About Janna Miller & Chris Brownson

Janna Miller was a 2007 corps member in the Mississippi Delta region. She taught 4th grade during her two years in the corps and then stayed in Mississippi a third year and taught 5th grade ELA. Before joining Teach For America, she majored in psychology. After teaching, she joined the doctoral program in Counseling Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Chris Brownson is a former corps member (LA '93) and a licensed psychologist. After his two years teaching, he promptly returned to his alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, to pursue graduate work in counseling psychology. He received my Ph.D. in 2001 and is now a licensed psychologist in the State of Texas, the director of the University of Texas Counseling & Mental Health Center, and the National Mental Health Consultant for TFA.

Three Questions to Ask Yourself at the End of the School Year

Three Questions to Ask Yourself at the End of the School Year

It can sometimes be tempting, as the school year wraps up, to simply push through, finish your remaining tasks, and head into summer. We can all relate to counting down the days—but it’s important to take a little time to reflect as the year ends. Endings are a good time to assess how an experience has gone for you, so that you can synthesize the many things you’ve learned, gain closure, and set goals for the future. Below are a few questions you might consider as you wind down the school year.

  1. What are you proud of this year? Try to think of at least three things you feel have gone particularly well this year. These things may be related to your job as a teacher (you finally got through to a particular student or you saw your student’s test scores increase in a particular area). Also think about things that went well outside of work (you developed strong friendships or you explored your community and took advantage of some of the things it has to offer).

Think outside the box. While it is easy to focus on our jobs, there are many areas in our lives that we develop over the course of a year.

  1. How did you do with self-care? By this time, our mantra about self-care is likely beginning to sound like a broken record, but we’re willing to bet if you look back on the past year, you can find times when taking care of yourself took a hit. You can use time during summer to reflect on how lapses in self-care influenced your quality of life, and think about strategies going forward to ensure that it’s is a priority for you.

Perhaps you could use this summer to kick-start a regular exercise regimen. Or spend some time learning to cook fast, healthy meals or pick up a new hobby. Whatever it is, balancing work with self-care will improve your effectiveness as a teacher, and you’ll just plain feel better.

  1. Did you spend time doing what you value? What do you value most? Take some time to think about this. You might value friendships, family, being a great teacher, your physical health. Now think back to how you spent your time over the past year. Did you spend all your time worrying about lessons, grading, surfing Facebook, watching TV, hanging with friends? How much of your time did you actually spending doing the things you value?

If there’s a gap between what you actually did with your time and what you value, reflect on why that is and ways that you can increase the time you spend on what you value. Shifting how you spend your time, or finding ways to use your time more efficiently, may be needed. This may also involve prioritizing some things you value over others (e.g., finding time to spend with friends instead of reaching perfection on all your lesson plans).

As you evaluate how your year went and how you can improve over the next year, it might end up having an impact on your teaching effectiveness. Happy teachers make effective teachers. Have a great summer!

Photo credit: Flickr
By |May 27th, 2015|General Pop, Your Best Self|Comments Off on Three Questions to Ask Yourself at the End of the School Year|

How to Boost Your Mental Health and Well-Being This Summer

red outdoor sun umbrellas

With just a few weeks left in the school year, and summer plans in the works, we thought it was a great time to revisit some advice from TeacherPop’s mental health expert, Janna Miller. See how she recommends boosting your mental well-being during the next few months.

Rejuvenate this summer. You deserve a break! How will you provide yourself with the time and activities needed to recharge? When I was a teacher, summer break was crucial for maintaining my mental health. I allowed myself to spend at least a month not thinking about teaching at all. I took trips to visit old friends, spent time with my family, and indulged a bit by doing things like getting massages. Taking a break from the things I had been so immersed in for the previous 10 months gave me the chance not only to get much-needed rest and relaxation, but also to gain perspective on my experience.

Consider what you learned this year. When we have the chance to step back from an experience, we are often in a better place to reflect on things. For instance, how did you do with self-care this school year? What activities or strategies did you find most rejuvenating? If you didn’t do well with self-care, consider how to make time for it next year. Use this summer to kick start a regular exercise regimen or spend time learning to cook fast, healthy meals. Or pick up a new hobby. Whatever it is, balancing work with self-care will improve your effectiveness as a teacher—and you’ll feel better, too!

