An Interview with Andrew “Andy” Roach, PhD: Mindfulness – An Appealing Self- Care Practice to Manage Educator Stress
Interviewer: Let’s begin by discussing teacher stress. How big an issue is teacher stress?
Roach: On the national scene, one of the best recent snapshots that we get about teacher stress comes from the 2017 Educator Quality of Work Life Survey conducted by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). When asked how often their work is stressful, educators and school staff reported that their work is “always” or “often” stressful 61 percent of the time, which is significantly higher than the rate for workers in the general population, who report that work is “always” or “often” stressful only 30 percent of the time.
Interviewer: That sounds like educators are experiencing chronic stress.
Roach: The AFT 2017 survey also showed a dramatic increase in the number of educators (58%) reporting that they had 7 or more days in the past month when their mental health was not good; that’s up from 34 percent in 2015. Twenty-one percent of educators characterized their mental health as not good for 11 or more days in the past month, which is significantly higher than U.S. workers in general, less than 10 percent of whom reported poor mental health for 11 or more days in the past month, according to national data from 2014. Finally, I want to note the impact of teacher stress may extend beyond emotional wellbeing. For example, 18% of AFT survey respondents reported their physical health was “fair” or “poor,” compared to 12.4% of workers in other fields reporting “fair” or “poor” health on the 2014 NIOSH Quality of Work Life Survey.
Interviewer: Putting this all into perspective, this means…
Roach: Well, it means too many educators report they experience consistent or chronic stress, which impacts their mental and physical health status. These sorts of findings aren’t totally unexpected since Rosenberg and his colleagues (Greenberg, M. T., Brown J. L., Abenavoli, R.M., 2016), among others, have concluded that teaching is the most stressful profession of all, along with nursing.
Interviewer: In your opinion, who is doing compelling research on the topic of teacher stress and what are some of their key findings?
Roach: Off the top of my head, I would definitely say Patricia Jennings at the University of Virginia, formerly at Penn State, and her colleagues, have done incredible research to identify the components of an evidence-based, mindfulness-informed teacher training program. Some others include…
Interviewer: Sorry to interrupt you, but are you referring to Dr. Jennings’ work with the CARE for Teachers program?
Roach: Exactly. CARE for Teachers is one of the premier mindfulnessinformed teacher training programs out there. Robert Roeser, who is at Penn State and formerly at Portland State, is also doing compelling work on mindfulness and teacher wellbeing. Both Jennings and Roeser have focused their research more on general education teachers and students. They have found that, if we want children and youth to have solid social and emotional competence, or SEC, then the adults in their environments must possess SEC, or good mental health.
Interviewer: Is there anyone in Georgia doing research on mindfulness as it relates to children with disabilities?
Roach: Nirbhay Singh, who is at Augusta University and is the founding editor of the journal Mindfulness, has been working with students with disabilities and their teachers and parents. His research has established that when teachers and parents use mindfulness practices, they demonstrate an improved ability to support young people with disabilities and to respond effectively to challenging behaviors. Christopher Germer and Kristin Neff are two others who are doing interesting work on the concept of mindful self-compassion.
Interviewer: What is mindful self-compassion?
Roach: In essence, self-compassion involves providing care and encouragement to ourselves when we are having difficulty, and realizing that pain and difficulties are part of the experience of being human. For example, there are times when teachers get angry with their students because of what is happening in the classroom. Then they feel guilty about those emotions because they don’t align with their self-image as a “caring teacher.” Being self-compassionate helps teachers to realize their struggles aren’t unique and having struggles doesn’t mean they are bad or ineffective. When kids are misbehaving, it is a perfectly normal reaction for teachers to be disappointed or angry. Teachers can have that emotion, compassionately attend to it without over-reacting, and then choose a course of action that is more in line with their values. Patricia Jennings’ CARE program also helps teachers build compassion into their self-awareness repertoire.
Interviewer: You have already mentioned mindfulness. As we researched content for these articles, we noticed that in our quest to learn more about mental health self-care practices for teachers, we kept bumping into a group of practices called mindfulness. What exactly is mindfulness and what does it have to do with mental health self-care?
