Practicing mindfulness for teachers is one way of improving your physical and mental wellbeing. It can make you calmer and less reactive in the classroom and help you to enjoy your job – and your life – more.
Feeling out of control?
On the brink of burnout?
Or can’t remember the last time you experienced a moment of joy in the classroom?
Being a teacher doesn’t have to come with a side-helping of stress and overwhelm.
Mindfulness for teachers can help.
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What is mindfulness?
Many of us are familiar with the term mindfulness but may not be as confident with its definition. We probably know that it means awareness, but in reality it is much more than this.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (also known as MBSR) defines mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally” – sometimes adding “in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.” (source).
In other words, it’s the process by which we focus on what is happening right now, from moment by moment, without passing any criticism or judgement. This may (or may not) be in order to come to a greater understanding about ourselves and our reactions.
You may of course be asking now, what is the difference between mindfulness and meditation.
Meditation is often time-bound, formal (in that you are concentrating on particular things such as a guided meditation or aa mantra or your breath) and seated.
Meditation is almost a subset of mindfulness – you are practicing mindfulness when you are engaged in meditation – but it can also be any time and anywhere.
All that is required is that you engage yourself in the present moment.
Why is mindfulness important?
Okay, so then the next question is why mindfulness is important in the first place.
I mean, why DO we have to be present in the moment?
What’s wrong with thinking about what you’re going to cook for dinner, that appointment you need to make with the doctor and how the last time you spoke to your mother in law she was critical about your new haircut – all while you’re out there weeding the garden?
The answer comes from a Harvard study (source) where they found that astonishingly 46.9% of the time, people are thinking about what’s not going on.
Rather they are focused on things that happened in the past or might happen in the future.
They then found a relationship between mind-wandering, such as described above, and happiness – that is the MORE your mind wanders the LESS happy you are.
As they say, “the wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”
Therefore, focusing on the present moment is one way of increasing your happiness.
(Interestingly, they found that about the only activity people do where mind wandering isn’t common is making love!).
The benefits of mindfulness
There are many benefits of mindfulness that apply to everyone – not just teachers.
Quieting that wandering mind can improve every aspect of your life, such as:
- greater enjoyment of life
- improvements in physical health (less stress, lower blood pressure, improved sleep and more)
- improvements in mental health (reduced depression, anxiety and conflict)
You can find a more detailed description of these benefits here.
Benefits of mindfulness for teachers
As well as the above, mindfulness for teachers produces some specific benefits.
In my time as a teacher, I’ve seen several scenarios that mindfulness can help counteract.
- rushing through lessons. When you feel pressure to deliver a certain amount of content in a set amount of time, it’s easy to rush through learning activities and grow frustrated when students don’t “get it” as quickly as you’d like.
Being mindful to what is going on in the classroom can help you focus on when the vibe shifts from engagement to confusion, telling you it’s time to slow down and ensure students understand what it is you’re asking of them.
- losing your cool with a student. As a rule, people tend to match energy, and it’s easier than you might think to start yelling at a student once they’ve started yelling at you. It’s also very tempting to take their actions personally, whereas how they are behaving may have very little to do with you at all.
Patricia Jennings illustrates that you can use your response as a indicator for what misbehaving students need. For example, “If we feel annoyed, the behavior is likely attention seeking. If we feel threatened, the behavior is likely a bid for power. If we feel hurt, the behavior is likely an attempt at revenge, and if we feel discouraged, the student is likely giving up” (source).
Therefore being mindful both stops us taking things personally and also helps us work out what it is our students need.
- losing your cool with a colleague. Much like the above, taking a step back when you feel threatened isn’t as easy as it sounds. I still remember one time a teacher started arguing with me over a when I tried to follow up on some textbooks she needed to return. It turned into a personal attack which was all the more confronting because we were friends. Mindfulness helps with emotional regulation which is important in highly charged situations like these.
- falling prey to implicit bias. Whether it’s your preconceived ideas about gender, race, or an individual student, it can be tempting to dismiss OR engage with a student based on your assumptions. Many times I have seen teachers respond to the same behavior differently based on the students because they believe they know what is driving the student, or who the student really is, and react in line with those beliefs.
- feeling overwhelmed and stressed. Often this comes from feeling like there is too much to do and not enough time to do it. Much of this “too much to do” is work that is not due yet. Your focus gets taken away from where it needs to be, which is, what is the most important thing for me to do right now?
- a negative classroom environment. One study showed a relationship between the level of cortisol in students and the burn out level of the teacher, thus leading to a more challenging environment and subsequent poorer student / teacher relationships (source). As mindfulness can both reduce stress and help people enjoy their job more, this can help shift the mood in your classroom and reduce everyone’s stress levels!
- worrying about outcomes. Feeling responsible for your students’ achievements, and how their parents might react to these outcomes, is another situation that being mindful can help with.
In addition, being mindful enables us to savor those tiny moments in the classroom, like when a struggling student gets a difficult concept, when you hear the passion in a student’s voice as she explains her point, or when you yourself are energized and in flow.
Mindfulness activities for teachers
Based on the above, there’s little doubt that mindfulness for teachers is something every educator should have in their wellbeing toolkit.
Of course, how do you practice mindfulness?
This is an especially pertinent question when you’re thinking of some of those charged scenarios above where you can’t simply walk out, sit down, and engage in a 20 minute meditation session!
Here are some mindfulness activities for teachers divided into those you can do in the classroom for “in the moment” practice, followed by more formal practices, which are important for those longer term health benefits.
Informal mindfulness activities
Need to be more mindful in the moment? Try any of these mindfulness activities for teachers.
- I am aware. Use this sentence starter to think about what’s on top for you right now. Once you’ve identified what’s dominating your experience right now, you can make a conscious choice about how to respond to it.
- Five senses. For this mindfulness activity focus on five things you can see, four you can touch or feel, three you can hear, two you can smell and one you can taste (having a bottle of water in the classroom is a great idea, and you can easily taste your water without students being aware of what you are doing.
- Mindful listening. Set your timer for 90 seconds and then close your eyes and pay attention to all the sounds you here. If you’re lucky enough to be an English teacher like me, you can turn this into an activity for all students and use what they hear as a starter for writing!
- Mindful walking. As you walk around your classroom, put your focus on to the shifting weight from one foot to the other.
- Two feet one breath. Combining both a focus on the breath and an aspect of mindful walking, this mindfulness activity is easy to do in class or between classes. Stand up and focus on the feeling of your feet on the ground. Then take one breath in and out, focusing on your inhalation and exhalation.
- Alternate nostril breathing. Breath in and out of your left nostril x 4, then your right nostril x 4, then both x 4. Repeat the cycle 3 times.
- Focus on. There are two parts to this mindfulness activity. The first is to notice where you feel ease in your body during the school day and breathe into there. The second is to notice where you feel tightness in your body and breathe into there.
Formal mindfulness activities
More formal mindfulness activities (think meditation) are also worthwhile including in your practice.
There are many kinds of meditation, but three are good places to start for beginners.
- mindfulness meditation
- body scan meditation
- loving kindness meditation
Check out these three for a taste to see which ones appeal to you.
Mindfulness for teachers
Mindfulness for teachers in particular is an effective strategy for making moments in your classroom more enjoyable and meaningful AND increasing your physical and mental health.
By using informal mindfulness practices as well as more formal ones, such as regular meditation, you – and your students – can reap the rewards.
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