Why should we talk about mindfulness for educators?
We hear this word all over these days: mindfulness Be mindful of how you eat. Be mindful while you drive, brush your teeth, have a shower, walk up the stairs. Our whole life is supposed to be lived in this mindful bliss.
Big corporations, hospitals and — more recently — education are jumping on board to bring mindfulness into board meetings, surgical rooms and classrooms. What is it about mindfulness that has educators rushing out to buy a new singing bowl or meditation cushion? Is this the new quick fix to solve all the problems in schools?
But hold on a second — what exactly is “mindfulness”? Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” That’s it. Nothing to it, right?
Learning to still our body and brain to pay attention to our internal and external world at any given moment is a practice that is being incorporated by educators around the world. And for good reason as it is helping educators to understand themselves so much better in an ever changing school environment.
Schools have changed. Students have changed. Mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety are becoming more relevant in schools, especially at the high school level. In fact, approximately 20% of adolescents in America have a diagnosable mental health disorder and suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens.
I work as a school counsellor in Victoria, Canada and I see kids struggling every day with these concerns. This is not unique to the USA or Canada. Poor mental health concerns are becoming a worldwide epidemic. We see problems such as:
- High levels of stress
- Anxiety and depression
- Inability to focus
- Impulsiveness, leading to difficult classroom management
So, is mindfulness the panacea that will solve all these problems? I’m not enlightened enough to make that suggestion, but I do know that when we train our educators in their own mindfulness practice it has a great impact on the well-being of the students in their classroom.
You can go online and find numerous resources, books and activities on how to teach mindfulness in schools. There is a plethora of information to the point where it is almost overwhelming. Amazing resources like MindUP are available for any educator who wants to start teaching mindfulness. In fact, edutopia created this great post on finding resources to have you start teaching mindfulness right away.
But here’s the thing. Teaching mindfulness, like anything, can be done well or it can be done very poorly. Ask a senior math teachers what they had to do to become ready to teach algebra, calculus and other high level math concepts. These teachers wouldn’t say, “I picked up a book off Amazon and now I can do it!”
We know how they became teachers: they practiced, and learned, and went to workshops and practiced, and practiced, and practiced until they lived and breathed math until they could really understand it.
Mindfulness, when it is taught well, is taught from a lived experience from an educator who has taken the time to learn it for themselves first. One online program offering mindfulness classes for educators is Mindful Schools. Mindful schools provides educators the opportunity to learn mindfulness for themselves by diving into an eight-week program of learning mindfulness. Mindful schools knows that students attune to their teacher, and will therefore reflect the feelings and emotions that the teacher brings into the room. Teaching mindfulness to youth is significantly enhanced and more effective when it stems from a base of personal practice.
Students brains aren’t fully developed until they are twenty-five years old. Until that time they need to attune to other people to help them regulate their emotions, feelings and thoughts. As educators, we need to provide that space for our students to learn to self-regulate. These kids need to tune in to us. However, if we, as educators, are not self-aware, or are struggling with poor mental health the kids we work with are going to feel what we feel.
Viktor Frankl claimed, “Between a stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is the power to to choose our response. In that response lies all of our strength and our freedom.” Mindfulness programs that support educators are giving the space that enables them to respond to the daily stresses that happen in the classroom.
Other great programs are out there to help support teacher wellness. Developed by the Garrison Institute, CARE for Teachers (Cultivating Awareness and Resilience for Educators) is unique program designed to help teachers reduce stress and enliven their teaching by promoting awareness, presence, compassion, reflection, and inspiration. Helping the educator to develop the inner resources they need to help students flourish, socially, emotionally, and academically.
Here in Victoria, our district funds a course called Mindfulness for Educators where all staff are invited to take an eight-week mindfulness course which includes a half day silent retreat, and then follow up with three bi-weekly collaborative group meetings on how to fully incorporate mindfulness into the classroom. The follow up classes are set up to give educators the courage and strategies on how to take their lived experience of mindfulness to fully integrate them into the classroom.
Educators who completed this program offered such feedback:
“This seemed a novel approach to have the focus on me as a teacher rather than on my students. The outcome of this will no doubt benefit my students, as I feel more calm and settled in the classroom.”
“this class can encourage you to sit with the discomfort of a disrupted routine and can bring you a fresh insight, widen your community and inspire you to be a kinder and more compassionate person to yourself and to others.”
Mindfulness can create an emotional atmosphere in the classroom that can decrease anxiety, enhance paying attention and enable students to feel calm. Even better, it can do this for the educator who models mindfulness and sets the tone for the classroom. This movement is not just a new phase. Mindfulness is a lived experience that will grow in education and give skills and tools to students and educators that will impact them for the rest of their lives.