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Social Emotional Support for Educators

The Heart of Teaching Retreat
Photos: By Genevieve Russell, courtesy Mountain Cloud Zen Center

Teachers are always on the go. They are required to focus on the needs of their students throughout the day with minimal breaks and little time for themselves. With this fast pace comes stress, fatigue and lack of self care.

“As teachers, we are the fastest walkers and the fastest eaters, but I know that we can slow down. It is possible,” said Helen Young, who led a group of 25 educators in mindful movement, yoga and stretching at the Mountain Cloud Zen Center.

“Repeat after me,” she instructed confidently. “I am strong, I am kind, I am amazing. I am patient. I am ready for the day.”

This was the start of the Heart of Teaching, a daylong retreat offered by the Rio Grande Mindfulness Institute at the Zen Center in the quiet foothills of Santa Fe’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains. This is no ordinary professional development for teachers—no talk of pedagogy, standards or content—but perhaps one of the most meaningful trainings that can be offered in their line of work. The retreat is specifically designed to develop focus, clarity, and peace of mind by connecting teachers with the fundamentals of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a term often used in current culture but a concept that is still new to many. The Heart of Teaching retreat begins with a shared understanding of the basics, Mindfulness 101. Grounded in ancient wisdom and neuroscience, mindfulness refers to a state of being in which awareness and presence are combined with consciousness and acceptance of one’s feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations. The ability to draw upon mindfulness techniques can restore connection to the joy of the moment and provide methods to cope with stress.

“The simple practice of being quiet and still changed me when I was feeling at odds with my life,” said Henry Shukman Associate Zen Master of Sanbo Zen and co-director and lead teacher at the Zen Center.

John Braman, co-director and assistant teacher, encouraged the group to be fully present in the moment. “This day is for you.”

In the rush of a school day, teachers rarely have time to prioritize and connect with a high level of self-awareness. Students dealing with the pressures of education, peers, home life and their future are facing increasing anxiety and stress without the ability to cope with distraction and intensity. Developing social and emotional strengths of both learners and leaders in and out of the classroom are key to adaptability and often can determine outcomes during daily challenges and overall success in life.

Social, emotional learning (SEL) is so important in the world of education and quality of life for youth that the LANL Foundation has made it a core priority in its K–12 Program office. Beginning in 2018, LANL Foundation has provided grant funding to support the Heart of Teaching program and to offer scholarships for teachers in Northern New Mexico so they may attend the retreat at a reduced cost.

The morning continued with intentional breathing and guided meditation that connected each person with sensations, distractions and discomforts as well as a sense of calm and feelings of self-acceptance.

A discussion by the retreat leaders acknowledged the complexity of the school environment and culture of violence and trauma. They emphasized that mindfulness practice can help ease tensions and deescalate situations before they become out of hand. Helen Young offered breathing, stretching and yoga techniques that she has used with students in her elementary level PE classes for calming and balancing.

Participants maintained an individual focus during mindful walking and lunch in silence. In the afternoon, relational mindfulness activities were introduced. Discussions in small groups and pairs allowed teachers to practice deep listening and being heard. They shared challenges they face in personal and professional life and techniques they use to manage and alleviate stress and anxiety. One principal created a reflection room for her staff with mats and balls to sit on and a mini sand Zen garden to encourage relaxation and contemplation during the busy school day. Others talked about waking up earlier, having an undisturbed lunch period, or starting an exercise routine to connect with moments of mindfulness.

LANL Foundation’s K–12 program assistant Jaap Gardner is no stranger to this work. She has a deep passion for the eastern yogic sciences and philosophies, with 20 years of program development experience leading reflective mindfulness and meditation workshops, events and seminars for adults and teens on self -awareness, relationship building, social understanding and positive decision-making.

Her work to promote the retreat and available funding connected teachers in LANL Foundation’s partnering schools with this opportunity. Her efforts led to a significant increase in enrollment.

She attended the April 2019 retreat and was struck by just how “pressurized” teachers are. “When you hear teachers talk about the stress of their day, not having time to eat and how they must work after hours and at second jobs to make ends meet, it deepens your appreciation for them and their profession,” said Gardner.

The educators had profound results from such a simple gathering. Tapping into the profound nature of stillness brought up many realizations and emotions. The experience allowed them to process what they endure while developing and nurturing future leaders and being under the weight of scrutiny. They gained an understanding of how reactivity, the default mode of constant thought and long-term anxiety can be barriers to critical thinking and can lead to depression at any age.

“Many teachers realize that they don’t have a practice or routine in place that can bring them to a feeling of wellbeing on a daily basis. Wellbeing is new to them,” said Gardner, which is why she is so pleased to encourage this training for teachers.

The retreat instructors offered additional resources and self-nurturing tools to bring intentional focus to the present moment and create peace of mind—taking note of breathing, heartbeat and various physical tensions that arise. Although it may be new to some, the beauty of mindfulness practice is that it can take place at any moment, and everyone is capable of finding an intrinsic state of wellbeing.

The Heart of Teaching is open to any public or private school educator in New Mexico. For more information and resources, visit www.mountaincloud.org/mindfulness.