Reflect on your values and goals. Another thing that can be easier when we gain some distance from an experience is assessing the higher-level goals we are working toward. Get back in touch with your passion for what you are doing and your motivation to pursue teaching. Perhaps the experiences you’ve had this school year have resulted in new ideas about your goals for the future. How will you use your experiences this year to help you meet your goals as you enter another year?

Take pride in your accomplishment. You just completed an entire school year! You’ve put forth so much time, energy, and hard work. Take some time to acknowledge this victory. You deserve time to relax and reflect this summer.

For more other ways to spend your upcoming break, visit our Summer Bucket List for Teachers.

By |May 13th, 2015|General Pop, Your Best Self|Comments Off on How to Boost Your Mental Health and Well-Being This Summer|

How to Practice Mindfulness in Your Life

How to Practice Mindfulness in Your LifeThis is the third in a series of three posts devoted to the topic of mindfulness. Read parts I and II here.

As we’ve discussed in the previous two posts, mindfulness is purposefully paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgmental way. Essentially, it is a skill to train your mind to focus on the present moment, rather than fixating on the past or the future. Mindfulness helps you build awareness about your thoughts, feelings, and emotions, a process that generates mental and physical benefits.

But mindfulness takes practice, and it can be hard to know how to start. One of the best ways to begin is to use guided meditations that take you through various steps of focusing on the present moment. There are tons of free, guided meditations online. Here’s a video with a basic beginning instruction for mindfulness meditation as well as some additional resources for guided meditation:

As you’ll notice in these examples, the breath is often the first object of focus taught to beginning meditators because we always have our breath with us. But you can use any number of focal points to make contact with the here and now: physical sensations (what you’re seeing, hearing, touching), an activity (eating, brushing your teeth, writing), talking and listening, and so on. One of the most powerful things about mindfulness is that it can be practiced at any time—even during normal, everyday activities such as eating and walking. So mindfulness doesn’t have to be all-consuming. It is a tool for stepping back, in the midst of our everyday stressors, and being fully present for even a short period of time. This practice can go a long way to help you reset and meet the many demands made of you each day.

If you’re interested in learning more about mindfulness, there are many books, blogs, and other resources to explore. To start: watch this brief video of Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer in bringing mindfulness to the West, talking about the idea of accepting things as they are, and read Psychology Today’s article on the essential qualities to cultivate mindfulness.

Photo credit: Flickr
By |April 28th, 2015|General Pop, Your Best Self|Comments Off on How to Practice Mindfulness in Your Life|

12 Reasons to Practice Mindfulness 

12 reasons to practice mindfulness

This is the second in a series of three posts devoted to the topic of mindfulness. Read part I here.

In my last post, I defined the concept of mindfulness. In short, mindfulness is the nonjudgmental acceptance of experiences in the present moment. The practice of mindfulness has gained a lot of attention, and research has found that mindfulness leads to a plethora of benefits. Below is a list of many of these benefits along with links to find out more about each.

It lowers stress…literally. Research published in the journal Health Psychology shows that mindfulness is not only associated with feeling less stressed, it’s also linked with decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

It lets us get to know our true selves. Mindfulness can help us see beyond those rose-colored glasses when we need to really objectively analyze ourselves. A study shows that mindfulness can help us conquer common “blind spots,” which can amplify or diminish our own flaws beyond reality.

It changes the brain in a protective way. University of Oregon researchers found that integrative body-mind training, which is a meditation technique, can actually result in brain changes that may be protective against mental illness. The meditation practice was linked with increased signaling connections in the brain, something called axonal density, as well as increased protective tissue (myelin) around the axons in the brain.

It works as the brain’s “volume knob.” Ever wondered why mindfulness meditation can make you feel more focused and zen? It’s because it helps the brain to have better control over processing pain and emotions, specifically through the control of cortical alpha rhythms, which play a role in what senses our minds are attentive to, according to a study in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

It makes music sound better. Mindfulness meditation improves our focused engagement in music, helping us to truly enjoy and experience what we’re listening to, according to a study in the journal Psychology of Music.

