TEACHERS from various schools in the Western Cape participate in the Wise mindfulness training programme at Michael Oak Waldorf School.
DURBAN - “A lot of people are quick to judge and blame the teacher when there's been a violent outburst, but they don't stop to think about how overwhelmed these teachers are. Teachers often have to play the role of both teacher and parent.”

This is according to psychologist and co-founder of Wellbeing in Schools & Education, Carol Surya.

She said South African schools were experiencing escalating aggression and violence, with teachers and pupils interchanging the roles of perpetrators and victims.

“It's a situation deeply at odds with what the learning environment needs to be: safe, nurturing, inspiring and creative,” she said.

Surya said instead, many schools were on a knife-edge, with teachers lashing out and pupils bullying. When the perception is that personal survival is at stake, learning is pushed on to the back-burner.

Teaching, it turns out, is a high- stress profession worldwide. According to a recent UK study, teachers experience more stress than many other workers. This is exacerbated in the South African context where poverty, HIV/Aids, mental health issues, violence, crime, gangsterism, domestic abuse, child abuse and substance abuse are far more intense.

With this month being Stress Awareness Month, Wise aims to spotlight the importance of helping teachers to cope with their high stress levels.

“Sadly, there are many vulnerable children who don't have parents in the home, so teachers often have to play the role of both teacher and parent.”

Wise runs a personal well-being programme for teachers, teaching mindfulness practice using tools such as yoga, meditation, mindful breathing and Biodanza dance.

As an antidote to stress, mindfulness curricula are rolling out across schools in the UK and US, she says, and there's a strong argument that the South African education system should follow suit.

A recent report released by the DGMT foundation, “The Human Factor”, cites teachers saying that their workload has quadrupled over the last two years, causing extreme pressure to get through a curriculum that is too full. It also found that class sizes are above the recommended 40-pupil maximum in more than 40% of schools in six provinces.

In addition to overwhelming numbers of children to oversee, lack of self-discipline among the pupils is a major stress for teachers.

The report also cites the impact of impoverished conditions on cognitive, language and nutritional foundations, and notes how teachers are struggling to do not only their own jobs, but the work of parents too.

“We have to train teachers to be able to give children a real sense of possibility in life, to make them feel valued and appreciated.

“This starts first with teachers learning to take charge of their own stress and struggles. In our stress tests that teachers have taken, more than half have come back scoring extremely high in their levels of stress, and we believe consistent mindfulness practice can help reduce this stress.

“Having experienced how hard it is for adults to make significant and sustainable changes in their own lives, we designed the Wise Personal Wellbeing programme to support South African teachers through a powerful process of personal change,” Surya said.

She has been involved in stress-management for more than 20 years and said mindfulness was at the heart of Wise training workshops, and the techniques taught had a proven track record of reducing stress and enhancing performance.

“Through the focus on their own self-care, teachers taking part in the programme report that they have a deeper understanding of children's mindsets and how to support them in improving their own well-being,” she said.

A teacher who took part in the programme said she looked at her pupils through different eyes. “I have a better understanding of them,” she said.

Wise is currently active in schools across the Western Cape, especially in the gang-ridden Cape Flats.

THE MERCURY