Just Breathe: When Teachers Practice Mindfulness

September 25, 2014
Photo credit: Terri Saul
Author Meena Srinivasan

Once in a while, a resource comes along that is so invaluable to our work as educators that I have to share it with you. Meena Srinivasan's new book, Teach, Breathe, Learn: Mindfulness In and Out of the Classroom, is such a resource. It speaks to a yearning I hear across our country: a desire to teach and work in a way that is anchored in joy, emerging from compassion, and that is more humane and slower than the way we work now.

What Meena honestly and graciously offers in this easy-to-read book is a roadmap for this desire. She introduces a variety of mindfulness practices and then offers a wealth of resources for how to integrate these into our lives and classrooms. Anyone interested in implementing mindfulness in schools must read this book.

While the lesson plans could be very useful and the quotes from students bring their perspective into this discussion, it's Meena's story as an educator, embedded in this text, that I found most inspiring and that makes this book unique. From one of the first anecdotes she shares about how she realized that her mood was affecting her students, I was hooked. I could relate. I wanted to know what had happened to her, how she shifted that very common experience of being a stretched-too-thin, overwhelmed teacher into being something different. I wanted to know her story and the tools she had used. You'll have to read the book to find out what they were.

In the meantime, I want to give you a taste of who Meena is and what her book is about through this interview I did with her. I'm hoping that it'll further entice you into reading Teach, Breathe, Learn.

Elena Aguilar: Who did you write this book for? Who do you hope will read it?

Meena Srinivasan: This book is an offering of my heart and my hope is that it will provide tools, resources, and inspiration for anyone interested in bringing mindfulness into their life and the lives of young people. The book is filled with anecdotes and practices that illustrate both the power and the accessibility of the transformational practice of mindfulness. While the book is written from my point of view as an educator, its contents will be useful for anyone especially teachers, caregivers, and those working in educational settings.

How do you think mindfulness could be helpful to teachers and administrators?

The more we practice coming back to the present with kind awareness, the easier it actually is to be present -- a vital quality for educators. Except for perhaps surgeons, teachers make more decisions during the course of the work day, and the demands of the classroom require us to be able to have simultaneously both expansive and focused attention.

Mindfulness enables us to connect deeply with ourselves so in turn we can authentically connect with others. Being a principal or a school leader can be a very lonely job and a mindfulness practice can be incredibly helpful with developing the strong relationships needed to successfully lead a school.

The concept of interdependence is foundational to how mindfulness is introduced in my book. Over the years I've found it very helpful to reflect on interdependence when working with teachers and colleagues to help us see that our school can only work with all of its multiple parts working smoothly. If one part of the system functions poorly, the whole body of the school is affected. Sometimes there can be challenges between different entities within schools, but if we can remember that without the administration, parents, staff, and students, our schools would not be able to function. We can approach our interactions with others in our community with more gratitude and understanding.

Tell me a story about the role mindfulness has played in your personal or professional life.

Mindfulness enables us to be more responsive and less reactive. My very first classroom moment was very powerful where I said, "Wow, this mindfulness stuff really works!" I was teaching an academic support class at an international middle school in New Delhi, India. My class had students from all over the world. They all had varying special needs and I was charged with supporting them all.

When I shared with my students that we were hiring an instructional assistant to help provide more support for our class, one of my beautiful American boys yelled, "I hope it's not an Indian!" In that moment my heart sank. I was one of the few teachers of color at the international school and the only expat of Indian origin. I felt extremely hurt by his comment, and feelings of anger and sadness bubbled inside of me.

The pre-mindfulness me would have snapped at him that his comment was unacceptable, but now, because of my mindfulness practice, I engaged in emotional self-regulation. Recognizing my feelings as they arose within me, I paused and took a breath, and instead of shutting my student down I politely asked him why he didn't want an Indian instructional assistant.

He explained that he found it very difficult to understand Indian accents and this made it hard for him to learn. As he spoke, I realized he had no intention of hurting my feelings as someone with an Indian heritage; instead I saw a young boy who had difficulty learning, a boy who hadn't chosen to be in India, a boy who was brought there because of his father's job -- a boy who felt frustrated and needed my love and acknowledgment of his feelings. From that moment forward, I made it my policy to always engage my students in dialogue in order to really understand them. I realized that only when I understood them could I truly teach them.

Sometimes mindfulness in schools is discussed as a method to help kids focus so that they can be stronger students, as a way to have stronger academic skills. I've heard of teachers using what they call "mindfulness" to help kids prepare for taking tests. What do you think of this approach? Does it resonate with what you suggest in your book?

While it is true that mindfulness can create conditions for learning by helping students focus and self-regulate, this was definitely not my approach in sharing mindfulness with young people. Mindfulness is empowering because it helps us see that in every moment we have a choice; we can choose to be more skillful, and there are concrete strategies that can help us bring more peace, love, and joy into our lives.

If a reader was to take one action based on reading your book, what would you hope that would be?

The most valuable thing we can offer others is our own happiness. The action I hope readers will take after reading my book is to develop a personal mindfulness practice so they can cultivate and grow their own happiness. It's not always what you teach but how you teach it, and the love and joy behind your teaching that is perhaps the strongest impression you will leave with your students.

Before we can share mindfulness with our students we need an experiential understanding of mindfulness from our own practice. Once we begin to develop our own practice, we will see how it impacts our classroom and our relationships with others. Mindfulness offers a way to tap into the resilience that is already inside us. We don't need more time in our day to be mindful. Teach, Breathe, Learn is a practical guide for how to bring more awareness, love, and resilience into our daily lives.

If someone is curious about mindfulness and wishes to learn more, aside from reading your book, what do you recommend? Where could they start?

I would highly recommend attending a mindfulness retreat. There are a number of offerings all over the world. I would suggest reaching out to the Mindfulness in Education Network list serve and detail what you are looking for in terms of length and geography and you will be surprised by how many options there are

What are your thoughts and ideas on this post? Please share in the comments section below.

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  • Mindfulness
  • Professional Learning
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

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