Meet Debbie Rice, a specialist in autistic education in the Cambrian School District, San Jose, CA. A master teacher, Debbie believes that her students are “talented unique thinkers who can and will contribute to our world and anyone who knows them in positive ways.”
In a funny way, panic attacks saved me and my career.
I have always been an energized person, even driven. But I never really felt like the driver. Until my panic attacks started, I certainly wouldn’t have labeled myself with general anxiety disorder. Always busy, seldom quiet, I pushed through my adult life. That was my normal.
Being a special ed teacher is infamously demanding which added to my stress levels. I knew special ed teachers left education because of burnout, more than any other sector of educators. As my anxiety became more severe, I was prescribed medications—a lot of them. They helped me find some relief, so I was able to continue teaching but I didn’t want to be dependent on medications.
You may have heard someone say that teachers are “the weather in the class.” My efforts to heal started a wonderful rainstorm of change in my classroom. Experimenting for myself with a hand-held biofeedback device called “Emwaves,” I realized my anxious students with autism could benefit as well.
The tool displays color and light that are associated with students’ physical states. The visual stimulation holds the children’s attention and provides real time information about their ability to self-regulate by soothing themselves. They can see and hear their efforts, noticing how “calm” feels. We learn to communicate about feelings and sensations as I point to the color and light created by their biofeedback. The “Emwaves” become their anchors, enabling them to practice self-awareness. The classroom climate changes as we practice daily.
I was down to only four medications when I began meditating alone on a regular basis, following my breath and my instincts. After hearing an inspiring speech by Megan Cowan, Co-Founder and Program Director of Mindful Schools, I enrolled immediately in Mindfulness Fundamentals and Mindful Educator Essentials.
The prospect of taking the Year-Long Certification Program, with two retreats, terrified me, but I was determined to apply. The program was rich with learning, and slowly, a calmer space grew within me. I learned to sense what hooked me and threw me into anxiety. My anxiety continued to whirl on top of painful beliefs and anxious thoughts, but now, in a bigger “space,” I could sense the edges of my anxiety rather than be completely consumed by it. I could be with the chaos but not react to it. With the help of the teachers, I sat through storms of pain, cultivating the new skill of kindness towards myself.
Practicing mindfulness translated slowly, organically into my classroom. I was noticing, responding, and teaching while being taught. Leaving behind my anxious beliefs, holding space for the children, slowing down and letting go—these practices were interwoven. Everything was connected. This year, I was not “crawling to the last day” as I had for so many years before.
Today I am off more medications—down to just one. The support of the Year-Long teaching team and my amazing cohort of peers inspires me to keep sitting day after day. The students and their parents notice how much has changed as well. We are grateful for one another. And I am anything but burnt out.