It helps us even when we’re not actively practicing it. You don’t have to actually be meditating for it to still benefit your brain’s emotional processing. That’s the finding of a study that shows that the amygdala brain region’s response to emotional stimuli is changed by meditation, and this effect occurs even when a person isn’t actively meditating.

It has four elements that help us in different ways. The health benefits of mindfulness can be boiled down to four elements, according to Perspectives on Psychological Science: body awareness, self-awareness, regulation of emotion, and regulation of attention.

It makes you a better person. Sure, we love all the things meditation does for us. But it could also benefit people we interact with, by making us more compassionate. Researchers from Northeastern and Harvard universities found that meditation is linked with more virtuous, “do-good” behavior.

It could make your health care bill a little lower. Not only will your health benefit from mindfulness meditation training, but your wallet might, too. Research in the American Journal of Health Promotion shows that practicing Transcendental Meditation is linked with lower yearly doctor costs, compared with people who don’t practice the meditation technique.

It comes in handy during cold season. Aside from practicing good hygiene, mindfulness meditation and exercise could lessen the nasty effects of colds. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Health found that people who engage in the practices miss fewer days of work from acute respiratory infections, and also experience a shortened duration and severity of symptoms.

It supports your weight-loss goals. Trying to shed a few pounds to get to a healthier weight? Mindfulness could be your best friend, according to a survey of psychologists conducted by Consumer Reports and the American Psychological Association. Mindfulness training was considered an “excellent” or “good” strategy for weight loss by seven out of 10 psychologists in the survey.

It helps you sleep better. We saved the best for last! A University of Utah study found that mindfulness training can not only help us better control our emotions and moods, but it can also help us sleep better at night. “People who reported higher levels of mindfulness described better control over their emotions and behaviors during the day. In addition, higher mindfulness was associated with lower activation at bedtime, which could have benefits for sleep quality and future ability to manage stress,” study researcher Holly Rau said in a statement.

Wondering how you can realistically practice mindfulness in your life? Stay tuned to TeacherPop for the third post in the series.

Photo credit: Flickr

What’s the Big Deal About Mindfulness?

what is mindfulness?This will be the first in a series of three posts devoted to the topic of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a word that gets thrown around a lot in our society. But in spite of the growing attention given to mindfulness, many of us are still left wondering what this word exactly means. If we were asked to define it, many of us would be stumped.

First things first—what exactly is mindfulness? Mindfulness can be defined as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.” The idea here is that life unfolds in the present, but too often we let the present slip away because we spend our time thinking about the future or ruminating about the past. We engage in a sort of “the grass is always greener” mentality: when we are at work, we fantasize about being on vacation. When we’re on vacation, we stress about the work piling up back home. We aren’t able to appreciate the present moment because our minds get carried away with our thoughts about other things. One of the founders of mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn explained, “ordinary thoughts course through our mind like a deafening waterfall.”

In order to feel more in control of our minds and our lives, we need to quiet this waterfall. This involves pausing and resting in stillness, focusing on just being. This is the essence of mindfulness—living in the moment, engaging in a state of active, open, intentional attention to the present. When you are mindful, you realize that you are not your thoughts; rather, you are an observer of your thoughts. Mindfulness involves being with your thoughts as they are, neither grasping at them nor pushing them away.

I know this concept can be a difficult one to grasp, but I encourage you to stay tuned for the next two posts as I think they will provide further clarification. In these posts, I’ll address the host of benefits associated with practicing mindfulness and will address how we can actually practice mindfulness in our daily lives.

To read more posts about mental health and wellbeing, please visit Your Best Self

Photo credit: Flickr

How Mental Health Needs Vary for Teachers and Students

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This week, in conjunction with the launch of the Change Direction campaign for mental health awareness, TeacherPop’s wellbeing expert, Janna Miller, is addressing mental health in our schools. Today’s final post, part V in the series, considers the different mental health needs and means of expression for students and teachers. Read part Ipart II, part III, and part IV. And please keep the conversation going by making a pledge to know the signs of suffering and share your commitment using the hashtag #ChangeMentalHealth.

In my recent posts, I addressed ways we can recognize if someone is struggling with a mental health concern. We’ve talked about signs that may indicate suffering in students and also the five signs of suffering that apply more generally to both adults and children. In this post, I want to talk a bit about some differences that may occur in the way that students demonstrate suffering as compared to adults. It is important to note that every individual is different, so these ideas won’t apply to all cases. Nevertheless, there are some patterns worth noting so you can be in the best position to respond to both students and teachers.

