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Sunday, October 27, 2019

Mindfulness, SEL, and Teacher Self-Care

Season Mussey, EdD. is the founder of Kaya Teacher Project, which focuses on supporting educators through professional development and personal wellness. She is the author of Mindfulness in the Classroom: Mindful Principles for Social and Emotional Learning.

In this interview, Season shares her thoughts on mindfulness, SEL, and teacher self-care with Catharine Hannay, editor and publisher of

Catharine: The breath is a common anchor, or point of focus, of many mindfulness practices. As a yoga teacher and former biology teacher, could you explain the physiological benefits of consciously focusing on our breathing?

Season: Absolutely. Conscious breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS is known as the “rest and digest” part of our nervous system. The results include heart rate slowing, muscles relaxing, and more blood-flow and oxygen available to vital organs. 

Activation of the PNS through slow, deep, rhythmic breathing initiates a response that is the direct opposite of the body’s response to stress (increased heart rate, tense muscles, constricted blood vessels, and less oxygen to some organs). 

And, let’s face it, who doesn’t need LESS stress? Right?

Catharine: I'm sure every teacher reading this would like less stress

Realistic self-care is one of the core themes here at Mindful Teachers, so I was interested to see that you offer a class on “Finding the ‘Perfect’ Life/Work Balance.” Of course, it’s never really going to be perfect, but what does optimal life/work balance look like to you?

Season: You are so right; it is never going to be perfect. But, self-care is critical for our wellness and longevity in careers as educators. As we serve others, constantly giving of ourselves, we must find ways to refresh and renew. 

For me, life/work balance is achieved when I am mindful of my needs in the following areas: 
1. My mental/intellectual pursuits,  
2. My physical needs,  
3. My emotional needs, and 
4. My spiritual needs. 
For each area, I set goals and check-in often. Am I spending time working in all four areas of my life? 

There is a simple self-care assessment that I included in my book. I use it from time to time to check-in. When I notice that I am out of balance, I make changes in my life. This includes getting real about my calendar and the order of things on my daily “to-do” list.  

Catharine: Writing is an important part of my own personal practice of mindfulness and self-care, but it isn’t often mentioned in books about mindfulness. 

Why did you decide to include a chapter on writing in your book? Could you share a few mindfulness-related writing prompts that teachers can use themselves or with their students?

Season: For me, writing is a way to intentionally process random thoughts, and transform them into coherent ideas. Because it is a process that requires me to pay attention at every stage, it seemed obvious to include it as one of the foundational principles for using mindfulness in the classroom. 

Since I wrote this book for teachers, I wanted to remind them that they already have a wonderful tool of language that they can use in their classroom to promote SEL. Writing is metacognitive, and this kind of thinking raises one’s consciousness and can be a catalyst to increase self and social awareness, some of the big categories in SEL.

Here are a few of my favorite SEL-related writing prompts:
(These are great for students AND teachers.)
1. What does the world need more of now? 
2. Think about the last time you experienced JOY. Write about it. 
3. Write a guide for getting along with others.

Catharine: Your book focuses on “mindful principles for social and emotional learning.” In your opinion, what’s the connection between mindfulness and SEL?

Season: Before discussing the connection, I think that it is important to look at what social and emotional learning is, and how it fits into the real work of teaching in the classroom.

I talk about the “real work” in my book; the work that involves caring for students and teaching them the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors that they will need to be successful in the next phase of their life. It’s about knowing your students; and what they need. For most students, it goes beyond just their academic needs. 

Social and emotional learning includes the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors that enable humans to be successful and find happiness at home and in the workplace. 

We know that when students are successfully developing social and emotional competencies, their academic performance improves as well. There’s a relationship, and it requires that teachers be mindful about striking a balance between teaching both academic and SEL competencies, at the developmentally appropriate level.

This is the “real work;” it is HARD work, and it is impossible if teachers are not paying attention, with intention. That is the “big picture” connection between mindfulness and SEL.

In my book, I get into the nuances of this connection, and offer teachers a framework of mindfulness principles that they can use in the classroom. 

The mindful principles for social and emotional learning support teachers and their students as they develop the SEL competencies of: 

  • self and social awareness, 
  • relationship skills, 
  • and responsible decision making. 

The result is transformational learning, learning that improves lives and the world.  

CatharineI haven't heard any objections to SEL programs, but some Christian parents and educators object to mindfulness programs because of a perceived connection with Buddhism. I find it interesting that the name of your organization, “Kaya,” came from an inspiring story you heard on the Christian radio station K-LOVE.  

In the SongPlaylists for Teachers, I’ve included a few songs I found on K-LOVE that focus on universal values like compassion and forgiveness. Do you have any thoughts on how people of different faiths can be a positive presence in secular contexts like public schools?

Season: I love this question. Thank you for asking. The first thing that I’d say is that there are so many misconceptions about what mindfulness is and what it isn’t. In my book, I define mindfulness as the conscious act of paying attention for a particular purpose. And, the purpose that I am suggesting is to use mindfulness to increase social and emotional learning, and subsequently increase academic achievement. 

Mindful teachers committed to a whole-child approach might also promote other positive outcomes in individuals; including things like: humility, gentleness, patience, compassion, empathy, and peace. These are characteristics of social and emotional competence, and, as you said, they are universal values. 

They also happen to be values that I can read about in my Bible. As a follower of Christ, I know there are many stories about when Jesus used mindfulness and other effective strategies in his teaching. 

For example, He was aware of the cultural context in which He taught, and often taught through stories that would make sense to his students. He knew when His students needed more; more examples, explanations, or demonstrations, and when it was appropriate, He met those needs. He used effective questioning techniques. He also noticed when His students were hungry or tired and fed them or let them rest.

Interesting to think about... but, regardless of one’s faith or personal convictions, I personally think that once understanding is achieved around the purpose and methods that teachers might use to promote mindfulness, that the objections would lessen. 

I’d love to sit down with anyone who has concerns, and have a grace-filled conversation. We can always learn from one another through mature, constructive dialogue. 

Catharine: I love that idea of mature, constructive dialogue, and I think it would help in all kinds of tense situations in schools. 

In your opinion, to what extent are teachers responsible for their own self-care, and to what extent are schools responsible for teacher wellness?

Season: This is a tough one; mainly because I know how hard school leaders work to meet the pressures that exist from various stakeholders. I would never want to see “teacher wellness” become another “add-on” program or extra burden to carry. However, if we could find a way to cultivate cultures of mindfulness and wellness on campuses, then I believe that everyone would enjoy sharing part of the responsibility. 

I have seen school leaders who are committed to teacher wellness. When I think about how their care and commitment to wellness improves overall school climate and learning on campus, I know that I’d love to see more of this in our school systems. 

If more educators would begin to practice mindful principles in their daily interactions with others, teacher wellness would organically become part of school cultures. School leaders need mindfulness too; perhaps we just discovered the subject of my next book.

Thank you so much for giving me a chance to share, Catharine. It is a privilege, and I hope that teachers find the information in my book useful and encouraging. Blessings to you all.