Breathing with Fatigue: The Impacts of Covid on New Zealand Teachers and how mindfulness can help


Ask any teacher about wellbeing over the last few years and chances are, they’ll quickly describe the many challenges their learners face: disrupted routines, anxiety about Covid, decreased social interactions, and negative impacts on learning outcomes.

But what about teacher wellbeing?

It’s impossible to separate student wellbeing from teacher wellbeing because schools are communities, and the classroom is a microcosm of the entire education system.

In other words, we know that Covid has negatively affected our tamariki—it has also taken a profound toll on the adults who teach and support them.

A recent summary report on the state of teacher and principal wellbeing in Aotearoa shows that the challenges brought about by Covid have meant that educators must “react quickly and adapt the way they work, innovating to meet the needs of their students and communities” (ERO 2).

In doing so, however, they’ve paid a price:

  • Teachers and principals report a decline in happiness and enjoyment at work.
  • Educators feel less supported and connected than before the pandemic.
  • Younger teachers are struggling more than their older counterparts (under 35-year-olds were more than three times as likely to say they feel unhappiness at work).
  • Educators have heavier workloads in trying to combat learning loss, which adds up to more stress and longer hours in general.1

In short, teachers around New Zealand are fatigued, overwhelmed, and continuing to do their best in the face of burnout. 

Challenges in schools were exacerbated by the arrival of Covid: staff shortages, overwork, the stress of shifting to online learning, Covid illness itself, and student absences. All of these issues combined make teachers’ lives harder. While we cannot always change our outer situation at once, there are some simple techniques that can be helpful for managing our individual inner reactions to things that aren’t in our control.

Here are 5 ways that the intersection of Covid and mindfulness offers rich opportunities to improve how teachers are feeling and faring.

  1. Pause Breathe Smile mindful practices offer an emotional structure to the day.

Just like children, teachers benefit from having patterns or routines in their days. These are moments to slow down, check in, and ground, instead of rushing and reacting.

The mindful activities as laid out in the Pause Breathe Smile programme make it straightforward to build those wellbeing check-ins in throughout the school day and school week, in fun and concrete ways. Things like checking in with the breath and what each person is feeling in their body and relating that to Te Whare Tapa Wha reinforce the importance of wellbeing.

Small doses of mindfulness don’t require lots of time, but they deliver significant benefits. One teacher surveyed shares that “teaching and using mindfulness strategies with the children helps to support my own wellbeing and reminds me daily of how important it is.” Walking along with ākonga as they explore and practice mindfulness truly does support teachers in addition to learners.

While Covid has introduced tumult and difficulties, its arrival has also highlighted conditions that pre-date 2020. The PBS mindfulness-based programme can help support kura in responding to the ever-changing situation by encouraging attention and emotion regulation, kindness, gratitude, and healthy communication, all of which help with wellbeing.

  1. Simple Pause Breathe Smile mindfulness practices support teacher wellbeing as much as learner wellbeing.

As is always true, the things we do and use ourselves are the things we can best teach to others. Using the Pause Breathe Smile approach, teacher wellbeing is supported because teachers are people, too, not just cogs in a machine to improve learning outcomes.

Teacher happiness, job satisfaction, growth, and empowerment are not afterthoughts; they’re centrally important.

The simple core components of that flow through the PBS approach help cultivate and deepen individuals’ awareness of the state of their own wellbeing, and this supports teachers as well as learners. In addition, the PBS approach provides online mindfulness practices that teachers can use themselves in their own lives.

In particular, teachers who are grappling with unhappiness or overwhelm at work can more regularly acknowledge their difficult feelings and name what they’re needing in order to feel better.

As we’ve already acknowledged, mindfulness alone should not be viewed as a panacea because there may be systemic issues in workplaces that compound stress that should be addressed. Therefore, while mindfulness is great for stress management, it should never be used by management as the only approach to tackling stress without consideration of these underlying issues that may be causing stress in the first place.

That being said, it is still useful and effective to provide teachers with the skills and tools to be able to acknowledge and manage difficult emotions. The Pause Breathe Smile approach does this and has been shown to be effective in helping kids and their teachers alike to manage difficult emotions.

In an independent study of PBS done by IHI Research, one participant teacher said, “I’m more engaged and when I look at my tamariki, who are doing Pause, Breathe, Smile … I’m learning as well. I’m more aware about how I am feeling, and we talk about this.”

  1. A focus on emotional regulation, through practices like mindful breathing and mindful movement, support calmer and more connected classrooms. 

The number one thing learners take away from the Pause Breathe Smile approach is the ability to notice, describe, and work with their own inner emotional reactions. Growth in this area naturally leads to lower teacher stress.

When children are better able to see and talk about what they’re feeling—anxious, sad, overwhelmed, distracted, whatever is coming up for them—it makes teachers’ jobs a bit more straightforward, which in turn eases some of the burden teachers bear when the children in their classrooms are dysregulated.

One PBS teacher surveyed said that they’ve noticed their learners “demonstrating better strategies to deal with anxiety, frustration.” Their classrooms “feel calmer, more relaxed,” and “students feel a calmness after whole school morning PBS sessions.”


  1. Mindfulness is going more mainstream.

Because we’re having more direct conversations about mental health, our emotions, our needs, and the challenges we’re facing, mindfulness as an approach is seen as less fringe.

This new emphasis on wellbeing, “particularly social, spiritual and mental wellbeing is noticeable… [and] It is becoming a part of the kaupapa and therefore fast becoming normalised,” says another PBS teacher.

Mindfulness isn’t ‘content’ to be delivered; it’s something we practice and do over and over again, and schools are a logical place for Kiwi kids to develop mindfulness. Using Pause Breathe Smile’s mindfulness-based intervention is a practical, everyday way to encourage that focus in the classroom and for ourselves as teachers, parents, and school administrators.

    1. The arrival of Covid and its accompanying disruptions have highlighted as never before the vital centrality of considering and supporting wellbeing.

The stress of the last few years has finally brought to the forefront of our attention how incredibly important wellbeing is.

While of course standard ‘academic’ content is still important, schools at large are finally facing the mental health challenges that many individuals have long been facing on their own.

By considering our own wellbeing and the wellbeing needs of those around us, we are having a new conversation, one that is overdue.

This shift in priorities is reflected in a Pause Breathe Smile trained teacher who said, “Due to covid, mental wellbeing is being talked about and we have been given permission to engage with and prioritize these topics.” The arrival of Covid disruptions has pushed considerations of mental health and wellbeing to the forefront, finally.