Roach: Mindfulness is the ability to be aware of what’s happening in the moment and to attend to our moment-to-moment experience in a non-judgmental fashion. The second part of this definition is important: Not bringing a lot of judgment to the experience. To be mindful means that you pay attention to thoughts, while beginning to understand they are transient. When people first encounter mindfulness, they may have expectations that meditation will help them empty their mind or stop thinking. This isn’t really what happens. Mindfulness practices often result in greater awareness of how our minds are literally racing with thoughts. You may be familiar with the expression, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf?” Well, you can’t stop the painful events or emotions in your life, but you can be aware of them and not bring a lot of judgmental thinking to them. Over time, with mindfulness practices, we are able to be more present for what happens to us, and not be knocked over by the inevitable waves.
Interviewer: When you taught in the schools, did you use mindfulness practices?
Roach: I taught elementary school and I now wish that I had experienced some mindfulness training back then. It would have helped me to work with the stress and difficult emotions that I often experienced. I often think what my own educator experience would have been like if I had been taught some mindfulness strategies and tools. I was constantly in a state of exhaustion those nine years in the classroom. Sometimes teachers (and students) over-identify with their emotions. Mindfulness practices can move us to a place of saying “I am experiencing an emotion, but I am not my emotions.”
Interviewer: A number of GSU graduate students have participated in supervised and/or sponsored research projects on mindfulness. What they won’t know until they do a deep dive into the articles, however, is that there are subtle and not so subtle connections among and across some of the featured projects. For example, our readers will discover that programs implemented at the Atlanta Emmaus House for parents and students can be traced to work done by Josephine Ojo Mhende and Laura Wood. Please help to connect the dots for our readers.
Roach: I have been interested in mindfulness and contemplative practices since I was in graduate school at Wisconsin in 2001. I started practicing mindfulness to manage the stress of my graduate studies. I met Patricia Jennings at a conference back then and over time became more familiar with the research on mindfulness. About four years ago, I decided to get trained to be a mindfulness teacher. I found the Mindfulness Without Borders’ (MWB) training and eventually got certified as a mindfulness teacher and a trainer-of-trainers. I am certified by them to teach others to deliver the MWB training. Josephine Ojo Mhende was involved in helping me implement the mindfulness-parenting education program at Emmaus House. Lilly Huddleston of City Schools of Decatur and Jason Byars of Griffin-Spalding School System attended MWB’s training, which helped to spawn their school districts’ mindfulness programs that are described here. I also worked on the Mini-Mind program with one of my doctoral students, Laura Wood.
Interviewer: How does one introduce mindfulness practices to teachers who have never really heard about this approach to mental health self-care without placing them under more stress?
Roach: The challenge with mindfulness is that you can’t really force teachers (and anyone) to be mindful. So many times schools want to mandate new practices or programs for teachers. I don’t think that is advisable with mindfulness. In fact, it’s actually counter to the whole idea of being mindful. One has to have the intention to become mindful and the opportunity to choose to engage in mindfulness practices. Another challenge with traditional mindfulness programs is that the level of practice called for is pretty daunting. So I think there is a need for on-going investigations of which mindfulness practices might be more acceptable and attainable for teachers. I’m not sure what the research says about this, but my hunch is that shorter, more portable practices would be attractive to teachers. In other words, mindfulness practices need to be packaged in shapes that make them useable and attractive for educators.
Interviewer: Is it possible that some of the current initiatives relating to school climate, PBIS, and social-emotional learning -to name a few- already contain the seeds of mindful awareness for students? Are those the mechanisms by which schools might equip students to be mindfully aware without adding another layer to classroom instruction?
Roach: Even when teachers have the requisite social and emotional skills, they need the pedagogical knowledge or strategies to teach mindfulness and other SEL content; much like we realize being a skilled reader isn’t sufficient background to successfully teach reading. If teachers are going to introduce mindfulness and related concepts to students, then they need to be given evidence-based tools and strategies to do so. Also, for teachers and other educators, I certainly agree with Patricia Jennings and other mindfulness experts who are fond of telling educators “Put the social and emotional learning oxygen mask on yourself first, so you can better attend to your students.” For a long time, we have recognized that teachers must also understand and expand their own social-emotional skills. So when we bring mindfulness into the classroom, it should be to, first and foremost, help teachers handle stress and build social-emotional competence.
