Relying on the Heart to Relieve Teacher Stress

By Jim Van Huysse, HBI’s Executive Director

My family is blessed with many educators. My mom went back to school in pursuit of her teaching credentials after she raised my sister and me, going on to teach history and child psychology for 15 years at a parochial school in Illinois. My wife taught seventh and eighth grade out of college. Five of my aunts and two cousins taught high school for decades, including public schools within challenged inner-city districts in Chicago and Cleveland.  

In retrospect, I should probably have been more aware of the challenges facing educators today, but I was surprised when my cousin (who teaches at a Chicago suburban public school) mentioned that she attended a workshop on dealing with trauma: not her students’ trauma, but Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) as well as stress in their own lives.

There is an urgency for addressing and alleviating teacher stress and burnout.

Stress among Educators Has Reached a Critical Level

If you’re human, chances are you deal with stress in your daily life – both personally and professionally (more so if you live in America). And stress among educators is particularly challenging.

A 2016 research brief written by Penn State University reported that 46% of teachers experience high levels of stress on a daily basis, tied with nurses for the highest levels among all occupational groups.

The study also concludes that stress among educators contributes to:

  • Reduction in overall health and well-being
  • Burnout and job dissatisfaction
  • poor performance
  • high turnover rates, the cost of which is estimated to be over $7 billion per year

A recent survey conducted by Yahoo details teachers’ personal stories of the effects of dealing with chronic stress at their jobs, including an alarming lack of work/life balance.

Our Heart Is the Key to Mitigating Stress and Changing What We “Broadcast”

At Heart Based Institute, we recognize that experiencing stress not only prevents us from doing our best work but undoubtedly affects those around us. The brain and heart are both electromagnetic generators, however, in comparison, the heart is the most powerful with its magnetic field measuring 5,000 times greater.  Additionally, the electrical field of the heart is about 100 times greater in amplitude than that of the brain.

Science has further shown that the heart radiates outward into our electromagnetic field affecting not only our own physical, mental and emotional well-being, but the well-being of others. So the importance of “broadcasting” positive, heart-felt feelings is critical, especially for classroom teachers and human service professionals who provide direct care, guidance and skills to students.

The Impact of “Heart Broadcasting” in the Classroom

The impact of “broadcasting” is reflected in numerous studies that show the significant effect of teacher stress on the classroom environment. According to a 2015 Arizona State study on child development, teachers’ personal stress has been “associated with lower quality classroom interactions, and teachers who have stronger emotion regulation are more likely to reinforce positive student behavior and respond supportively to students’ negative emotions.” Conversely, studies have shown that higher teacher engagement correlates with high student engagement and achievement.

The Introduction of Well-Being Tools for Teachers and Administrators

Many schools have recognized the need to provide staff with tools to improve their well-being as well as a responsibility to proactively address challenges in their organization’s culture. These tools include stress management programs like mindfulness, health and wellness programs such as nutrition and exercise, and mentoring programs. Additionally, research supports that schools incorporating Social Emotional Learning (SEL) programs as a part of their curriculum not only help students with social behaviors, attitudes and skills such as empathy, teamwork and academic achievement but also promote higher functioning teachers.

In August my daughters’ school invited me to present at their faculty retreat. This year’s theme was (not surprisingly!) wellness. The administration offered breakout sessions on healthy cooking, financial well-being, and Zumba, among others. In my session, I provided background on the theory of Heart Based Meditation, explained the differences between mindfulness and the spiritual heart, and led the 30+ participants in a relaxation protocol and heart guiding.

While it was only a quick overview, the results were pretty remarkable. Many of the faculty and staff had already practiced some form of meditation, with some practicing regularly. After just 30 minutes, many reported feeling much more relaxed than they’d ever experienced as well as feeling calmer, more peaceful and even happier as a result of connecting with their hearts. One teacher invited me into her classroom to replace the “mindful minute” with a “heart strengthening” for her first graders. Overall it was a beautiful experience that we hope to build upon.

Supporting the Heart of Our Educational Community

Teachers are the heart and backbone of our educational community and beyond. And given the profound academic and developmental impact they have on our children, they should be provided the support they need to ensure they are nurtured both personally and professionally. When teachers, administrators and staff are able to experience peace, calm and joy as their predominant state of being, our children – and our communities – will greatly benefit as well.