On a cold Wednesday afternoon, halfway through Melbourne’s second lockdown, I had a mini mental breakdown in the middle of a mindfulness PD. We had just been asked to close our eyes and breathe while the facilitator read out the Serenity Prayer from her office in Sydney. I managed to duck out of view and luckily my mic was already muted, so no-one heard me laughing.
In fact, the mental health of teachers and students has never been more serious.
So much money has been spent on programs aimed at de-stressing staff and re-engaging students that we should all be close to transcendence by now. But we were in the midst of a wellbeing crisis even before COVID-19 struck – and, like so much else in our world, the pandemic has only widened the cracks.
I don’t need another mindfulness PD; I need time to plan and mark and moderate with my colleagues.
A 2010 report on the Effectiveness of Student Wellbeing concluded that despite the hundreds of millions of dollars we spend on wellbeing programs each year, there is no conclusive evidence that they work. In the decade since, we have made a well-meaning attempt at addressing wellbeing issues – one not limited to schools. It would be nice to think this was because we started to care more about each other, but the truth was it made financial sense for corporations to invest in happy workers. Recently, mindfulness-based stress-reduction programs have even been used to improve the combat skills of soldiers.
Back in my wellbeing PD, my humour quickly turned to shame as we were asked to share some positive anecdotes. Listening to the stories of gratitude, it started to feel as if my stress, my anxiety, my debilitating sense of existential dread was a personal failing. If only I could commit to a moment of mindfulness each day (there’s an app for that) then I could be a happier and more productive worker. But it was the final message to proselytize this practice to our students that turned my shame to anger.
In his 2019 book, McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality, Ronald Purser points out that the fundamental message of the mindfulness movement is that the underlying cause of dissatisfaction and distress is in our heads. As government departments continue to adopt and embrace this neo-liberal gaslighting of individuals, absolving themselves of any responsibility to alter the causes of their distress, we must fight back with an equally powerful strategy. Like my breakdown, it all begins with jokes. As Michael Moore said, “Comedy is a great slayer of rogues in power”.
Are teachers happy to become gurus guiding introspective individuals through daily McMantras so they can accept the technostress of a ‘new normal’ world?
You see, what had really broken my resolve to stay serious during the PD was an unfit-for-print comment a colleague had sent me in a private chat window a moment before we had been asked to close our eyes. The humour of my fellow teachers has kept me sane since I started teaching. And this year, more than ever before, the humour I encourage in my classes has done the same for my students. Laughing connects us, especially through tragedy. But human connection is not enough. We need purpose.
One good outcome of the pandemic is that teachers have been officially recognised as essential workers, but as the negotiations for our next agreement begin, it is time to define what it is that we essentially do. We all agree we are more than babysitters, but are we happy to become gurus guiding introspective individuals through daily McMantras so they can accept the technostress of a ‘new normal’ world?
Humans are more than pleasure-seekers searching for happiness; we are problem-solvers striving to make the world a better place. The algorithm of evolution encoded into every cell in our bodies demands that we explore and expand all the options available to us. We need to focus on becoming better, not feeling better. That’s what teachers really do: we increase possibility.
So, instead of spending millions of dollars making and auditing more wellbeing programs, we should instead spend our time on what we do best. I don’t need another mindfulness PD; I need time to plan and mark and moderate with my colleagues. I don’t need someone to take students out of my class to check on their mental health; I need lower class sizes, so I can check in more regularly on all their learning needs. And what they need to learn isn’t how to be happy, it is how to understand the systems of the world and the skills they’ll need to change them.
Now that’s something I’ll be mindful about.