Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness - Selections
CHAPTER 1: TEACH AS YOU LEARN
“We’re doing spring cleaning up here.” He tapped her forehead with a long finger. “Once you put everything into its proper place—once you organize your mind—you’ll be able to find what you want quickly.”
—Tamora Pierce, Wild Magic
Master teachers are mindful teachers, aware of themselves and attuned to their students. Mindful teaching nurtures a learning community in which students flourish academically, emotionally, and socially—and teachers thrive professionally and personally. Teaching mindfulness directly to students augments the effects of the teacher’s presence by coaching youth to exercise simple, practical, and universal attention skills themselves. These two approaches are mutually reinforcing and benefit everyone in the classroom.
Mindfulness is a conscious, purposeful way of tuning in to what’s happening in and around us. This specific approach to paying attention and honing awareness improves mental focus and academic performance. It also strengthens skills that contribute to emotional balance. The best of our human qualities, including the capacity for kindness, empathy, and compassion, support and are supported by mindfulness. Mindfulness and deep caring contribute to healthy relationships at school and at home. Mindfulness is the means, and deep caring describes the manner.
School-based learning is complex, in part because teachers and students carry individual webs of knowledge, attitudes, skills, and behaviors into an interactive classroom environment. Learning is most effective when teachers initiate the process of weaving these varied webs together. To do so, teachers need to understand their own inner experiences, recognize their students’ needs, and implement appropriate educational strategies. The teacher’s own skills in attention and awareness drive this process; the stronger these skills, the better the outcomes—for everyone.
Attention and awareness are dynamic, and this means that you can sharpen them and enhance them. One of the most powerful ways to do this—for yourself and with your students—is by cultivating mindfulness. The approach involves learning and practicing some brief, simple mental training techniques and teaching methodologies. Once you learn the basics, you can bring mindfulness into your normal routine at home and at school—directly and indirectly.
This book explores two main themes that twine together to apply mindfulness to education. The first concerns the educator’s direct experience of mindful teaching and the related benefits for students. The second, training students to develop mindfulness themselves, addresses the process of introducing specific techniques directly to youth at school, or more broadly, on the playing field; in the context of homeschooling; or during an after-school program, camp, or any other learning environment.
Implicit in these themes is the assumption that training attention and developing awareness of the present moment are appropriate educational activities, whether or not the term “mindfulness” is used. So, the salient question concerns methodology—how can teachers go about applying mindfulness to teaching and implementing developmentally appropriate techniques with their students?
There are multiple responses to this question, and determining which is most likely to suit your situation begins with identifying your specific context. Are you, as an individual teacher, embarking on this initiative in the classroom alone? Or are you one of many teachers, if not an entire school community, implementing mindfulness as part of a formal curriculum? In addition, will you include guest presentations, and if so, will these fill an essential or supplemental role?
The following chapters explore common issues relevant to all three of these sets of circumstances and identify significant topics pertinent to the distinct approaches. You’ll also find sample strategies that promote mindful teaching and teach students about mindfulness directly. In addition, I’ve included a number of scripted instructions for generic mindfulness techniques that you can pick up and immediately use in the classroom. I developed some of these techniques, others are in public circulation in some form or other.
All of these formal techniques and informal activities enrich the conceptual discussion of teaching methodologies and lesson implementation. I encourage you to adopt and adapt any of them to suit your own circumstances and inclinations.
What Mindfulness Does
Mindfulness isn’t a panacea for the world’s problems, but it does provide a practical strategy for working directly with reality. You might not be able to change certain things in your life, at work, or at home, but you can change how you experience those immutable aspects of life, work, and home. And the more present you are to your own life, the more choices you have that influence its unfolding.
With mindfulness, you’re more likely to view a really challenging class as just that, “a really challenging class,” instead of feeling that the experience has somehow ruined your entire day. Purposefully taking a mental step back, in order to notice what happened without immediately engaging with intense emotions and reactions, provides a kind of protection against unconstructive responses and the self-criticism that can slip out and make a hard thing even harder. Even just pausing to take a breath can help you slow down, see a broader perspective and redirect the energy of the situation.
I’ve had moments (as I’m sure have you) when a cascade of little annoyances gathered momentum and I lost it—only to regret my outburst later. Developing mindfulness promotes awareness of the cascade, but from a distance. This way, I have a better chance of working with my assumptions without losing my perspective. Annoyances can be events that don’t have to gain momentum, rather than triggers for more and more difficulty. Mindfully noticing the discrepancy between what I wanted to accomplish and what I actually achieved provides useful information without the distraction of unproductive anger, frustration, or disappointment.
