It is 7:50 a.m., and the 29 students in my first-period English class are slowly making their way into the classroom. There is lively chatter, laughter, hurried sips of coffee, and, of course, cell phones attached to the hands of almost every student. When the bell rings and attendance is taken, though, this animated group of 12th graders reluctantly put their phones away, wait for a short prompt from me, and then do something unlikely. They meditate.
The room of spirited and sometimes raucous students gets so still, so quiet, that you could literally hear a pin drop.
The practice only takes a couple of minutes and instantly changes the tenor of my classroom. At the very least, it is a positive way to get students ready to start class. At best, it is a game-changing practice that has the power to assuage student anxiety, improve focus and awareness, and cultivate emotional regulation and empathy.
The benefits are not only for the students; it is a simple but powerful tool for teachers to counter their own stress, be more present in the work, and reclaim the deep joy of teaching.
What does meditation actually look like in a high school classroom? How do you introduce it to your students? How do you get buy-in? How do you have time?
For many educators, the emphasis on standardized test scores, data-driven instruction, and accountability protocols is overwhelming and disheartening. In The Mindful Teacher, researchers Dennis Shirley and Elizabeth MacDonald term this condition “alienated teaching,” or the kind of teaching performed by teachers when they feel they must comply with external mandates that they have not chosen and which they inwardly oppose because the mandates do not serve their students.
Mindful teaching can help teachers counteract the effects of alienated teaching and recover the integrity and efficacy of their own practice. There is no single program to be purchased or a recipe to be followed, but there are a number of effective models.
The short daily meditation described here is one tangible element in this deep belief in the power of mindful teaching. For meditation to be effective in the classroom, educators should believe that slowing down to breathe and reflect can improve teaching and learning conditions.
Create a Plan
Find your voice. After reading about how teachers practice meditation in their classrooms, watch a video of a teacher leading a meditation or, if possible, observe a teacher leading a classroom meditation. Then, create a simple prompt that is consistent with your teaching voice.
Over the past 10 years, I have experimented with language and tone for my prompt, striving always to be true to my own teaching style. I have found that confidence, consistency, and brevity are extremely important. My own prompt is simple and brief:
“Hi class. I hope everyone is doing great this morning. Are you ready for our meditation?” (Short pause.) “Now, everyone, please find a comfortable seat, roll your shoulders slowly, sit up, back straight, fold your hands on your desk in front of you, and put both feet flat on the floor. Now let’s take a deep breath in through our nose, hold, 1, 2, 3, and exhale through our mouth. Again, deep inhale, hold, 1, 2, 3, exhale and, now, slowly close your eyes. Try and relax and clear your mind for a couple of minutes.”
A few minutes later, I end the meditation by simply and quietly saying, “Thank you.” When you have written your own prompt and have decided on a start date, put aside five minutes at the beginning of each class.
On the first day, explain that the class will be doing a short silent meditation every day and that there is a growing body of research to suggest that meditation can be a powerful tool to combat stress and improve attention. Share research about the science of meditation, specifically how it calms the central nervous system and improves oxygenation, often with instant benefit to students. Research suggests that meditation can be an effective way to assuage stress and anxiety, improve focus and attention, and even help students to regulate their emotions more effectively.
I created a folder in my Google Classroom, in which I share these articles, as well as a short primer, so that students have resources at their fingertips. This seems particularly important for high school students, who seem much more inclined to embrace this practice if they can see credible evidence that it works. Meditate that first day to show the process in action.
Practice Every Day and Reflect
As the school year progresses, urge students to expand their practice and share their experiences. Have students read and respond to articles about this subject. Ask them to teach other students to meditate and to reflect on their own practice.
This small, simple practice can have a profound effect on any classroom. In the decade that I have been meditating with my classes, I have noticed that the still, quiet time following a meditation is uniquely suited for authentic conversation. I use it to set the tone for my class and to connect with my students.
Like most things we do in school and life, meditation gets better with practice. Try to be consistent and make meditation part of your classroom’s daily operating procedure.