Interviewer: What about harried, stressed-out parents, how might they benefit from mindfulness education?
Roach: I think we got a good look at this from the mindfulnessparenting education project in which Josephine Ojo Mhende and I were involved. In truth, not being a parent, I initially approached this work with a bit of trepidation. It was good to have Josephine work with me on the Emmaus House project because she is a young parent who related well to the participating parents. The parents at Emmaus House were very open to how mindfulness might help them navigate the challenges of parenting and other stresses in their lives. We integrated MWB’s Mindfulness Ambassador Program (MAP) into an existing parenting program. The MAP elicits lots of discussion and exchange of ideas. Following eight weeks of mindfulness instruction, parents reported that the mindfulness training was very satisfying and would have liked more. Across the various pre/post measurements, parents reported a decrease in their levels of anxiety and depression and an increase in self-reported mindfulness.
Interviewer: What do you see on the horizon for implementation of mindfulness programs in Georgia’s schools?
Roach: In terms of impact, if we can demonstrate that mindfulness improves interactions between teachers and students, which subsequent result in improvements in student behavior and performance, that would be HUGE! We could get the opportunity to do this through a grant proposal that was submitted to the US Department of Education to bring the CARE for Teachers program to Georgia. We won’t know if it’s funded until Spring 2020, but the grant would allow us to evaluate the implementation of the program with special education teachers in grades K-5 in at least four school districts in Georgia. This project would be a collaboration among Dr. Jennifer Frank at University of Pennsylvania, Dr. David Houchins at GSU, Dr. Patricia Jennings at the University of Virginia, and me. We will know if we are awarded the grant in spring 2019.
Interviewer: I can’t end this discussion without asking you to share one of your favorite mindfulness practices for teachers, students, parents, or for yourself.
Roach: The classic for me is breath awareness, and it is the one you are most likely to encounter when you begin learning about mindfulness. This practice is about attending to one’s breathing and using it as an anchor for your attention for a certain amount of time. Breath awareness is a core practice taught in almost every mindfulness program.
ABOUT ANDY ROACH
Andrew “Andy” Roach is a nationally certified school psychologist and former elementary and middle school teacher with nine years
of classroom experience. He earned the Doctorate of Philosophy and Master’s of Science degrees in Educational Psychology from University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr. Roach also coordinated family-centered positive behavior support services at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt University prior to coming to Georgia State University. In 2010, he received the Lightner Witmer Early Career Research Award from the American Psychological Association – Division 16 (School Psychology). He also received the Council for Exceptional Children’s Early Career Publication Award in 2007 for a study that examined the influence of access to the general curriculum on the assessment performance of students with disabilities (Roach & Elliott, 2006). University courses that Dr. Roach has taught include Intervention Strategies for Students with Learning Problems, Psychological Consultation in the Schools, Mindfulness in Education & Mental Health, and Assessment Policies, Issues, & Practices.
His current research and scholarship focus on the following areas:
- Inclusive post-secondary education for students with intellectual disabilities: Dr. Roach is co-director of GSU’s Inclusive Digital Expression & Literacy (IDEAL) program. See this link for more information: https://cld.gsu.edu/what-is-ideal/
- Developing and sustaining authentic and trustworthy leadership in schools, non-profit organizations, and communities. Dr. Roach serves as core faculty and co-investigator for two projects that provide year-long experiences to emerging leaders in disability-serving organizations: the Georgia Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities (GaLEND) Program (https://cld.gsu.edu/programs/galend/) and the AUCD Leadership Academy (https://cld.gsu.edu/academy/). Both projects integrate concepts and strategies developed by the Center for Courage & Renewal (http://www.couragerenewal.org/), where Andy is currently a facilitator-in-preparation.
- Mindfulness and contemplative practices. Andy is interested in the application of mindfulness-based interventions in educational and community contexts. He has conducted and evaluated mindfulness trainings with graduate students, educators, parents of young children, and disability-serving professionals. He is a mindfulness educator, associate, and trainer for Mindfulness Without Borders (https://www.mindfulnesswithoutborders.org/).