I’ve also known days when one challenging class rattled me to my core and poisoned whatever came next. Even after school, such experiences often lingered—as if the actual class weren’t bad enough, the ongoing mental repercussions were worse. If this has happened to you, then you’ll know exactly how painful and frustrating this feels. It’s easy to torment yourself by questioning your competence as a teacher when a forty-five minute class can cause you to take students’ poor behavior personally and lose your center. Even reflecting, “I should have handled that differently since I’m a professional after all—and I’m the adult in a room full of kids!” doesn’t really provide any practical guidance for the future.
So what’s the answer? Put simply, part of it is all about mindfulness: practice and application, and more practice and yet more application. Practice begins with developing mindfulness in a calm, quiet place, a place where the practice is comparatively easy. Application is about walking into a more challenging situation in real life, like your most difficult class, with increased skills and the confidence to help you stay focused, present, flexible, and available. Should you lose the quality of mindfulness you’ll eventually notice what’s happened. And when you do, you can practice returning your attention to paying attention, and redirect your awareness onto the experience of awareness. As you practice and apply mindfulness, you’ll gain skills that will help you accurately assess challenges and handle them with greater ease.
Having techniques that help you manage your own experiences and emotions is more comfortable than feeling powerless as a result of your emotions and habits or, worse, buffeted about by the changing winds of other people’s behaviors and the environment. It’s a simple fact of life that we cannot change other people to suit our will. Yet you can change your own habits and your relationship to your reactions—but reaching that goal requires effective strategies. Learning mindfulness techniques that support responding rather than reacting allows you to align your emotional patterns and your actions with your current understanding and needs.
Mindful Teaching: You’ve Done It Before
Most likely, you’ve already experienced moments of mindfulness, but perhaps not recognized them as such at the time— or at least not until afterward. Even if you haven’t, the techniques in this book will help you develop that awareness. Considering these examples might prompt the recollection of similar experiences:
- You’re teaching a class when you notice—as if you were witnessing the situation while living it—your students and you are totally focused on the experience of learning.
- You’re listening to someone when you realize you’re totally tuned in to the experience of listening—and you’re not thinking at all about what to say next.
- You consciously hear your tone of voice while speaking and notice how sounds can communicate—without automatically focusing on the meaning of the words.
These are all examples of becoming aware of mindfulness. That realization of “Ooh! I’m being really mindful of this moment!” is not itself the experience of mindfulness. When you’re truly present in the moment, your awareness isn’t split between your experience of presence and your commentary about the experience. Mindfulness precedes the recognition of self-awareness, and the commentary may or may not arise afterward.
Another way to identify mindfulness is by examining mindlessness—the quality of losing your awareness of what’s happening inside and around you. See if you recognize any of these examples from your own experience:
- You react very strongly to a relatively minor issue with a student, and later realize your emotional arousal was due to something else, and had nothing to do with what happened in class.
- You suddenly notice a colleague has been speaking to you for at least fifteen minutes and you’ve missed most (all?) of what she said.
- You gulp down your lunch only to realize you didn’t taste a bite.
Most teachers intuitively know the feeling of being in or out of sync with themselves as well as their students. Or, to put it differently, you probably feel the qualitative difference between mindful and mindless teaching. When you’re really here, your teaching is effective and you feel energized. In contrast, mindless teaching isn’t so effective, and often leads to feeling drained and cranky.
There is also a noticeable difference in students’ performance when they learn mindfully versus when they do schoolwork mindlessly. When students are really there, the classroom is alive with learning and their work shines. When they’re disengaged or distracted, well, the classroom is more likely to be dull or in chaos.
Mind and Brain
Using the mind to know the mind is a uniquely human capacity, as is using the mind to change the brain and thus the body. In this book, I use the term mind to refer to consciousness and the term brain for the organ, located within the skull, that supports consciousness. This is not a strictly scientific distinction, but differentiating between the mind and brain simplifies the discussion considerably.
My high school biology teachers taught that the human brain stops growing after adolescence. My classmates and I didn’t welcome this information. We resisted the idea that our brain’s power would begin to wane once we reached adulthood. Contemporary high school students learn that the connections among the 100+ billion neurons in the brain are “plastic,” and can change throughout a lifetime. Today’s students might take this information for granted, but knowing it’s not all downhill after age 21 helps motivate me to make the effort required to train my mind during adulthood.
Old dogs can learn new tricks. Regular mindfulness practice trains attention, promotes emotional balance, fosters a sense of well-being, and thus leads to physiological and anatomical changes in the brain associated with these experiences. Other changes in the body demonstrate further benefits of ongoing mindfulness practice, including heightened immunity, improved stress-management skills, and reduced exposure to stress hormones. These health-related outcomes are relevant at school, since good health makes teaching easier and more effective. It also promotes learning and successful performance in both students and teachers.
