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July 16, 2020

How Online Mindfulness Fuels Teacher Collaboration & Connection

by Caitlin Krause

Start With the Why 

In mid-2019, I was dreaming about hosting a remote mindfulness cohort for teachers. Teachers’ levels of toxic stress were on the rise, already among the highest in all professions, and I wanted to do something about it. And, I hadn’t just heard that teacher burnout was increasing, I had experienced it myself and seen it among colleagues who were exceptional teachers, yet the profession was not providing them with a natural way to restore and renew their own energy. They would tell me things like, “I wish I had extra time for mindfulness, but right now, I’m in survival mode to cover the requirements.” I knew a design strategy was needed, to reframe the how about mindful, intentional learning. In addition to addressing the whole child and whole learner, how are the needs of the whole teacher being met? 

Over the past twenty years, my work as a classroom teacher, curriculum designer, and social- emotional learning and mindfulness researcher and practitioner, led me to author the book Mindful by Design (Corwin Press, 2019), a guide to fostering aware, advancing and authentic learning environments. It’s a book that invites each voice, teachers and students alike, to play the role in becoming a mindful designer of experience. Readers can put mindfulness into practice in a connected way, showing how to infuse these values and building blocks into curriculum applications, connected exercises, and even personal life. 

Origins of a Collective Campfire 

When Mindful by Design was published in 2019, I knew it was making a difference in helping to combat stress and increase a sense of freedom, yet there had never been a cohort from different schools to read it collectively and talk about the many ways that mindfulness and SEL topics were impacting their personal experiences as teachers and humans. 

It’s my belief that loneliness is a hidden epidemic in a teacher’s life. Why? It’s paradoxical. Educators are surrounded all day by people, and they are constantly working to attend to others; the very nature of a teacher’s work as a mentor for others means that they might feel they are succeeding when they are most empathetic, motivating, and giving. Yet, the connection might be lacking a full circle, leaving teachers exhausted and under-nourished, because: 

• They are most often surrounded by their students, and are focused on providing mentoring and support. 

• Their peers are teaching at the same time (because American teachers have one of the highest rates of active teaching time, which means they have less time to form peer-peer relationships with fellow teachers during the workday). 

• Teachers often exist within a professional world of rigorous external demands and high-stakes testing, with increased pressure on teachers, means that instead of environments of mentoring and support, teachers might feel they are being evaluated instead of actively supported and encouraged by colleagues and administrators. There are many more factors that can increase teacher anxiety, unease and pressure in the modern state of education, including greater demands, and I had all of this in mind when I was seeking to invent a program that would reach out to address teachers’ pain points where they were most acute. 

Around this time, I began to think about how to meet teachers' needs with an integrated mindfulness program and naturally thought of The Teacher Collaborative in Massachusetts. We began to ideate: what would it look like to hold an open space, a creative campfire of sorts, that encouraged storytelling for teachers? This idea of storytelling and a collective campfire, creating a hub online for that type of soulful sharing, was what fueled the beginning of an experience that would grow and have an impact in a time we could not have predicted would be a time of extreme need. 

Starting with Intentions: To Meet the Needs of the Moment 

When we introduced this experience, we called it a “Mindful by Design Co-Lab”, where each participant, a full-time teacher from Massachusetts, would dedicate themselves to an 8-week program that looked at using the book Mindful by Design in practice. We would meet bi-weekly (twice a month) for online time together on Zoom, and in-between, we would use an online social platform “Mighty Networks” to create our own asynchronous community of sharing and responding to each other. The goals of the Mindful by Design Co-Lab included giving teachers a meaningful space to connect, to learn about applied mindfulness and SEL in teaching and personal life, and to share reflections in live-time and asynchronously together. The campfire began with that spark of intention. It was an opt-in program, so everyone who arrived had a motivation to be there. We began with our first live session on February 25, when 22 educators jumped online. We could not have known what was coming over the next 8 weeks, with the looming onset of COVID-19, which impacted each of us in remarkable ways. 

