By: Pamela Nicholas-Hoff
- Educators, like physicians, should seek to ensure safety and justice for those they serve including, and especially, their students.
- Understanding educator stress and burnout, and reducing implicit racial bias is an important part of creating safe and just learning environments for students.
- Engaging in mindful awareness practices is a promising intervention for reducing implicit racial bias and its effects.
Educators, like physicians, should seek to ensure safety and justice for those under their care. Physicians who recite the Hippocratic Oath upon completion of medical school pledge to “keep [patients] from harm and injustice”1. Though the Hippocratic Oath is considered outdated by many institutions, this particular phrase within that famous text is relevant to the teaching profession.
Ensuring safety and justice for students is not as easy as one might think. Unlike physicians who are required to participate in prolonged, supervised residencies under close scrutiny, educators only participate in brief periods of supervised instruction before being permitted to engage with students in relative isolation. The potential for harm is evident in such situations, especially when educators are unaware of their implicit racial bias. Educator stress and burnout can also lead to unsafe learning environments as they increase the likelihood of reactivity and reliance on heuristics (e.g., racial bias and stereotyping).
Educator Stress & Burnout
Again, similar to medical professionals, educators experience higher levels of stress and burnout. During the school year, rates of daily stress for teachers were found to exceed those of all other occupations surveyed, including physicians, and tied those of nurses2. Stress negatively impacts teachers’ effectiveness and students’ academic outcomes3. Elevated levels of teacher stress affect the health, well-being, and quality of life of teachers4 and can result in unsafe learning environments for students, especially students of color. Chronic stress can lead to burnout5.
According to a more recent poll6:
44% of K-12 workers responded they “always/very often” felt burned out at work which a) is the highest percentage of burnout reported by workers in all professions surveyed, b) represents a 22% increase from March 2020, the start of the pandemic, to February 2022.
Burnout can exacerbate implicit racial bias.
Understanding Implicit Racial Bias
Unlike explicit biases of which individuals are aware, implicit biases are unconscious. Implicit biases influence one’s behavior, decisions, and understandings7. Implicit racial bias is ubiquitous among U. S. citizens8. This type of bias manifests at an early age and continues developing due to the environmental messages one receives9,10 throughout their lifetime.
Implicit racial bias is thought to be a primary cause of the disproportionate rates of exclusionary discipline consequences for Black students. Factors contributing to implicit racial bias include automaticity of response11, socio-cultural conditioning12, media representation of Black people13, hearsay14, and stressful situations15. Like many in our society, educators are exposed to and/or experience all of these factors.
So what can we do to help ensure students’ safety and just treatment? In addition to courageously and authentically identifying, acknowledging, understanding, and examining our biases, including implicit racial bias, we can:
- Develop greater self-awareness,
- Respond thoughtfully rather than react automatically to situations and others,
- Manage stress in healthy ways, and
- Cultivate self-compassion.
Mindfulness can facilitate all of the above!
Mitigating Bias through Mindful Awareness Practices
Mindfulness has been described as a “state of mind,” personal trait, or practice16. The American Psychological Association states that:
“Mindfulness is awareness of one’s internal states and surroundings. Mindfulness can help people avoid destructive or automatic habits and responses by learning to observe their thoughts, emotions, and other present-moment experiences without judging or reacting to them.”17
In a recent blog, I discussed some of the benefits of mindfulness and how we can establish and maintain a mindful awareness practice. Spending consistent time in practice can increase self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making; these are attributes that the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning18 refers to as social emotional competencies (SEC). In addition, when we possess greater SEC and are more mindful, our ability to assess situations with nonjudgmental awareness, openness, curiosity, and compassion increases. We are less likely to perceive situations and the actions of others as personal attacks, thus reducing the likelihood that we will react automatically and commit egregious acts (conscious and unconscious) resulting in harm to students.
