Teacher, smiling, sits at table with two students, while they work on a craft with glue.

$8M Grant Will Expand Program for Reducing Teacher Stress

A mindfulness-based professional learning program co-created by UVA professor Tish Jennings has been shown to improve teacher well-being and student outcomes.

Audrey Breen

Teaching is a stressful job, but a University of Virginia program is making a difference for educators both in and out of the classroom.

Now, with an $8 million U.S. Department of Education grant, UVA researchers will expand the program into four Virginia school divisions and one in Kentucky. 

“Research has shown that a classroom can sometimes be as stress-inducing as an emergency room,” said education professor Patricia “Tish” Jennings, an expert on teacher stress and mindfulness in UVA’s School of Education and Human Development. “And high levels of stress have a profound impact on both the teacher and students.”

For more than 15 years, Jennings has studied the impacts of a program called Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education, or CARE, a mindfulness-based professional development program for teachers she co-created with colleagues from the New York-based Garrison Institute.

This month, Jennings and her team received the $8 million grant, one of only three awarded, to expand on the promising results of a study that showed gains in both teacher well-being and student outcomes. Jennings and her colleagues named the study Project ENGAGE, in response to national priorities to support student engagement and promote educator retention.

With an emphasis on mindfulness, the CARE program offers a series of workshops focused on helping teachers develop self-regulation skills, compassion, empathy, and non-judgmental awareness. 

Early studies show CARE reduces teacher stress, improves emotion regulation, and improves the quality of their classrooms. In a study published in October, Jennings and her team found teachers reported higher levels of student engagement and motivation for learning, as well as improved reading competence. 

“Our research shows that taking care of the teachers results in their students doing better,” said Jennings, who works in partnership with the UVA Center for Contemplative Sciences. “The CARE program is solely focused on building teachers’ social and emotional capacities to improve their work performance, not to actually teach anything differently. Giving teachers the skills they need to cope with their challenging work environment makes a positive impact on their students.”

With the new funding, Jennings’ team and partner organizations, American Institutes for Research and CREATE, will scale and test the CARE program in the five school divisions. 

“In our original study, we asked teachers to share about what they saw in their students, which is important,” she said. “In this study, we are excited for the opportunity for students to report what they’re learning themselves.”

The team will also integrate into the study school-based data on topics like school climate. They are also collecting data on teachers’ work satisfaction and whether they are more likely to remain in the profession after participating in the CARE program.

Jennings’ recent work has focused on ways the benefits of mindfulness can extend beyond classrooms to entire schools or even school systems. This project provides the resources to train division personnel to become CARE facilitators themselves.

“We want to build the internal capacity to provide support for teachers once the grant period is over,” said Jennings.

One of the school divisions partnering with Jennings and her team is the Charlottesville City Schools. 

“We have experienced the benefits of working alongside Dr. Jennings to implement mindfulness practices at two of our elementary schools,” said Rachel Rasnake, director of student services at Charlottesville City Schools. “We are excited for the opportunity to expand CARE and mindfulness to more teachers and observe the impact that it has on student learning. We anticipate that this collaboration will support us in recruiting and retaining teachers and student services staff.”

Knowing the impact this work can have, Jennings also believes it can benefit more than those in schools and school divisions.

“The ramifications of this work extend beyond education,” Jennings added. “Fostering adult developmental processes to manage stress can enhance workplace environments and service delivery across various sectors.”

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Audrey Breen