Stress and Mindful Teaching – beyond content and pedagogy in teacher training

At the last National Association for Music Education (NAfME) research conference, I gave a short presentation on the need for teacher training programs to include strategies for helping educators deal with their internal ecology. I like the term “internal ecology” because it puts the locus of control on what goes on inside our own minds, rather than on what happens in our environment. To be clear, I am not advocating that teachers stop working for or advocating for improved working conditions. We all know that the profession is besieged by problems ranging from inadequate compensation to poorly designed and often invalid measures of learning and success. I do suggest however, that while we continue to work toward better working conditions, that we should be careful not ignore the very real internal emotional, cognitive, and interpersonal dynamics that govern much of how we relate to our external environment, and in turn, our propensity to function ethically and skillfully for our students as well as our own benefit.

To frame the presentation, I began by summarizing key findings from research on teacher stress and burnout, both in music and in the education field in general. As you can imagine, there is a substantial amount of information on this topic. In general, teachers report that they are stressed by overly needy students, lack of autonomy, large class sizes, and pressures from testing and “accountability” measures among other issues (Richards, 2012). There were also several studies mentioning that teachers felt disconnected from the wider community (Krueger, 2000), and that their relationships with other music teachers, students, parents, and other stakeholders were unhealthy.

Stress of course, is subjective. All teachers do not react to demanding conditions in the same way, and some do not find it as difficult to operate effectively in these types of environments. In a paper by Roeser et al. (2013), the authors propose that part of the reason some teachers may experience stress is that their cognitive and emotional resources are insufficient to meet the demands required for effective teaching. For example, teachers need to demonstrate attentional flexibility, switching their focus between several demanding and often consequential tasks in rapid succession. While this is happening, they also need to make appropriate decisions, often with little to time to think or consider the consequences of their actions. Additionally, they must be aware of and maintain control over their emotions, as well as manage interpersonal relationships in a positive manner. If teachers are exerting too much effort to accomplish any of these tasks, they may begin to appraise their situation as overwhelming, and thus experience stress.

While some stress is expected and even useful, it is well documented that too much stress can be detrimental to both our physical and psychological wellbeing. Jennings and Greenberg (2009) propose that training in social-emotional competence may protect teachers from some of the burnout and emotional exhaustion that can result from excessive stress. In my view, this type of competence is in line with recent guidelines from the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), which suggests that teachers should have dispositional traits that allow them to manage interpersonal situations with a high degree of competency. Unfortunately, in my attempts to find some evidence of dispositional training among teacher training programs, I was unable to find even one program that required or provided formal training in this area.

Fortunately, there is mounting evidence that teachers who engage in mindfulness-based training programs are acquiring dispositions that may allow them to deal more effectively with feelings of being overwhelmed, and may improve both their wellbeing and performance in the classroom. These skills and dispositions include better cognitive and emotional self-regulation, and improved interpersonal relationships. Programs such as Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education (CARE) and Stress Management and Relaxation Techniques (SMART) have been the subject of recent studies, and the results seem promising. Also, in a recent study by Flook et al (2013), mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) was effective in reducing stress, anxiety, depression, and other negative emotional states among urban teachers. Most importantly, the majority of teachers reported that the programs were both useful and feasible in light of their already hectic schedules.

Improvements made from participation in these programs can be attributed to fundamental changes in brain function, and although the specific psychological and neurological effects of mindfulness are still under investigation, researchers suggest that mindfulness leads to heightened activity in regions of the brain that affect self-regulation of attention, as well as positive affective states (Davidson et al., 2003; Lutz, Slagter, Dunne, & Davidson, 2008).

With mounting evidence of the tremendous benefits that MBSR can provide for teachers, why aren’t more training programs addressing these types of competencies in their curriculum? In my presentation, I suggested that we need to seriously examine how we might be able to train faculty to develop programs, and perhaps propose some pilot studies and a formal research agenda that can move us closer to developing strategies that are both useful and feasible for pre and inservice teachers. For those interested, I’ve included a PDF of the Prezi from my presentation. I’ve also included links that provide more information about the programs listed above.

To conclude, I believe that it is time for our profession to consider that as important as content and pedagogical training are to the development of effective teachers, these skills do not address the dynamic and often complex interpersonal world of dealing with students, parents, and most importantly – ourselves.  We owe it to our teachers, our children, and our education system to do better, and perhaps, through being open to new strategies and ways of thinking, we might be able to do just that.


Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S. F., … & Sheridan, J. F. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic medicine65(4), 564-570.

Flook, L., Goldberg, S. B., Pinger, L., Bonus, K., & Davidson, R. J. (2013). Mindfulness for teachers: A pilot study to assess effects on stress, burnout, and teaching efficacy. Mind, Brain, and Education7(3), 182-195.

Jennings, P. A., & Greenberg, M. T. (2009). The prosocial classroom: Teacher social and emotional competence in relation to student and classroom outcomes. Review of educational research79(1), 491-525.

Krueger, P. J. (2000). Beginning Music Teachers: Will They Leave the Profession?. Update: Applications of Research in Music Education19(1), 22-26.

Lutz, A., Slagter, H. A., Dunne, J. D., & Davidson, R. J. (2008). Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. Trends in cognitive sciences12(4), 163-169.Richards, J. (2012, July). Teacher stress and coping strategies: A national snapshot. In The Educational Forum (Vol. 76, No. 3, pp. 299-316). Taylor & Francis Group.

Richards, J. (2012, July). Teacher stress and coping strategies: A national snapshot. In The Educational Forum (Vol. 76, No. 3, pp. 299-316). Taylor & Francis Group.

Roeser, R. W., Schonert-Reichl, K. A., Jha, A., Cullen, M., Wallace, L., Wilensky, R., … & Harrison, J. (2013). Mindfulness training and reductions in teacher stress and burnout: Results from two randomized, waitlist-control field trials. Journal of Educational Psychology105(3), 787



Contemplative Music Education


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