By Kate McElvaney, Director of Educational Advancement and the Center for Progressive Learning and Sue Amacker, Director of Support Services, High Meadows School
"Mindfulness is paying attention to something, in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally." – Jon Kabat-Zinn
How many days until summer? It’s a question far too many of us ask as we move into the long days of winter with spring break only a far-off glimmer. Educators all start out the school year feeling refreshed and energized. We are eager to start new things, meet new students, and inspire the love of learning in each and every student. We continue on that path for a few months and make it to the winter holidays. The new calendar year brings renewed spirit, but that energy can quickly wane as the days stretch on.
Now imagine a faculty that stays energized and balanced for the duration of the school year. How would this affect school culture? How would this affect student learning? When High Meadows School began our mindfulness journey, we weren’t set on particular outcomes, but we quickly recognized the power mindfulness could have, not just for our students, but for all of us who work in schools. By introducing mindfulness as a philosophy and a way of thinking, faculty can begin to experience benefits.
Mindfulness for Teacher Wellness
We often hear about the toll that stress can have on classroom teacher
s. Even in the best of classroom situations, teaching takes its toll on educators; the results spilling over into the students' psyches. As current research indicates, teacher job satisfaction is at an all-time low, and in turn, teacher turnover is high; we struggle to find ways to alleviate the stress that seems to be a standard hazard of our occupation.
Historically, teacher training has focused on students. Seldom, if ever, was the emotional well-being of teachers taken into account. However, as educators have come to recognize the importance of social-emotional competence in students and the positive effects on the learning environment, so too must we acknowledge that the feelings and reactions of teachers influence their interaction with students, and thus, the entire teacher-student dynamic. To address teacher wellness, we have introduced the practice of mindfulness to our students and staff.
Mindfulness, we believe, can make a significant difference in the health of our educators, and as an extension, those they teach. Mindfulness in the classroom serves as a calming strategy for teachers, allowing them to more effectively take control of small moments, positively influencing both their own and students’ thinking and emotions. With a mindfulness practice, teachers are better equipped to respond to the chaos of the classroom or school day, rather than react. This ability to self-regulate is a powerful effect of mindfulness. Life of a teacher provides everyday moments when one might think he/she has no control. In actuality, teachers have a great deal of control, specifically control over thoughts and emotions. When a teacher's response is thoughtful and supportive, the likelihood of an in-kind reaction from the pupil increases. Mindfulness can support teachers taking control of small moments to positively affect thinking and emotions.
A mindfulness practice can also help build compassion for oneself and others. Research has shown that mindfulness practice appears to train the mind to move from observing one’s suffering to acting with compassion. The mere act of meditative practice can affect the mind in a way that allows for empathic behavior. Learning with and from those striving to improve has been one of the bedrocks of creating an ever-expanding positive culture that reaches into the community and beyond.
Mindfulness for the benefit of teacher wellness involves providing tools to increase resilience, reduce and manage stress, improve relationships, increase job satisfaction, and create feelings of balance.
Planning the Journey
Bringing mindfulness into focus is not complicated. Our school journey began with small efforts. For example, we committed to beginning faculty and team-level meetings with a “mindful minute” to help bring everyone into the present moment, supporting increased focus and attention. These small moments helped begin the development of a shared understanding among faculty. We also found that faculty and staff became curious; by giving them just a taste of mindfulness with only minimal explanation, we set the environment for continued learning based on interest. We then provided opportunities for faculty to satiate their curiosity:
- Book Study – Finding a shared reading is a great way to launch any new initiative and help others learn. Teach, Breathe, Learn: Mindfulness in and Out of the Classroom provided our teachers a common starting point to understanding mindfulness. The book expertly intertwined practical teacher advice, experience, and resources with a focus on starting with oneself. We broke the book into three parts and scheduled three afternoon sessions for teachers to participate in discussions.
- Library of Resources – Knowledge breeds a desire for more knowledge. As we began to read and discuss a variety of mindfulness approaches and benefits, more knowledge came our way via teachers’ discoveries. We utilized a faculty website to collect links to a variety of articles, so that we could all read and learn more, as we were ready.
- Casual Conversations – We found that as teachers gained comfort with their own mindfulness practices, they were interested in talking to each other and sharing their experiences. A teacher’s day holds multiple opportunities for incorporating mindfulness practices. One-stop professional development often does not “stick” because the structure fails to provide the opportunity to revisit one’s thinking and share growth. By capitalizing on small conversations and moments to learn from each other, a school can allow mindfulness to “seep” into the culture of the school. Open-ended questions and quotes related to mindfulness posted in common areas, such as work rooms and above copiers, can spark conversations in a positive way.