The term “mindful awareness practice” encompasses a broad range of activities. Two types of practices, in particular, have been shown to reduce implicit racial bias: focused awareness and compassion or lovingkindness practices, as detailed here: 19, 20, 21, 22, 23
- Focused awareness practice involves focusing on and maintaining focus on an object or activity with openness and curiosity24. As thoughts and distractions arise, the mindful awareness practitioner acknowledges, and perhaps notes or labels them25, and redirects their awareness back to the focus target.
- Though Lovingkindness/compassion practice may vary, it often involves sitting quietly and focusing first on oneself with love, compassion, and kindness26, then, while maintaining feelings of love, compassion, and kindness, the practitioner’s focus gradually extends outward to close loved ones, neutral others, challenging others, and then back to self, extending well-being to all. During lovingkindness/compassion practice, the practitioner may visualize specific individuals and/or group of individuals to develop/increase empathy and compassion toward those individuals/that groups of individuals23.
In addition to reducing stress and increasing empathy, lovingkindness/compassion practice increases positive emotions26 often related to stress coping adaptations27. Even seven to ten minutes of focused awareness and/or lovingkindness inductions can reduce implicit biases22, 23.
Tips to Get Started
Educators have an obligation to keep students safe and ensure their just treatment. Here are some practitioner tips to integrate mindfulness into your educational practice:
- Practice self-compassion as you identify, acknowledge, gain insight into, and examine your biases.
- Though engaging in brief mindfulness practices has been shown to reduce implicit racial bias, consistency is key; therefore, set aside time and space for a daily 10- to 15-minute practice. (For tips on how to establish and maintain a consistent practice, please see this recent back-to-school blog.)
- Try engaging in a focused awareness (e.g., the awareness of breath practice) or lovingkindness/compassion practice such as the ones found here. After becoming comfortable with the lovingkindness/compassion practice, consider visualizing specific individuals and/or group of individuals to develop/increase empathy and compassion toward those individuals/that group of individuals.
By identifying, acknowledging, understanding, and examining our biases and through the practice of mindfulness, we can reduce implicit racial bias, cultivate SEC, better manage stress, and assess situations with nonjudgmental awareness, curiosity, and compassion helping to ensure the safety and just treatment of all students.
1Markel, 2004, p. 2028; 2Gallup, 2014; 3Hoglund et al., 2015; 4Souza et al., 2012; 5Maslach & Leiter, 2016; 6Gallup, 2022; 7Staats et al., 2015, p. 62; 8Jones et al., 2012; 9Castelli et al., 2009; 10Baron & Banaji, 2006; 11Lueke & Gibson, 2015; 12Heitzeg, 2009; 13Dorfman & Schiraldi, 2001; 14Dasgupta, 2013; 15Bertrand et al., 2005; 16Jennings, 2015, p. 2; 17American Psychological Association, 2023, para. 1; 18CASEL, n.d.; 19Fabbro et al., 2017; 20Hirshberg et al., 2022; 21Kang et al., 2014; 22Lueke & Gibson, 2015; 23Stell & Farsides, 2016; 24Jennings et al., 2013; 25Kabat-Zinn, 1994; 26Fredrickson et al., 2008; 27Fredrickson et al., 2003
Author Bio: Pamela Nicholas-Hoff is a triple Hoo and postdoctoral research associate supporting work in Youth-Nex and the Department of Curriculum, Instruction, and Special Education. Before earning her Ph.D., Pam spent 17 years teaching at the middle school level (five of those years were spent teaching at an alternative middle school serving students who were pushed out of traditional schools) and seven years teaching health and physical education teacher preparation courses. Pam is also a certified CARE facilitator and is working toward her certification to facilitate Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction courses. Her research focuses on using mindful- and compassion-based practices to mitigate teacher-based implicit biases, stress, and automatic responses and to eliminate exclusionary discipline disparities for historically marginalized students. In her spare time, Pam enjoys spending time with her family, reading, and fitness training.