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'Mindfulness cannot solve all of education's problems, but it can help'

Teachers do one of the most valuable jobs in our society – the greatest injustice would be if they broke themselves in the process, writes the former government mental health champion.

Teachers and other school staff tend to get used to living their lives according to a pattern of three mammoth slogs (otherwise known as "term-time") interspersed with only-slightly-less frenzied, paper-work-catchy-uppy type slogs and (if they’re lucky) a short period of rest.

But this isn’t sustainable long term. It at least partially explains some of the problems we have with teacher retention, along with a survey by the NASUWT teaching union, which found 47 per cent of teachers had seen a doctor because of work-related health problems.

Obviously, we must not stop lobbying until teacher workloads are brought down to a more manageable level. In the meantime, I urge school staff to spend this summer finding a form of mindfulness that compliments their personality and lifestyle.

That way, when September comes around, you’ll be better placed to develop strategies to incorporate these into your schedule.

Now, before you think I am one of those people who believes mindfulness is a magic solution to all the problems in our society, let me reassure you that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, up until fairly recently, the word ‘mindfulness’ was almost guaranteed to elicit a gigantic eye-roll from me. I’d partaken in numerous exercises during workshops and conferences, most of which had seemed to involve becoming aware of the sensation of the soles of my feet on the floor and little else.

With this rudimentary understanding, it’s little surprise that when mindfulness techniques were suggested as an antidote to anxiety, my reactions ranged between incredulity to anger (depending, ironically, on how anxious I was feeling at the time).

Anyone who has ever languished under the weight of the relentless, circular thinking, the irrational fears, the tight chests, constricted airways and bilious bellies, the sometimes physical pain of unshed tears that categorise severe anxiety would baulk at the idea that focusing on the soles of your feet is going to solve it.

Except, of course, that isn’t really what mindfulness is. Neither is it, as I had assumed, the sole remit of people who like to spend their weekends in a meadow wearing a crown of daisies listening to someone play Imagine on acoustic guitar while holding hands to make a caring circle (as fun as that sounds).

A state of mindfulness doesn’t mean emptying your brain of all thoughts, it is more accurately described as the ability not to lock them down and analyse them persistently. It can be achieved through any activity that brings you into the moment, thus allowing you to put the emotional baggage of past experiences and worries about what the future might hold into temporary perspective.

In fact, I had unwittingly been practising mindfulness for years, through running.

I went through my twenties eschewing pretty-much all forms of exercise (sporadic, Beyonce inspired booty-shaking aside). Then, when I was 31, I had a pretty major health scare (not related to my non-exercising but still enough to make me realise I’m probably going to die, one day) and I thought it was about time to pick a form of physical activity I could enjoyably incorporate into my regular routine.

No one was more surprised than me when this turned out to be running. As an unexpected bonus, running also gave me respite from any worries circling my mind and an immense sense of relief (I often describe it as the psychological equivalent of taking your bra off at the end of a long day). This, I later found out, is what mindfulness feels like.

Another less classic way I achieve mindfulness is via the almost-daily ritual of putting my makeup on in the morning (I made a pledge to some Year 11 pupils in 2014 that I’d stay makeup free at least one day a week and guys, if you’re reading this, I am pleased to say I have stuck to it since). I tend to wake up a little earlier than my husband and spend fifteen glorious minutes leisurely, luxuriously expressing myself creatively via the medium of my face.

During this time I don’t think about anything other than whether one eyeliner flick is bigger than the other (and whether or not that’s fine because I’m in an asymmetrical sort of mood). It’s a moment of glorious stillness before the pace of the day sweeps me into its clutches.

It is running and finding moments of calm during my otherwise incredibly hectic schedule that have kept me sane. The truth is that while we might not all have a natural talent for meditation in the traditional sense, all human beings need ways to achieve mindfulness. I’ve learned that no matter what the demands of your family or career it’s important not to compromise on the need to take that half or even (perish the thought!) whole hour out of our days to nurture our own mental health.

Teachers do one of the most valuable and important jobs in our society and the greatest injustice would be if they broke themselves in the process. I don’t believe mindfulness can solve all the problems in our strained education system, but I do believe it can help.

Natasha Devon is the former UK government mental health champion for schools and founder of the Body Gossip Education Programme and the Self-Esteem Team. She tweets as @NatashaDevon.

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