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The University of Rochester launched a training program and research study for faculty member mindfulness in January, promoting self-care, stress relief and wellness so professors can put their best foot forward in the classroom.

In seven workshops, professors learn to be attentive to their own and students’ needs, engage in purposeful communication, and become mindful leaders.

What’s the need: The COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on students’ mental health, which in turn impacted the work of faculty members. A 2020 Healthy Minds Network study found 80 percent of faculty and staff had at least one one-on-one video or phone conversation with a student in the past 12 months regarding their mental health. Only 30 percent of respondents, however, had received training on how to support student mental health.

“High stress levels and anxiety can hamper development of relationships and rapport with students and make it difficult for faculty and staff to provide academic and social supports for students, especially with diverse student populations,” says Rebecca Block, director of Rochester’s Mindful University Project.

While there are some national programs around supporting campus community mental health as first aid, support systems for faculty members to both hold these conversations with students and to protect their own well-being remain lacking.

Based on her research, Block has found mindful educators promote higher levels of engagement in their classrooms, both in themselves and in their students. The mindful professor is one who can be attuned to student needs and build trust with students.

“Presence-based faculty are consistently self-aware, manage emotions under pressure with poise and confidence, understand the people they teach, recognize their impact on others, as well as lead with empathy and compassion,” Block says.

As a secondary bonus, a mindful professor who demonstrates calm and focus can be contagious in the classroom, creating an optimal learning environment for everyone.

What it is: The faculty participants attend seven Zoom workshops, engaging with wellness content material. Sessions are hosted live and also pre-recorded for participants to attend asynchronously.

The workshops run for 60 minutes and normally include half teaching and half participant engagement.

Over the seven sessions, professors first learn about the three tenets of presence-based leadership: focused attention, open awareness and kind intention. The fourth session covers how to combine the three tenets.

For the final three sessions, the Mindful Professor Training Program teaches how to create a contemplative classroom: incorporating mindfulness into classroom settings, addressing distress in themselves and others, and creating presence-based conversations with students and colleagues.

Outside of the workshop setting, Block and her colleagues also host practice groups in which students, faculty and staff can practice mindfulness exercises and meditation in addition to sharing with their community about their mindfulness journey.

Faculty members from each of Rochester’s schools are participating in the training, with around 40 professors divided into two cohorts.

Making mindfulness accessible: The Mindful Professor Training Program looks to accommodate professors in making mindfulness learning accessible.

The workshops were intended to be 90 minutes, but after recognizing the time constraints on faculty, the sessions were shortened to 60 minutes, Block says.

Convincing faculty members that mindfulness is important is a challenge, especially given the many responsibilities a professor holds. But when presented with the data and the understanding that this work can directly benefit students, faculty members engage and become invested, Block says.

“This going to be something that will help them actually decrease the time needed for a lot of things, especially supporting students, because when you don’t have your own internal resources, it’s really hard to support others,” Block adds.

What’s under examination: Researchers at Rochester are conducting a study of the Mindful Professor Training Program to evaluate its outcomes.

The yearlong, mixed-methods research study will evaluate professors’ self-compassion, mindfulness, stress, compassion fatigue, comfort and confidence with supporting students using surveys before and after. The surveys will also gauge the professors’ learning to measure the efficiency of the program.

“We are hoping that the data gathered from the pilot study will provide us with support in offering this as an ongoing program to increase our professorial reach and one day engage with staff members as well at the college,” Block says. Efficacy data from the study is anticipated by the end of this year.

Do you have a wellness tip that might help others encourage student success? Tell us about it.

This article has been updated to correct the delivery modality of the workshops. 

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