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Being Present in Times of Fear and Worry

This is Part 3 of a six-part series on the Five Dimensions of Engaged Teaching.

Part 1 –  A “Compass” for Our Times
Part 2 – Cultivating an Open Heart

Being Present
Since we last wrote, another school shooting has turned the world of educators upside down. This tragedy, which irrevocably changed the lives of everyone in the Parkland, Florida community, could not help but rattle the lives of students, parents and teachers across the nation as we once again confronted the reality that, despite the low probability, a mass shooting might happen in our school too.

How do educators go on in the face of such uncertainty, risk and outright fear?  There are no easy answers.  Of course we must improve school security, threat assessments, and mental and behavioral health supports.  And there is a fierce debate about access to the kinds of weapons used in this latest shooting. But in addition to addressing these essential institutional and systemic issues, we must also attend to the personal capacities that are an equally important part of the needed response to the world we live in.

As educators, how do we cope with worry and fear about our own safety so that we can get up each day and go to work? How do we show up as caring, competent professionals responsible for the learning and well being of all our students?

This month it seems especially timely to re-consider the dimension of Engaged Teaching that we call Being Present which we define as engaging in the ongoing process of bringing attention to the present moment and learning to manage distractions so we can be responsive, aware, focused, and creative in the classroom.

We CAN work with worry and fear in constructive ways that allow us to bring our best selves to our personal and professional lives.  Two important strategies are mindfulness and self-care.

Much of the distress in our lives comes from anticipating negative or dangerous events that might happen in the future and as a result failing to be in the present moment in which those events are not happening.  Such worry not only undermines an accurate assessment and preparation for what might go wrong as well as undermining the enjoyment of life as it is in the present moment.

Mindfulness is a natural human capacity to pay attention to our experience as it is happening in real time. When we intentionally cultivate this capacity through practice we enhance our ability to focus, to regulate our emotions and to extend compassion and kindness to ourselves and others.  When we infuse mindfulness throughout our day we not only reduce our stress and worry, finding better ways to respond to the challenges of life, but we also expand our capacity for joy and wonder.

During non-teaching times throughout the day, instead of checking your phone and email between classes or during lunch or an off period, try taking a mindfulness break using one of these simple strategies:

  • Notice five specific things out your window – clouds, students, a kite, birds, cars –and try to see them with fresh eyes and without telling yourself a story about them.
  • Take three deep, long breaths inhaling in through the nose and out the mouth to help reduce stress hormones in your body.
  • Eat a snack slowly, keeping all your attention on just relaxing and eating.
  • If you have a favorite quote, poem or a piece of writing, take a few moments to re-read it to refresh your sense of inspiration and connection to what’s important now.
  • Take a “five senses” walk outside. Notice what you see, hear, smell, taste and feel. This sensory awareness will help you return to the present moment.


Try the Pause Practice (5 minutes)


We are most susceptible to worry, fear and stress when we are not well resourced.  If we are short of sleep, not getting physical exercise and failing to nourish our bodies with healthy food, we are more vulnerable to misperceiving the world around us and the danger or lack of danger in it.

Equally important as tending to our physical needs, we must also create intentional practices that rejuvenate and renew our inner selves throughout the day and year in order to offset the pace and pressures of teaching. Without this self-care we set ourselves up for exhaustion, frustration, burnout and fear.

Some self-care practices help discharge built up tension – such as physical exercise and the expressive arts.  Other practices help us quiet and calm ourselves and become more awake and alert. Regardless of what we choose, we must be willing to set aside time and energy to refill our own wells.  Saying no to other demands is an essential element of self-care.  Setting these boundaries for personal renewal supports us in truly being present, a caring for our students and being the best educators we can be.  It is NOT selfish.

Here are some suggestions for engaging in self-care and renewal:

  • Take time to celebrate successes and major milestones with family and colleagues.
  • Spend time in nature. Even a five-minute break makes a difference.
  • Take walks and avoid multitasking during this time.
  • Run or garden with the intention of relaxing your mind.
  • Do nothing – sit quietly in silence.
  • Journal, draw, paint or create other visual art.
  • Make music on your own or with others.
  • Engage in a contemplative practice.
  • Read or study inspirational books.
  • Stop work at regular intervals to take even a short break.
  • Attend a retreat program alone or with colleagues.
  • Reflect on your goals and intentions at the start of the day.
  • Take a few minutes at the end of the day to reflect on at least one moment or interaction that went well or for which you are grateful.
  • Acknowledge what is going well in your work and life.

Nourishing ourselves and learning to come back to the present moment increases our capacity for joy and wonder as well as our ability to work more skillfully with whatever life sends our way.  In contrast, contraction into worry and fear robs us of all that is good in our lives as well as our ability to inspire and care for our students.  The choice is ours.

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