March Madness Takes on New Meaning 

The first meeting was simply a get to know you, and we knew we were onto something when the teachers in the “MbD Co-Lab” were eager to share and participate in a program that asked them about their life, right in the here-and-now. It was hectic. It was busy. And March was on the horizon, a time in Massachusetts that typically signifies state testing and intense curriculum plans before the end of the academic year approaches. By the time our second Zoom meeting was taking place, on March 10, the world was changing. Schools were announcing closures due to COVID, and at this time, MA schools thought it might be temporary. Teachers had to leave their classrooms within days (hours, in some cases!) of getting the news, transitioning to programs online. 

Our meetings, from then on, began to take on even more significance. It was a program about getting grounded, about breathing and centering and creating a space for connection, and teachers needed it more than ever. By late March, we had formed a cohort that offered space to restore and renew in the face of a storm. While the education world was getting rocked by an immediate and abrupt transition to remote learning, we focused on relationship building, sharing exercises that teachers could apply to keeping their community strong with their students. The key was that we focused on teacher wellbeing and connection first, securing our breathing masks, in a sense, so that we could pass it on to our personal and professional worlds. What did this look like in practice? It was Josh sharing a reflection from his walk in the woods; it was Tiffany talking about how her yoga practices help her to breathe again and move during a time of stasis; it was Sandy posting a sketch from her garden at home, and it was Andrea showing us a picture of her reading Mindful by Design and looking up to notice the world around her, at close value. Check out the companion article to see examples of these practices and sketches firsthand! Our voices and personalities came alive in the ways that we collectively “showed up” and revealed our genuine, vulnerable selves in this experience. And, you can do the same.

For eight weeks in the spring of 2020, just as COVID-19 was spreading around the world, 22 teachers consistently came together during a challenging transition time to create a meaningful place to grow and connect, to learn and to practice strategies related to mindfulness, design thinking, and storytelling, in personal worlds and teaching.It made a difference. We relied on each other. We greeted each other. We shared emotions, reflections, ideas and stories. We connected.

Evidence shows that when teachers have a practice that develops mindfulness and social-emotional capacities, it benefits their relationships with students, lowering states of anxiety, and increasing focus and ability to connect. Certainly, in times like these, this is foundational, and not many places have yet formed an architecture to address the “how” of making this type of remote training program come about. In ways, each teacher was a trailblazer. I salute them and each educator adapting to change right now. And, I want to remind each of us: we are not alone. Connected experiences like these remain timeless and necessary. 

Read more about the Mindful by Design Co-Lab practices, in teacher’s voices, in the companion article coming next week.

About the Author

Caitlin Krause’s mission is to empower humanity through connection. In her book Mindful by Design (Corwin Press, 2019) and through her work as founder of the MindWise consultancy, she helps individuals and groups leverage wellbeing, storytelling, SEL, mindfulness and design principles to connect more deeply with their communities as they navigate change and complexity. She is a keynote speaker who has served as a curriculum designer and teacher for two decades, and she works with leadership and presence in XR environments. Caitlin leads regular trainings and interactive sessions online. Connect with her at caitlinkrause.com and on Twitter @MindWise_CK.

About The Teacher Collaborative 

The Teacher Collaborative (theteachercollaborative.org) is a Massachusetts-based nonprofit, dedicated to empowering and supporting teachers to reimagine teaching and ultimately transform learning for all students.

For More Readings About Teacher Stress and Burnout: https://soeonline.american.edu/blog/the-current-state-of-teacher-burnout-in-america https://www.gallup.com/education/237275/why-best-teachers-leaving-ways-keep.aspx https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/10/24/495186021/what-are-the-main-reasons-teachers- call-it-quits https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10648-017-9420-8 http://www.cpre.org/sites/default/files/researchreport/2018_prepeffects2014.pdf