The main difference between the ways that children and adults may demonstrate struggling with mental health issues is that children are more likely to act-out while adults may be more prone to act-in. The outward behaviors of students are often the first signal  they are suffering. This may look like behavioral disturbances, tantrums, crying spells (see my previous post, Mental Health Needs of Students, for more details). Children don’t always have words to give to their feelings; therefore, they act them out.

While adults also show their struggles through behaviors (e.g. risky behavior, change in normal hygiene), they are also much more prone to hiding their suffering by acting inward. This can involve a constant loop of critical self-talk and feelings of hopelessness and guilt. At times, we may not know the extent of an individual’s suffering until we talk with them and hear some of their thoughts and feelings.

Again, it is important to note that both adults and children act both inwardly and outwardly. However, if we are aware of the trends showing that children do more acting out and adults do more acting in, we can modify our responses and our offers to help. In terms of children, if you start to notice behavioral changes, you may want to talk with other important people in the child’s life to gain further support for your observations. You may talk with these individuals about the meaning behind these behaviors and determine whether they are in fact out of the norm for the child.

In terms of adults, it may be worth talking directly with the person you are concerned about in order to get a better sense of their “internal world.” You might simply share that you are concerned and ask  if there is anything you can do. This conversation may clue you in to important factors influencing the person, things that he or she may not have been showing or giving voice to.

Helping others may take more than one offer, and it may involve reaching out to others who share your concern for the individual who is suffering. You can play an important role in this person’s life by helping get the resources your friend or colleague needs.

Please help create a culture in which mental health optimization is valued. Start by making a pledge to #ChangeMentalHealth.

By |March 10th, 2015|General Pop, Your Best Self|Comments Off on How Mental Health Needs Vary for Teachers and Students|

Six Tips for Finding a Mental Health Professional

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This week, in conjunction with the launch of the Change Direction campaign for mental health awareness, TeacherPop’s wellbeing expert, Janna Miller, is addressing mental health in our schools. Today’s post, part IV in the series, outlines six tips for finding a mental health professional. Read part Ipart II, and part III.

In my last post, I discussed the five signs of suffering, or signals that someone you know might be struggling with a mental health concern. Either way, these signs can be an important indication that you or someone in your life could benefit from the help of a mental health professional. Unfortunately, finding a mental health professional can be a difficult process if you aren’t sure what to look for. Below are six tips to help you navigate this process either for yourself or someone else.

1. Finding a good therapist is a bit like buying a new car: you want to find one that meets your needs, it probably requires a little research, and taking it for a test drive and kicking the tires is probably a good idea, too.

2. Gather a list of possible providers and determine who is covered by your insurance carrier, perhaps by visiting your insurance’s website and searching mental health benefits. Word of mouth is a great way to find a good provider, and it is definitely appropriate to ask around if any of your friends or colleagues know of any good therapists. Finally, you can visit Psychology Today’s website to search for providers in your area. Once you generate a list, consider doing some research to learn more about the provider.

3. Ensure the person you’re seeing is licensed by the state, and has met the minimum standards in their field. One way to find out is to search for the provider on your state’s licensing board for physicians, psychologists, and licensed therapists.

4. Your primary care provider may be able to prescribe medication for mental health concerns if you have uncomplicated depression or anxiety issues. However, for more complex mental health concerns, such as suicidal thinking or multiple mental health issues, or for help determining which diagnosis best fits your situation, a psychiatrist should definitely be consulted. If you aren’t sure, you can always ask your primary care provider.

5. Choose which type of professional (psychiatrist, psychologist, licensed social worker) based on whether you would like to be evaluated for medication versus talk therapy to explore concerns and/or learn new strategies for coping and addressing mental health symptoms. Keep in mind that the degree the person holds is often much less important than the individual, so go with someone with whom you feel comfortable. The most important thing is that you engage the process of getting help.

