, something that often goes unrecognized.
I learned that teaching one lesson was not enough. During my first year in a Nashville middle school, I quickly found that one approach to any lesson would not be nearly enough to serve my students well. My eighth graders ranged from elementary to high school level in math. This was not unique to my students — in all classes, there are ranges of student needs and abilities that teachers constantly try to address. Many of my English Language Learner students needed vocabulary support, and my students with IEP goals needed modification on assignments big and small. I learned strategies to differentiate my lessons, but learning how to personalize learning for students takes years of practice, and a deep knowledge of each student’s abilities and learning style.
I learned there are different ways to teach a class. My own education consisted of sitting in assigned seats, in rows of desks, where we took notes, and received graded homework. When I began teaching, my default approach was similar to what I had experienced. I soon learned that not only did I want to include different kinds of instructional strategies, but that it was necessary if I was going to make learning more engaging for all. Later, I discovered small group instruction, blended learning, exploratory learning and other strategies to serve different learning modalities. Though challenging, this is how my teaching improved and my students grew. I saw how teaching is truly an art and a science.
I learned that good teaching goes beyond content. As a new teacher, I was thrilled to teach a subject that I loved. To prepare, I taught summer school in the Mississippi Delta. Riding through town to school, I first noticed the boarded-up businesses and lack of activity. Meeting my students and coming to town, I knew that I’d need to understand more than my lessons to teach them well. I needed to know my students and where they came from before my lessons on decimals would be relevant and make a lasting impact.
I learned that at any given time, teachers juggle many things. Even my best days with my students in that first year felt like I was balancing 10 spinning plates overhead. Lesson plans, questioning, behavior management, differentiation, pacing, and assessments were tasks that required my constant attention. Teachers must be both resourceful and strategic, well-planned and flexible. Effective teachers will excel at many different tasks because they problem-solve their way through work daily.
I learned how many hours teachers actually work. Teacher responsibility is never limited to the hours within the school day. Planning, grading, meeting, calling families, after-school activities, and graduate courses are the norm for hours after last period. I struggled to maintain a work-life balance to start and found from other educators that this was not unique to my experience. I dreamed about the educator summer vacation, then learned that teachers use this time to plan with colleagues, attend professional development summits, and begin scoping out the next school year.
I also learned why teachers begin to refer to their students as “their kids.”
During my first week in the classroom, my students and I spent time learning about each other. To build relationships for deeper learning, I wrote my students a letter, sharing my background and promising I’d do whatever it took to support their learning. In return, I asked the students to write me a letter about themselves. My students’ honesty, optimism, and promises to try their hardest were humbling and eye-opening. I knew from then that teaching would be so much more complicated than I had planned.
As a teacher, I had the privilege of helping struggling students after class and see them smile for the first time, understanding a difficult concept. I was invited by students’ parents for family dinners, quinceañera birthday parties, and soccer team cookouts. I was introduced to parents as a student’s “second mom,” and surprised with a “We missed you!” card when I was away. Hearing “thank you” from students meant more than any bonus check I could have ever received. I never knew that I would learn so much from them, as I’d prepared for them to learn from me. When someone asks about my teaching experience, I feel an overwhelming range of emotions. Teaching brought me the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced. Teaching was a prestigious privilege, hopefully helping young people prepare for future successes.
Teaching is not easy. It takes a significant amount of mental, emotional, and physical strength to get you through. Teachers are some of the most resilient professionals. Seeing my students faces motivated me to go back to school when I was most tired. The authentic relationships with them motivated me to bring my best every single day. In turn, when I would lose my voice, they would teach for me, when I was having a rough day, they were patient with me, and after they graduated, they came back to visit.
My misconception of the profession has been forever changed, especially now as I support educators with Kiddom. Teachers need help and teaching requires better tools. The idea that teaching is easy is something we must dispel. Today’s teachers will shape the next generation of learners and carry immense responsibility. That’s why at Kiddom, we build technology to unburden teachers with the number of tasks they shoulder so they can support all their students’ needs. Providing the best for teachers is the least we can do after what they do for students. We want teachers to experience “Aha! Moments” with their students and have more moments of joy and inspiration.