Katherine Priore Ghannam wasn’t prepared for the crippling stress she felt during her first year teaching. She developed anxiety around the upcoming school weeks and worried that she’d pass her stress to her students. Those first four months of teaching were pretty tough emotionally. Then Katherine discovered yoga and mindfulness. Yoga made her feel emotionally stronger—and able to continue teaching during that tough first year. It also inspired her to start Headstand, a non-profit that teaches children in public schools how to combat toxic stress through yoga, mindfulness, and character building lessons.
We recently spoke with Katherine about how she learned to handle her stress and why teaching children life skills like mindfulness benefits their lifelong health and happiness. If you’re dealing with anxiety—especially if it’s work-related, Katherine’s story shows that it’s possible to change your thoughts and behaviors through mindfulness and meditation.
Can you talk about the ways the stress of being a first year teacher revealed itself?
It’s not uncommon for teachers to experience a lot of stress during their first year of teaching. Most teachers are young, straight out of grad school, and set up in a system that isn’t particularly nurturing or mindful of the real damage that stress can take during the first year.
For the first four months that I was teaching in a low-income school in Cincinnati, I was typically working 80 hours a week, grading papers all weekend, and hardly earning any money.
I was under-resourced and over-worked, and my stress developed quickly. I started getting headaches, and on numerous Sundays I would vomit because I was so anxious about the upcoming school week.
I saw by the results I was getting in my classroom that the culture I was creating for my students was very positive. But I perceived it to take a lot of work. I felt depleted and extremely anxious in a way that I had never experienced before. It was the first time in my life that hard work didn’t conquer all of the problems I was having in my classroom. I was one of many first-year teachers that had unrealistic ideas about how easy it would be to work in low-income schools to fix the achievement gap. I was blindsided by some of the realities of teaching.
How did you learn to cope with your stress that first year of teaching?
I finally took the advice of my close friend who saw how stressed I was—and took a yoga class.
Yoga completely shifted my perspective. It put a stop to some of the negative self-talk and fear that I was bringing into my classroom.
Stress has a ripple effect in the classroom. Teachers often can’t manage their stress, so when the teacher is triggered by a student, they react to kids in a more negative way. Yoga made me feel like I could go back into the classroom and be stronger with my students.
How did you decide what skills were most important to include in the Headstand curriculum?
When I use the term yoga, I mean all of the mental activities of yoga. Yoga to me is inclusive of mindfulness and character building. The aim with our students in the Headstand program is to help them self-reflect and build character through yoga exercises.
For example—a yoga lesson isn’t about getting the kids to perfect their form—it’s about building perseverance as they connect to their breath in a yoga pose. Perseverance is then what we highlight in the following lesson.
To develop the Headstand program, we took the best of research on yoga, mindfulness, and meditation, and combined that with our own experiences. Then we translated the concepts into a friendly language that kids can understand. The delivery of these concepts is critical, and we borrowed best practices in delivery from teaching instruction models.
How do you currently handle your stress and anxiety?
My process has definitely evolved into one where I try to embody mindfulness more in my daily life. I pause to notice areas of my body sending me signals of stress so that I can prevent or reduce my stress. I also meditate for ten minutes every morning.
Meditation is the easiest place for me to give space to any sort of negative self-talk. It helps me extinguish that voice or give special attention to it.
I would recommend meditating for whatever amount of time you can fit in. It’s had a profound positive impact on my life.
I’m also a big fan of a personal yoga practice at home. I use Yoga Glo—an online yoga studio that has resources for yoga sequences and guided meditations.
How does teaching mindfulness at a young age impact the rest of the students’ lives?
First and foremost, many students in the low-income population we tend to work with have toxic stress. They’re dealing with the everyday stress of living in poverty and the trauma associated with that. They can’t just learn to avoid stressful situations—these environmental factors contribute to stress in their daily lives.
Toxic stress negatively affects people physically and emotionally for their whole lives. Children who experience toxic stress are three times more likely to have heart disease later in life, four and a half times more likely to be depressed, and 12 times more likely to consider suicide in their lifetime.
We looked at the research on the impact of stress next to all the research on yoga and meditation and how they help build emotional resilience. And it led us to believe that mindfulness, yoga, and meditation are direct antidotes to the damage that toxic stress is inflicting on the brain.
Kindness and dealing with negative self-talk are part of the Headstand curriculum. Why is that important for people suffering from stress in general?
Teaching kids how to address negative self-talk is interwoven throughout our entire curriculum. Every time we do meditation or yoga with the children we tell them to notice what thoughts are coming up for them. If it’s negative, we ask them, “Can you catch that thought and say ‘thanks but no thanks’?” This exercise is to help them notice negative self-talk so that they can insert a more positive thought.
If you have a lot of environmental stress, mindfulness can be a very scary experience at first. But it’s a great tool to help you feel calmer. So it’s important to normalize and address that being extra aware of your thoughts can bring up anger or pressure with kids—and they shouldn’t feel like that’s wrong.
Negative self-talk affects adults, too. As we go about our daily lives, we’re constantly interpreting situations and analyzing our performance. That voice inside your head is a pretty harsh judge sometimes and is often completely illogical or exaggerated. By identifying your negative self-talk patterns, you can start to challenge those thoughts and replace them with more positive or realistic ones. Mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) exercises help you get to the root of your self-defeating thoughts, which makes changing them more lasting.
Katherine’s closing words on normalizing stress are important to keep in mind. Some people are just genetically prone to anxiety. And anxiety is a normal thing to experience—it’s our body’s natural response to a perceived threat. But if you’re worrying all day, and even having trouble sleeping because you can’t turn off your worries, then you’ll feel better if you learn healthy ways to decrease and cope with your anxiety. Visit Lantern to take a quiz on your current anxiety level.