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Young teacher sitting at desk doing yoga.

Teacher Burnout Addressed in Research Project Investigating Yoga as an Intervention Strategy

Driven by her compassion for fellow educators, doctoral student and seasoned K-12 teacher and administrator explores whether yoga can work as a proactive intervention strategy to mitigate teacher stress.

Over the last decade, a growing number of public schoolteachers have experienced burnout, and many of them have left the field. Leslie Hillen, an educator with more than 20 years of experience as a K-12 teacher and administrator, is concerned about veteran teachers' well-being. Her research focuses on using yoga to promote wellness in educators.

"There was a time when you could go back to your old elementary school and that teacher was still there from 20 years ago; you could go and hug them. That doesn't happen anymore. There is a lot of turnover, a lot of movement and teaching is no longer a lifetime profession," Hillen said.

As a student in the University of Northern Colorado's Educational Leadership Ed.D. program, her dissertation delves into compassion fatigue or secondary traumatic stress. Though they may not experience trauma directly, after hearing about their students' firsthand trauma, many teachers can develop symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, including flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety.

"As a caregiver, you end up taking it on. And so I value the importance of teachers taking care of themselves and feeling like the care is vital versus something they should do on their own," she said.

In 2018, Hillen became a certified yoga instructor, largely to bring yoga into schools and help teachers benefit from self-care. She teaches a trauma-informed vinyasa style of yoga that incorporates smooth transitions between postures or asanas and pairs movement with breathwork. This safe, gentle approach aims to build confidence and reduce trauma response symptoms.

Hillen's research is unique in that it's a mixed-methods study with a pre-post design incorporating qualitative and quantitative data. The 21 study participants have been teachers in K-12 schools since before COVID. She surveyed participants about their compassion satisfaction, secondary traumatic stress and burnout. Then, she led them through weekly yoga classes, available in person, live on Zoom or via recordings. After six weeks, she gave the teachers a post-assessment survey and interviewed them again.

Leslie Hillen looking forward and smiling.
Leslie Hillen

"I didn't want to just interview teachers about their stress, but also to think about a way to alleviate it, if possible. My goal was to get a more holistic picture of their experience as teachers, learn how participants felt about the research project and whether the yoga classes helped ease their stress," she said.

Her research advisor is Amie Cieminski, an associate professor in the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences' Leadership, Policy, and Development: Educational Leadership and Policy Studies program.

"She was really open minded to me working on this topic. She knows a lot about education, so she could talk about whether the writing would make sense to teachers and where I might define things a little bit better," Hillen said.

Cieminski said while Hillen is very knowledgeable about her topic, her compassion for teachers experiencing stress has driven her to this research area and helped her progress toward its completion.

"Leslie was an English teacher and has strong writing skills. She doesn't need as much feedback in that area, but I work with her on her research design. Moving forward, she'll work on the data analysis, and I'll provide guidance and feedback," she said.

She said there is little research on proactive intervention strategies for alleviating teachers' stress, so Hillen's contribution to the field fills a much-needed gap.

"It may have broader implications across other fields in terms of quality of life when it comes to work. It's not about trying to prove yoga works. What's important is listening to the voices of study participants about their perceptions and experiences with stress and burnout as well as yoga," Cieminski said.

Hillen plans to communicate her results in educational journals, hoping it will serve as a wake-up call for school administrators to recognize teachers' need for support. After graduating with her fourth degree from UNC in December 2024, Hillen anticipates continuing to work with teachers to help them develop wellness practices. She also wants to conduct more research to benefit today's teachers and those who will come into the profession in the future.

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