- Teacher-to-Teacher Sharing Practice – Our next step was to provide an organizing structure for sharing our learning. We scheduled 30 minutes after school each week, “Mindfulness Mondays”, for teachers to guide others in the mindfulness practices in which they had found success. We purposely left these sessions open for faculty to just show up and learn. The first sessions were led by early adopters and existing practitioners. The topics evolved as teachers reflected upon their strengths and included sharing of smart-phone apps, mindful eating practices, and mindful walking to name just a few. As one new enthusiast put it, "Mindfulness creeps up on you. If it were a pill, I'd be standing in a line blocks long to get it."
- Guidance Classes - Guidance classes begin with mindfulness activities. When we visit classrooms for guidance classes, we begin with mindfulness activities. Students have been learning the practices and their engagement has a ripple effect on their classrooms, and the teachers. Our practice with students often inspires and encourages teachers to bring mindfulness into the classroom, transitions, and breaks. For example, a mindfulness minute can bring the class together for listening to a lesson. The teacher rings the bell; students close their eyes and become quiet focusing on their breathing for a full minute until the bell rings again.
We believe that our ongoing success with implementing mindfulness into our school culture is due to allowing for organic development from teacher interest. This kind of bottom-up development vs. top-down meant that individuals can come to the learning, and understanding, in their own time and pace and find others in a similar place on their journey. In the context of the practices above, schools should be open to optional teacher involvement. When learners, including adults, are allowed to choose meaningful experiences for their own growth, there is greater buy-in and enthusiasm. Overtime this buy-in and enthusiasm spreads to others in a very organic way. The role of administration is to create the setting, opportunities, and time for this to occur.
Practicing Even When It’s Not Easy
Mindfulness is a deceptively simple practice but not at all easy. We have found the key to be regular practice, woven into our already busy days. Mindfulness is a way to move about one’s day differently rather than doing more. Mindfulness can also support teachers during especially stressful times in the school year.
Here are some great opportunities we have found to incorporate mindfulness into our most stressful times and days:
- Student Transitions –By utilizing the practice of mindful walking, transitions can be more peaceful for all involved. This practice asks one to think about their steps and surrounding to pay attention to their movement. Teachers can also provide students with a single word to focus on with each step. Students are silent as they walk and focus on how their bodies feel as their feet touch the ground, as their arms move as they breathe the air. These practices can bring intention and focus to many activities throughout the day.
- Student Conflicts – In classrooms where we strive for diversity in thinking and perspective, there are bound to be conflicts. Mindfulness can support conflict resolution by asking individuals to be completely present for the conversation, not ruminating about past conflicts or worried about future outcomes. We often ask students to take a mindful minute to attend to their breath before jumping into conflict resolution conversations. This small pause can make a world of difference.
- Parent Conferences –Teachers who take a moment to come into present-moment awareness prior to meetings have reported greater satisfaction with the outcomes. Furthermore, taking the time to remind oneself of the ultimate intention of the meeting and inviting empathy into the conversation helps prepare for what are often challenging conversations. Finally, using mindful listening, really attending to the words a parent speaks, can support more productive conversations.
- Holiday and End-of-Year – When the days get crazy busy we can allow ourselves to get crazy as well or we can use focus-building practices like guided meditation to help us remain calm and centered. Loving kindness meditations can help us gain the patience we need as educators to manage students who are distracted. Providing students with an opportunity to find their breath, focus on a single thought or sense, and bring about their own personal sense of calm can provide everyone relief from hectic holidays.
- Mid-Year Slump – We’ve all been there: the days when you can’t seem to drag yourself out of bed, when you question your career choice, when you are just too tired. Gratitude practices can help you remember the positive and recognize the many things that are great in your life. The simple act of naming three things for which you are thankful can turn the worst day around.
Rather than subscribing to an outside source and/or professional trainings, creating a culture of mindfulness via organic, interest-lead opportunities provides benefits to all members of a school community and leads to a sustained, meaningful practice for all. Recognizing that any school initiative takes time to become institutionalized, school leadership can support this process in a mindful way by providing opportunities for natural growth, self-led learning, and time to practice. School leaders can plant the seeds and help cultivate the practice.
“If you water a seed of peace in your mind, peace will grow. When the seeds of happiness in you are watered, you will become happy. When the seed of anger in you is watered, you will become angry. The seeds that are watered frequently are those that will grow strong.” - Thich Nhat Hanh
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