Garrison Institute looks a little like Hogwarts. The retreat center is housed in a former monastery amid tranquil green hills overlooking the Hudson River, 60 miles north and a world away from New York City.
Inside the airy chapel on a recent summer afternoon, about 35 educators from the U.S. and at least five foreign countries are seated quietly, shoes off.
"Just notice your breath, the sensation of your air coming in, going out, " says Christa Turksma, a Dutch woman dressed all in white with silver-white hair. She's one of the co-founders of Cultivating Awareness and Resilience for Educators, or CARE for Teachers.
For the past nine years at this annual five-day summer retreat, and now within schools, CARE for Teachers teaches what's called mindfulness: calming the body and mind through breathing and movement, and using insights from psychology to better regulate your emotions.
They do a series of role-playing activities to practice listening and conducting difficult conversations with a boss, fellow teacher, parent or student. It's the first mindfulness program to be studied with funding from the U.S. Department of Education — and aimed at teachers, not directly at students.
Teaching is inherently a stressful occupation, and by many accounts, it's getting more so. Students bring the effects of poverty and trauma into the classroom. Administrators lay on the pressure to meet ever-changing standards. In the last few years, teacher job satisfaction has reportedly plummeted to a 25-year low, and turnover is high — almost 50 percent for new teachers.
Patricia Jennings isn't necessarily out to change all these factors. Instead, she aims to help teachers become the change they wish to see in the world.
Jennings is the second co-founder of CARE (Richard Brown is the third). She has gray hair cut straight across in bangs and a beatific smile. Jennings had a difficult childhood; she was orphaned at age 14 when her mother committed suicide.
Then, as a college student in 1970s Arizona, she discovered Zen meditation. "I started realizing that a lot of the suffering and anxiety I was feeling — that those thoughts were not me, " she says. "That was a huge revelation, to go oh, this feeling of dread is a result of this experience, but it's not who I am and I can let those thoughts go."
Jennings studied at the Buddhist Naropa Institute (now Naropa University) in Boulder, Colo. She earned a degree in psychology and a teaching degree, then founded a Montessori school where she taught kids meditation as early as 1980.
In the classroom for over two decades, she also used mindfulness techniques moment-to-moment, whether to smooth transitions between activities or when figuring out what was really going on with a student who was acting up. Later, she took a position teaching teachers, and realized that other teachers could benefit from these tools as well.
Jennings is now an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, where she conducts research on the CARE for Teachers program.
In a soon-to-be published study, Jennings and her co-authors provided an extended version of CARE training to 224 teachers in high-poverty schools in New York City, with several two-day sessions spaced over the course of a year. The participants reported that their anxiety, depression, feelings of burnout, being rushed and perceived stress all went down compared with a control group. Their sleep improved, and the teachers said they felt less judgmental.
Even more interesting effects came from classroom observations. When teachers were more mindful, "yelling went down, " says Jennings. Classrooms were rated more emotionally positive and productive. Students were more engaged.
Among the students who rated lower on social skills at the outset of the study — presumably some of the most vulnerable — reading scores also improved. Again, these effects came from working with the teachers, not directly with the students.
Bonnie Kirkwood and Michele Coyle-Hughes work at P.S. 279 in the Bronx. They spent the school year that just ended helping teach CARE techniques to their colleagues.
They are back at the CARE For Teachers retreat to figure out how to spread it further. As part of the student support staff, "I deal with teachers in crisis, " says Coyle-Hughes. "I can see that they need more tools."
About a third of the students in their K-8 school come from homeless shelters. A large percentage have incarcerated parents or are in foster care. Most are English language learners, including a refugee population.
"Our kids gravitate to our building because they want structure and routine, " says Coyle-Hughes. Kirkwood, a reading specialist, says the CARE techniques have improved her relationships with students and colleagues. "I'm learning to let go and let God, " she says.
(Although the practices taught in CARE draw on many different traditions, Jennings makes clear that the program is entirely secular and suitable for public schools. For example, they use the term "mindful awareness practices" rather than "meditation.")
Like Coyle-Hughes and Kirkwood, Nicole Willheimer has also agreed to help facilitate CARE training for her colleagues, at P.S. 140 in the Bronx. Jennings and Turksma are trying out this expansion this year, called CARE Coordinators, with the idea that these techniques will best spread from colleague to colleague, not as a top-down push from administrations.
Willheimer says the program has helped her be more attuned to her students. For example, rather than be set off by a kid who is tapping on a desk, she can recognize if he or she is trying to cope with attention difficulties. And like other teachers, she says CARE has been most helpful in dealing with her bosses, not just with students.