6. Your first session with a counselor or therapist can be used to get to know your provider and determine if you think his or her working style will be a good fit with your needs. It is perfectly appropriate to enter into a first therapy session with some skepticism, not knowing if it is something that you want to do. A lot of people feel that way. Just going once doesn’t commit you, and it is OK, just like buying a car, to kick the tires and take it for a test drive. Don’t be afraid to ask them questions such as “what is your view on how psychotherapy works” or “what is a typical psychotherapy session like with you?”

If you have any additional questions about the process, please feel free to reach out to me at jannavmiller@gmail.com.

Please help create a culture in which mental health optimization is valued. Start by making a pledge to know the signs of suffering and share your commitment using the hashtag #ChangeMentalHealth.

By |March 9th, 2015|General Pop, Your Best Self|Comments Off on Six Tips for Finding a Mental Health Professional|

Five Signs of Suffering

14363815694_fcbc234525_bThis week, in conjunction with the launch of the Change Direction campaign for mental health awareness, TeacherPop’s wellbeing expert, Janna Miller, is addressing mental health in our schools. Today’s post, part III in the series, discusses the five signs of suffering, how to recognize if someone is experiencing emotional pain, and what you can do to help. Read part I and part II here.

The statistics are staggering: One in five Americans (42.5 million), according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has a diagnosable mental health condition. More Americans are expected to die this year by suicide than in car accidents. Yet, while many are comfortable acknowledging publicly our physical suffering, for which we almost always seek help, many more privately experience mental suffering for which we almost never reach out.

This begs a very important question: how can we change these trends? I want to suggest two important things each individual can do to help change the stigma and problems surrounding mental health. Let’s start by addressing how you might recognize that someone is experiencing emotional pain and needs help. Here are the five signs of suffering:

1. Their personality changes. You may notice sudden or gradual changes in the way that someone typically behaves. He or she may behave in ways that don’t seem to fit the person’s values, or the person may just seem different.

 Example: A teacher that is usually a very hard worker may start to neglect or ignore his or her responsibilities.  The individual may come to school unprepared for the day and without a plan.

2. They seem uncharacteristically angry, anxious, agitated, or moody. You may notice the person has more frequent problems controlling his or her temper and   seems irritable or unable to calm down. People in more extreme situations of this kind may be unable to sleep or may explode in anger at a minor problem.

 Example: A teacher is crying more than usual in response to minor mishaps at school. They realize that things  that they are usually able to recover from quickly, stay on their minds, and cause more significant emotional  reactions.

 3. They withdraw or isolate themselves from other people. Someone who used to be socially engaged may pull away from family and friends and fail to make it to work or school. Not to be confused with the behavior of someone who is more introverted, this sign is marked by a change in someone’s typical sociability.

Example: Your roommate usually talks with her family about once a week to check in. Recently, you have noticed that she ignores her family’s calls and goes weeks without talking with them. In addition, your roommate has stopped running, an activity she used to really enjoy and find relief in.

4. They stop taking care of themselves and may engage in risky behavior. You may notice a change in the person’s level of personal care or an act of poor judgment on his or her part. For instance, someone may let his or her personal hygiene deteriorate, or the person may start abusing illicit substances and engaging in other self-destructive behaviors.

Example: You notice your roommate is going out on the weekends and drinking to the point of significant intoxication. You often feel the need to check on her throughout the night to make sure she is physically safe.

5. They seem overcome with hopelessness and overwhelmed by their circumstances. You may notice that someone who used to be optimistic now can’t find anything about which to be hopeful. People in this situation may believe the world would be better off without them—suggesting suicidal thinking.

 Example: Your roommate says to you, “Sometimes I feel like things would be so much easier if I just wasn’t  here.”

If you recognize that someone in your life is suffering, what can you do? You connect, reach out, and offer help. Show compassion, caring, and a willingness to find a solution when the person may not have the will or drive to help him- or herself.

In my next post, I will talk about how to find a mental health professional, and provide additional guidance as you seek to connect your friend or family member with the necessary resources.

If everyone is more open and honest about mental health, we can prevent pain and suffering, and those in need will get the help they deserve.

Please help create a culture in which mental health optimization is valued. Start by making a pledge to know the signs of suffering and share your commitment using the hashtag #ChangeMentalHealth.

By |March 6th, 2015|General Pop, Your Best Self|Comments Off on Five Signs of Suffering|