As the use of mindfulness has increased globally, its importance in education has also been recognized. Though it is not yet on any curriculum, it is being used in schools worldwide to improve pupils’ well-being, mental health, social and emotional learning, concentration, and cognition. Many schools are now enrolling their teachers in mindfulness courses, too, to eventually teach these skills to their pupils without relying on external specialists.
Teaching mindfulness to teachers not only gives them the skills and knowledge to progress onto further courses to be able to show it to children, but it may also have the added benefit of improving their well-being. And, as better teacher well-being is associated with better pupil well-being, there are clearly more comprehensive benefits to them learning it. In the UK, teachers usually learn about mindfulness by taking a more traditional Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course or making a .b Foundations course.
Several research studies have already shown MBSR to be beneficial for reducing stress and improving quality of life. Courses like .b Foundations, meanwhile, have been adapted from MBSR and developed to teach mindfulness to school teachers specifically. The styles of the two courses are quite different – .b Foundations consist of eight 90 minute sessions instead of eight two-hour sessions, with no silent practice day. It can take more of an interactive classroom-style approach, including optional slide presentations, and reference the neuroscience underpinning mindfulness.
For our recently published study, which involved 44 teachers from UK primary and secondary schools, we decided to determine how teachers’ mental health and well-being benefit from different mindfulness courses and what they think about them. We did questionnaires on stress and depression levels and interviewed a sample of the teachers who had taken the directions on their experiences. We found that both courses reduced the teachers’ anxiety and stress, with MBSR having the added benefit of reducing their symptoms of depression. The majority felt that the course made them calmer, more aware, and less reactive, which was also believed to roll over into their teaching. As one said:
However, some felt that mindfulness was just another approach to managing stress rather than addressing the root causes of the weight. One teacher said, “we’re putting a band-aid on a bullet hole. If you want people to feel happier in our society genuinely, then you genuinely have to change it, from the bottom up”. So while mindfulness may be highly beneficial for some dealing with stress, higher-level policy and action to improve teaching and address stress causes are desperately needed.
‘Airy fairy’ attitudes
Another key point raised by all of the teacher’s concerned attitudes towards and beliefs about mindfulness. We heard comments such as “they all thought I’d cracked” in several interviews. Many thought that mindfulness was widely seen as “hippy,” “fluffy,” and “airy-fairy.” These attitudes and beliefs as to what mindfulness is and what it entails could not only act as a barrier to teachers engaging with it but also influence how their pupils see it.
However, some teachers did tell us that once they attended the course, their initial “cynical” attitudes changed. They also suggested focusing on the evidence and science behind the approach and possibly changing the name of the course so that it didn’t mention mindfulness to help break down some of these barriers and encourage more excellent attendance. This is, in fact, what the .b foundations teacher-focused course does.
Ultimately our research has shown that it does not matter which course teachers attend; they can personally benefit from mindfulness education. And this also has the potential to improve the classroom environment and hopefully pupil well-being too. However, this research has also highlighted several barriers that may exist and need to be considered. The root causes of teacher stress must be addressed alongside giving teachers tools to deal with it. As schools focus more and more on improving child health and well-being, it is an absolute necessity that teacher well-being does not get neglected. Ignoring this would be counterproductive to improving child well-being.