America’s Teacher Shortage: Burnout & Mindfulness

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By Samuel ‘Jasper’ Cliff, BA Creative Writing & Literature student

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to sit down with Barbara Catbagan, an associate professor at Naropa University and one of the driving forces behind the forthcoming BA in Elementary Education and a Teacher Licensure Program.

A bunch of questions arose for me after learning about the teacher shortage currently plaguing the United States, and I was excited to converse with someone in the field. Barb is confident in Naropa’s ability to equip the next generation of teachers with the tools needed to thrive in the classroom. Admittedly, I came into the interview with a bit of a pessimistic perspective about the future of teaching, but I left our conversation feeling informed and inspired. I chalk that shift up to interacting with a great teacher, one that can get through to a skeptical student.

JC:  It seems like one of the biggest issues keeping people from pursuing a career in teaching is low or stagnant pay, coupled with the fact that a lot of the demand for teachers is in rural areas. So, one thing that came up for me as I’ve been studying the teacher shortage is that it doesn’t really make sense to be a teacher. What would attract someone to that profession?

BC: Teaching never made any sense… where pay is concerned [Laughter]. People want to teach because they have big hearts; and because at some point, a teacher noticed them, and changed their life. Teachers are in a unique position to inspire students and, in turn, students teach you the most incredible things.

JC: Despite the current teacher shortage, are you optimistic about the future of our schools in this country?

BC: If I wasn’t optimistic, I’d find another job [Laughter]! I have some ideas. There are people who want to go back and contribute to the communities they came from, where they were raised. If we can make an education affordable and accessible to them, then we can help to make that possible. The potential to put a lot of Naropa trained teachers into the classroom is exciting and makes me very optimistic.  Our teachers will have the skills to inspire deeper meaning in the classroom. They have the endurance—the resilience—to stay engaged. Teaching is not an easy profession, but it sure is rewarding. I have faith that there are people out there who are up to the challenge.

JC: What was it that inspired you to teach? What kept you going when things got tough?

BC: I went to a tiny elementary school. We had two grade levels in one room. I had the same teacher for 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade. She was stern and kind, knowledgeable and fun. I loved her—thought she was magical—and thought that’s what a teacher should be. Things have the possibility to get tough every day. I guess what keeps me going is loving the students and the content, a supportive family, and incredible colleagues. I’ve been blessed with those things.

JC: “Burnout” is a big issue that causes a lot of teachers to leave the classroom. How do you define burnout in regards to teaching, and how are graduates of Naropa better suited to face the challenges that produce it?

BC: It doesn’t matter what job you have, people experience burnout. I’m not an expert but I think it happens when we get overwhelmed by things, when too much is being asked of us. The “push” at Naropa, the intention, is to reflect on who you are inside, in a way that other universities rarely ask you to do. Students are forced to consider who they are and how they can take that out into the world. I hope students walk away asking, “How do I do this with an open heart?” That’s the path of the warrior. There’s an underlying strength to face things when they go wrong, when we have honed the ability to stand in our own emotions and breathe. Learning and practicing contemplative practices and pedagogies prepares one to deal with the little things: the student that forgot something again, who isn’t prepared, a parent who is taking issue with who you are, a principal who wants better test results—all the little things and the big ones that lead to burnout.

JC: So, for someone determined pursue a career in teaching, what would you say makes the program at Naropa stand apart from other teacher prep degree programs?

BC: Smaller classes, mentorships with faculty, getting out in the field from the very beginning.  Mindful practices, supportive classmates—the Gestalt of it.

JC: Does mindfulness have a place in elementary school classrooms? If so, how will Naropa trained teachers be equipped to incorporate that, and things like body and breath awareness, into their curriculum?

BC: Is there anywhere that mindfulness does not have a place? In the early grades—as in any grade—we model, whether or not we are aware of it, how to be in the world. The mindful teacher does so with intention. They may not ever mention paying attention to the breath in the classroom, but in doing so themselves, students are aware of the grounded nature of the person in front of them. When we are grounded, we can more easily access our sense of humor, work in difficult situations with empathy, be conscious of and honor the diversity in our classroom, teach our content reflectively, help our class to pause when needed. I think all of that has a big place in the elementary classroom. Thinking back now to the teacher I spoke of earlier, she was mindful; although she would probably never have used that word.

Jasper Blog 2
Samuel ‘Jasper’ Cliff & Barbara Catbagan

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