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Richmond Teachers Prep for Stressful School Year With Mindfulness Lessons

people stretching
Crixell Matthews
Richmond Public School teachers attend a mindfulness training with staff from the Innerwork Center. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The past year has been a tough one for teachers, and next year isn’t going to get any easier as schools plan to fully reopen amid calls from many parents to remain virtual.

This adds to the strain for teachers like Jamie Midyette, who teaches Spanish at Albert Hill Middle School. Even though she’ll be teaching in person this year, “things that are core and essential to the way that I teach… I might not be able to do,” she said. “Figuring out new ways to do that is a little bit stressful.”

For example, she often has students form a “u” shape in her classroom, especially during daily community circles. This classroom setup won’t be possible this year because of the district’s protocol requiring that students all face the same direction. She’s also worried about going back to in-person instruction with COVID-19 cases rising.

“I tend to be a perfectionist and look at the details of things and analyze them and feel overwhelmed with all of the stuff that I have to do as a teacher and just life in general,” Midyette said.

Midyette was among a group of about 60 Richmond teachers that had the opportunity to get mindfulness training for free this year from the local nonprofit The Innerwork Center through grant funding. She plans to take what she’s learned to expand the incorporation of mindfulness into her classroom, especially during community circles.

Most teachers received a 6-week long training this spring, while Midyette and a handful of others opted for the full 8-week, evidence-based Mindfulness-Based Stress R eduction course originally developed at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.

“There’s lots and lots of research showing its effectiveness, so we know this course works,” said Susan Wilkes, a mindfulness facilitator at The Innerwork Center. Wilkes pointed to additional research showing that long-term meditation practices can lead to changes in the brain.

“There's this little part of the brain called the amygdala that's in the limbic system that really lights up when we're under stress,” Wilkes said. “And some of the brain scans have shown that for people who meditate over a long period of time, the amygdala is less reactive than it originally was.”

Korantema Pierce Williams is also a mindfulness facilitator with the Innerwork Center and said she can personally attest to the positive benefits of regular mindfulness practices.

“Everybody's experience is going to be a little different. But the goal is to change your relationship with stress,” Pierce Williams said. “And we're able to share these tools, and then folks are able to then empower themselves through the tools, bringing the tools into their daily lives, into their relationships, into their now.”

After a recent meditation, teachers reflected on what techniques best helped them reduce stress. Midyette said one exercise in particular, a scene meditation where she was asked to look out the window and first take everything in before zooming in on one thing, was helpful for her.

“I remember what I zoomed in on was this beautiful crape myrtle that was in full bloom with these like bright pink flowers. So that's what I zoomed in on and then zoomed back out, and it just made me realize that like these little tiny things that are bothering me are just a part of this bigger picture that sometimes I don't see when I'm zooming in so closely,” Midyette said.

For Brittney Wright, a third-grade teacher at J.L. Francis Elementary, another meditation exercise visualizing herself as a resilient, stable mountain enduring harsh weather conditions as the seasons change was particularly helpful.

She said thoughts of self-doubt have affected her this past year, especially when students asked her questions she couldn’t answer or shared problems with her she couldn’t solve. She adds that the pandemic has left teachers with more questions than answers, which has added to Wright’s stress.

“Those doubts kind of creep in, am I doing enough? Or are my kids getting enough?” Wright said. “And when you can't fix it, it takes a toll on your emotions and your mental health when you can't be the fixer that you always kind of expected to be and wanted to be.”

RPS teacher Wyatt Venable has another job working in a hot warehouse, which he says can be really hectic and stressful. He said mindfulness practices, like bending over and touching his toes while taking deep breaths, have helped him reset on the job to address not only his own stressors and anxieties but also those of his younger co-workers and friends.

“It's really been rough for everyone these last two years,” Venable said. “I send emails out, text messages. I'm just checking on you, just to see how you're doing.”

The Innerwork Center hopes to provide additional mindfulness training to at least 60 more RPS teachers and staff members this year and said they won’t turn anyone who wants the training away. Those interested can email [email protected].

Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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