LRSD offers mindfulness classes to teachers with reopening fears

Dozens are using the time to express their concerns about going back to school during the coronavirus pandemic and learning how to handle those concerns.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — It is so 2020 to have counselors, accustomed to helping prisoners, getting called in to help teachers.

Days away from a return to class in a divided Little Rock School District, administrators offered teachers a chance to learn mindfulness and meditation in hopes of facing down various fears and concerns.

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“There’s a lot of fear,” said Cory Jones, who leads Compassion Works For All, a non-profit counseling service that originally set out to give tools to prison inmates to deal with the stress of their environment. “We’re kind of accustomed to teaching it in stressful and conflict-ridden places.”

In another sure sign of the times, the teachers gather in Zoom meetings as they go through professional development training. Beyond concerns about health and safety, Jones says plenty of other general anxieties emerge in his classes.

“A lot of the fears have come out in our classes and in our discussions,” he said. “Especially a lot is just how [teaching] works, how it functions in a practical way in the school system this year.”

Jones welcomed about 80 teachers to one mid-afternoon session Tuesday. He started with some slides describing his past as a minister, but then began discussing the virtues of quieting the mind and developing a baseline of calm.

“My hope for our time together today is to address those [fears], not just to escape them,” he told them. “Not to just put them off or dismiss the fear, but to embrace it and walk into it.”

An early exercise has participants say their desires and cravings and then express aloud their fears. The first two shouts came from teachers wishing they were preparing for virtual classes only, not in-school instruction. Many staff are members of the Little Rock Education Association, which has called on Governor Asa Hutchinson and state education officials to reconsider directives to provide in-person instruction.

But other wishes and fears emerge. A woman describes fears of catching the virus and bringing it home to her medically fragile parents. Another laments the negativity on social media toward teachers and wishes for more respect. One summed it up by saying he wished none of this was going on. Two others summed up their fears of the technology involved and said “it just makes my head spin.”

Jones goes to work on exercises that build empathy and awareness. From there, he believes our thought process can change.

“So that in times of stress and conflict, information bypasses those fear centers in our brain and goes directly into the pre-frontal area where we can respond with more logic and more reasoning,” he said.

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Jones doesn’t believe it’s his place to convince the teachers of the current virus science or stats. He isn’t trying to change minds, but rewire them a little.

“Without trying to enter into some alternative reality that doesn’t actually exist. We can develop a sense of resilience and develop some empathy for each other,” he said.