Walking the Walk: Modeling Mindfulness for Our Students

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Stress, anxiety, depression, burnout… throw in a helping of trauma fueled by two years of social distancing and/or reading news stories about school violence and you’ve got a recipe for mental health challenges. For our students, and ourselves.

Educators are tasked with helping protect and nurture the psychological well-being of our students; evidence of this priority is the increasing number of schools and districts integrating Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) across their curriculum. In fact, more than 90% of U.S. schools and districts acknowledged SEL as a growing curricular focus in 2020[1].

Self-awareness and self-management are two of SEL’s five pillars[2]. The good news (for teachers and students) is that both are learnable. The slightly less-good news is that learning to integrate these qualities can take a lifetime.

The practice of mindfulness can be a staple of self-awareness and self-management, helping students navigate the rough terrain of anxiety and stress. But if we’re going to help students integrate mindfulness into their lives, we need to bring it into our own.

Here are a few of the unique mental health challenges that educators face, and some quick ways mindfulness can help address them.

Battling Burnout

In a 2022 National Education Association (NEA) survey, 90% of association members identified teacher burnout as a significant problem. Just as worrisome is the fact that 55% of teachers have admitted that they were thinking about retiring from education earlier than they’d originally planned[3]

Burnout doesn’t always hit teachers when we expect it. Sure, most educators are likely to feel a little weary near the end of a school year, but burnout can insinuate itself into our lives at any time during the term. During burnout, teachers can lose energy and enthusiasm, and experience compassion fatigue in the process, our empathy and sensitivity for our students diminishing.

Mindfulness Solution: Set and keep clear boundaries between school life and personal life. In other words, leave schoolwork at school. (Cue every teacher reading this saying: “Nice try, but if I don’t grade on the weekends, I’ll fall behind and stay there until summer.”) Establishing healthy boundaries between our work and personal lives isn’t easy, but doing so can protect our mental health. And if maintaining such boundaries seems impossible, think about how students can benefit. Consider what teacher and peer coach Johanna Rauhala advises in her article on Edutopia: “In setting mindful limits, we address equity for all. We’re not giving up: We are, with compassion for ourselves and our students, attending to practices that will best serve the learning of the largest number of students.”[4]

In other words: don’t just do it for yourself. Do it for them.

Decreasing Depression

Depression is a legitimate condition that can sap away our enthusiasm, energy, and create a sense of hopelessness strong enough to render us temporarily immobile. For teachers, depression can rear its head right when we need to be most productive: before a heavy grading weekend, when we need to revise lesson plans, on our way to a day-long PD session, etc.

When a teacher experiences significant depression, students can experience the ripple effect. According to a 2014 report in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, a connection exists between preschool and elementary school teachers with depression, and evidence of student aggression and sadness.[5]

Mindfulness Solution: If we know depression creates a hopelessness that affects our job and our students, one valuable solution is to make sure we turn our attention elsewhere when we can. In other words, pursue the elusive work-life balance. Move toward such a balance in big ways (learning new activities on the weekends, introducing daily meditation in your mornings) or small ones (taking your entire lunch break, with your classroom door closed!); but keep that balance in your sightline, even when it feels unreachable. Your students will thank you for it. (Ok, they may not actually say thank you. But the payoff will show up in your healthier, happier interactions with them.)

Subduing Stress

While depression can make us shut down, stress can ramp us up, increasing our tension level and irritability (not to mention our blood pressure). Everyone experiences work-related stress, but educators know that stressors at school can take unique forms: a high workload to be accomplished in a short amount of time, managing a classroom of students with different personalities and needs, and a full range of demands that take their tolls on our physical and mental health.

Mindfulness Solution: Consider some good old-fashioned self-care. Since emotional and physical health are strongly connected, focus on the physical. Whether you take short breaks during the day to walk around or stretch, inject a little more nutrition into your workday diet, or even close the classroom door at lunch to engage in deep breathing exercises, give your body the chance to start releasing the stress that can keep our shoulders bunched up around our ears throughout the day.

Addressing Anxiety

Many jobs and work environments create undue anxiety. Ask a teacher what their anxiety-inducing factors are, and you’ll likely hear stories about high workloads, time pressures, difficult students, and a lack of support.

Anxiety comes with a wide range of physical and emotional symptoms: from chest tightness, shortness of breath and dizziness, to difficulty concentrating and a sense of feeling overwhelmed. And while it would be more convenient for anxiety to strike when we’re at home and can immediately access a couch, a favorite show, and a carton of ice cream, it more often hits just as we’re walking into a classroom or meeting, preparing to tackle the stressful thing that’s causing the anxiety spike in the first place.

Mindfulness Solution: Don’t underestimate the positive power of Taking a Moment. Before entering that anxiety-inducing scenario, stop and take a breath. Even better: use a mindfulness tool to help you. Phone apps like Calm, MindShift CBT, and Headspace are just a finger swipe away. These aides offer quick meditation options, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) tricks, and breathing techniques. There’s even one for adult coloring, and other activities that help dissolve anxiety and unclench the brain.


When we walk the walk, it’s much easier to talk the talk. Modeling mindfulness ourselves is the first step toward teaching mindful practices to our students and helping them take ownership of their own mental health.

Now that you’re the master of your own mental health, go to ABC-CLIO’s Educator Support Site for more resources about mindfulness for teachers and librarians, and other insights on bringing SEL into your school and classroom. In addition, check out this student research list from ABC-CLIO’s Health and Wellness Issues database, where students can learn more about a range of mental health topics, from anxiety disorders to relaxation and stress reduction techniques.

[1] Gagnier, Kristin, Ayaka Okawa, and Sonji Jones-Manson. “Designing and Implementing Social Emotional Learning Programs to Promote Equity.” AnLar and the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education; Education, Innovation, and Reearch Program (EIR). 4 February, 2022. https://oese.ed.gov/files/2022/03/FINAL-EIR_SEL-Programs-White-Paper.pdf. Access 25 April, 2023.

[2] Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). “What is the CASEL Framework?” https://casel.org/fundamentals-of-sel/what-is-the-casel-framework/. Access 2 April, 2023.

[3] Walker, Tim. “Survey: Alarming Number of Educators May Soon Leave the Profession.” National Education Association, 2 February 2022. https://www.nea.org/advocating-for-change/new-from-nea/survey-alarming-number-educators-may-soon-leave-profession. Accessed 4 April, 2023.

[4] Rauhala, Johanna. “The Necessity of Boundaries.” Edutopia, George Lucas Educational Foundation, 30 May, 2018. https://www.edutopia.org/article/necessity-boundaries. Accessed 1 April, 2023.

[5] Schwartz, Sarah. “Teachers With Signs of Depression May Do Less Planning, Explaining of Lessons.” Education Week, 13 June, 2018. https://www.edweek.org/leadership/teachers-with-signs-of-depression-may-do-less-planning-explaining-of-lessons/2018/06. Accessed 25 April, 2023.

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