Benefits of Mindfulness
- Improves focus and awareness.
- Increases responsiveness to students’ needs.
- Promotes emotional balance.
- Supports stress management and stress reduction.
- Supports healthy relationships at work and home.
- Enhances classroom climate.
- Supports overall well-being.
- Supports “readiness to learn.”
- Promotes academic performance.
- Strengthens attention and concentration.
- Reduces anxiety before testing.
- Promotes self-reflection and self-calming.
- Improves classroom participation by supporting impulse control.
- Provides tools to reduce stress.
- Enhances social and emotional learning.
- Fosters pro-social behaviors and healthy relationships.
- Supports holistic well-being.
Taking Mindfulness to School
The most common model for taking mindfulness to school relies on an individual teacher—perhaps someone like you— with an interest in the subject. Perhaps you stumbled on a reference to mindfulness while searching for strategies that help students concentrate on their work or calm their minds more effectively. Or maybe you have personal experience with mindfulness and wonder whether this practice could help your students—and, if so, how to teach it to them.
Most teachers start bringing mindfulness to school without the benefit of professional training on the subject. That’s fine and can be effective, but first it’s important to gain familiarity with the experience of mindfulness on your own. As you do so, you’ll naturally bring your heightened attention and awareness into the classroom and teach more mindfully.
This type of personal development supports professional development, and you don’t need administrative approval for mindful teaching so long as the outcomes are consistent with standard practice. Everyone accepts that patience, attentiveness, and responsiveness are desirable, even essential, qualities for teachers. How you cultivate them is secondary as long as you maintain a professional presence at school.
There are other approaches and considerations if you want to teach mindfulness more directly to your students than simply through your own informal modeling. The most comprehensive approach is to use a formal mindfulness curriculum— which might not be practical given the specifics of your class, school, or situation. One potential difficulty with this strategy lies in the paucity of curricula and training programs accessible to individual teachers. Typically, formal curricula are only available to schools and school districts for pedagogical as well as practical reasons such as financial cost. As an individual teacher, you’re also likely to face obstacles related to obtaining administrative approval for a new curriculum, especially when other teachers are satisfied with existing materials.
Fortunately, there are other options better suited for use by an individual teacher. The most promising of these is to integrate discrete and simple mindfulness techniques within your existing curricula or regular schedule. In addition to developing your own familiarity with mindfulness, you’ll also need to find developmentally appropriate techniques for your students or develop them yourself (and this book will set you well on your way to doing this). You can easily introduce short techniques during class, homeroom, or even during the few minutes left before or after you mark attendance, go to lunch, or dismiss your students. More elaborate and time-intensive activities are less flexible, but you can still introduce them as lesson extensions or during special events. Whether you’ll need administrative approval for this type of curricular enhancement is likely to depend on your chosen approach, school policy, and community norms.
Peer support is important—for teachers and students— and teaching mindfulness is easier, and arguably more effective, in schools and school districts where everyone participates. Getting everyone involved in a schoolwide program that incorporates research-based methodologies requires strong administrative support—but schools are also more likely to approve large-scale, demonstrated methodologies. Once adopted, such programs have the greatest potential to impact the overall school culture as well as individual classroom climate.
From the teacher’s perspective, there are other, more immediate, benefits associated with using an approved mindfulness curriculum. Generally, approved curricula are comprehensive and include developmentally appropriate lesson plans with performance measures for students, background information for teachers, and cross-references aligning curricular content with education standard for administrators. All these components facilitate planning, implementation, and evaluation.
Formal curricula typically include a teacher-training component. At a minimum, the training covers the nuts-and-bolts aspects of implementation, addressing issues like how to present each lesson and when to assess whether students are learning. Enhanced training goes further by presenting new curricular content to teachers, providing them with instruction in new skills, and offering opportunities for supervised practice and feedback. While direct interaction with an official trainer is standard practice, other promising options include instructional DVDs and online education, both of which are less expensive and time-intensive.
The third model for bringing mindfulness to school minimizes, if not eliminates, the need for teacher training since guest presenters carry the responsibility for presenting the material. Enhancing classroom-based mindfulness instruction by exposing students to a credible resource from outside the school community is a common, and often very productive, strategy for involving guest presenters. This methodology works best when you prepare students in advance and introduce the presenter in the context of ongoing study, and follow-up later to reinforce their learning.
Another approach involves community-based presenters with a contractual relationship to provide regular school-based instruction in specific subject areas, such as yoga, Tai Chi, or meditation. These guest presenters have special expertise, and fill in for regular teachers with full administrative support.
Yet another option is inviting guest presenters to school for a one-time-only event. As a stand-alone approach, this model has limited long-term impact—it’s difficult to develop mindfulness or understand a basic mindfulness practice within the course of a single lecture. Nonetheless, a special event can work beautifully if classroom teachers support students’ practice afterward and provide reinforcement as the students develop new skills.
The classroom teacher’s role is critical to the success of any approach that takes mindfulness to school. Your presence will inform your students’ experience regardless of whether you take the lead in developing techniques, implementing a curriculum or bringing in a guest presenter. Mindful teaching supports teaching mindfulness.
While you don’t need to have extensive prior experience, the familiarity that comes with a little practice does help by building the confidence needed for teaching mindfulness effectively in the classroom.
Personal Practice: Beginning Now
Gaining experience with mindfulness sets you up to teach authentically within your comfort zone. There’s a huge difference between teaching something “I think ought to be useful” and something “I know, from my own experience, is useful.” You don’t need to have significant expertise—rather, you just need to practice yourself so you have an experiential foundation on which to base your teaching.
The learning sequence for mindfulness is essentially the same one you already use when you teach students other skills, from math to music, or language arts to athletics. Information and instruction come first followed by lots of practice. Over time, the brain becomes familiar with generating mindfulness. With repetition, these skills become more automatic and require less effort.
In the beginning, a few minutes to practice mindfulness can feel like an eternity, so using short sessions is appropriate. Then, as you become more accustomed to the techniques, you might choose to practice longer. It’s good to go at your own speed and see what happens. And just five minutes practice regularly is more useful in the long-run than longer sessions done more sporadically. All you need to do to get started is “Take 5.”
Begin by taking five minutes to sit still, by yourself, in a quiet, comfortable, and private place. Turn off the ringers of your phones, turn off the TV or radio, and put aside your “todo” list. If you’re concerned about how long you’re going to practice, set a timer that has an audible bell or flashing light.
It’s best to sit in a stable position, with your spine as straight as possible, either on a chair without leaning against the back, or cross-legged on a comfortable cushion set on the floor. Place both your hands in your lap or palm-down on your thighs. The idea is to get comfortable without getting caught up in trying to find a position of perfect comfort. And, of course, don’t sit in a way that causes you serious pain—or lulls you to sleep.
Once you’re settled, allow your gaze to soften and gently go out of focus as you keep your eyes slightly open. Look forward and downward at a 45°angle so that your eyelids relax and lower a little. Try to breathe through your nose, and let your lips, mouth, and jaw relax. Now that you’re in position, you can begin the basic breathing practice outlined in the following progression.
Take 5: Mindful Breathing (For Teachers)
- Breathe normally, paying attention to the feeling of the breath as it fills your lungs and then flows up and back out the way it came.
- Notice when you lose awareness of the breath and start thinking about something else, daydreaming, worrying, or snoozing.
- Return your attention to the breath, with kindness toward yourself and as little commentary as possible.
When you first begin mindfulness practice, you’re likely to pay attention to the breath for a few seconds and then lose focus. That’s perfectly natural! You’ll eventually become aware that the focus of your attention moved away from the breath and onto something else. You might feel like you’re becoming even more mindless. All these sensations are normal, and in fact, they signify that the practice is working—you’re noticing what’s really happening. If thoughts about the quality of your practice come (because that’s what thoughts do…), don’t worry about them, just notice them and refocus on watching what’s happening right now.
The essence of this technique is attending to the process (the experience of noticing) without getting caught up in content (what the thoughts are about). First, simply notice thoughts as they first appear on the horizon of your mind. Keep some distance as you watch them and let them fade away. This is the difference between witnessing thoughts and engaging with them. It’s an attitude of, “Oh, here are some thoughts about work (or a relationship or something else), but I’m not going to get into them now.” Be gentle with yourself, and patient, and kind.
As you practice mindfulness, you might start noticing all sorts of changes in your daily life. You might be less reactive, and more likely to pause and breathe when something comes up. You might also notice that pausing for breath facilitates your ability to choose a response that promotes better outcomes for everyone. Amid all of this, you might begin to take pleasure, or find more pleasure, in your mindfulness practice and seek new opportunities during the day in which to Take 5. In addition, you might also notice greater patience and kindness in relationship with your sense of self.
Cultivating mindfulness begins with practicing a simple progression like Mindful Breathing and becoming adept at moving through the three basic phases: (1) committing to practice and doing so; (2) noticing your breath and remembering that you’re noticing it; and (3) refocusing and returning to parctice when you become distracted. Then, as mindfulness becomes more familiar, you’ll focus your attention and extend your awareness more spontaneously while you gain the experience that supports teaching the practice to others.
How to cite this document:
© Deborah Schoeberlein, Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness (Wisdom Publications, 2009)
Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness by Deborah Schoeberlein is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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