Three days after my ninth birthday, my father died suddenly of an aneurism. Seven years later when I was 15, my mother committed suicide. These tragedies left me unmoored. It was the 60s and no one thought about the fact that my sisters and I might need psychological help, so we were left to fend for ourselves. I began a quest for a way to heal myself. The trauma shattered my sense of a permanent world and thats when I began exploring alternative worldviews. I recall a particular moment in my life that led me to my interest in mindfulness. I was 16 and on a trip to Mexico with my foster parents who studied desert wildlife. We were on a ferry going from Baja to Mazatlán and I was sitting on the deck of the boat reading Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. As I read about the life of the Buddha and his discovery of the nature of suffering, impermanence and interdependence, I began to cry. All the pieces came together for me and I thought that practicing mindfulness meditation might really help. I began to read all the books I could find on the subject including Be Here Now by Ram Dass and Three Pillars of Zen by Philip Kapleau. I found my way to a Zen meditation course that was being offered at a local community college and began a formal practice at 17. It wasn’t easy at first. Zen was demanding for a novice and I began to explore other traditions and practices. I found my way to Boulder, Colorado, a spiritual mecca at the time and studied with several different teachers. I’ve been practicing regularly ever since.
Why are mindfulness techniques necessary for teachers and students?
The classroom context can be incredibly stressful. If you’ve never been a teacher, imagine yourself in a crowded room with 25 or 30 children. Now imagine that you need to maintain their attention so you can teach them something. Finally recognize that you and your students are virtual captives – none of you can leave this room without dire consequences. If students get distracted, bored and/or disruptive, teachers begin to get frustrated and discouraged, upsetting the emotional climate of the classroom. When students and teachers are emotionally reactive, teaching becomes difficult and no one is learning.
What is your response to those who argue that teachers should instruct in academics only?
We now know that children can’t learn when their physical and psychological needs are not met. According to National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), in 2013, 51 percent of the children enrolled in US public schools were designated as low income and poverty which has serious negative effects on learning. Greater numbers of children are coming to school with other risk factors such as exposure to violence and trauma. However, there is also evidence that when children at risk feel accepted and connected to their school community, and are taught the social and emotional skills, it can buffer these negative effects. When they have the skills to manage their emotions and feel safe and secure, they are ready to learn academics. This is why social and emotional learning is more important than ever.
If some students are not interested in the subject or the way the teacher is presenting it, can mindfulness help in these cases?
In education we talk a lot about reflective practice, which can help us monitor our teaching in relation to our students’ learning. However, the way reflective practice is taught today, is typically very shallow, reflecting upon what happened and why, and how to adapt to our students’ needs. By bringing a mindfulness-based approach to reflective practice we can go deeper. We can feel the bodily sensations of emotion and recognize the associated habitual thinking patterns. By practicing mindful reflection, I have noticed how my emotions affect my students’ engagement. For example, when I fall into a rut, teaching the same way, year after year without any passion for my subject, how can I expect my students to be engaged? But if I don’t deeply reflect on what’s going on, I might imagine it’s my students’ fault and not realize that my lessons have become dry and uninteresting. My deep reflection can help me realize this and to find ways to enliven my teaching.
How has becoming a scientist furthered your belief in mindfulness study?
My research is confirming the belief I’ve had all these years that my own mindfulness practice was helping me be a better teacher. My current research is showing that when teachers engage in mindful awareness practices, they show significant improvements in their own well-being but also teach better. Like many people, I’m not surprised by these findings, but they help to make the case that these practices are valuable additions to teacher professional development.
How is it possible for science to quantify the outcomes of mindfulness?
There are now several decades of research demonstrating the positive effects of mindful awareness practices in adult samples. Many of these studies are rigorous randomized, controlled trials that have demonstrated significant improvements in dimensions of well-being. The research involving children in schools is very new and we still need to answer several important questions before we are certain mindfulness-based practices have similar effects on children. These include understanding what practices are appropriate for what age groups, how to incorporate mindful awareness practices into lessons in ways that enhance content learning. My colleagues and I at the University of Virginia are developing an innovative approach to health and PE that integrates mindful awareness practices, social and emotional learning, nutrition and movement activities. We will be testing this curriculum in a large randomized trial over the next several years.
What kinds of skills does a teacher need to have to teach mindfulness effectively?
For a classroom teacher to teach mindfulness to her students, she should have her own daily practice. It’s difficult to teach to others what one doesn’t practice oneself because teaching the practice involves modeling and scaffolding. When I teach mindful awareness practices, I engage in the practice as I am leading it, which can take some practice. My personal practice really helps me be able to do this effectively. What we don’t want is for teachers to use these practices to control their students. We want it to be an invitation to quiet oneself, not an imposition of teacher control.
As a preschool teacher what kinds of mindfulness methods did you teach?
When I taught preschool and elementary school, I used mindful awareness practices to transition from one activity to another. I began my class with a morning meeting time that ended with a brief practice, simply focusing our attention on the sound of a bell. I also integrated mindful awareness into my teaching. For example, if I was introducing a poem, I would ask my students to close their eyes and listen mindfully as I read the poem, and then I would ask them to write about how they felt as they listened to the poem. I also engaged my students in mindful awareness of nature during walks and field trips.
How can mindfulness increase a teacher’s morale?
When teachers have the skills to manage the emotional demands of teaching, their sense of efficacy improves. They are no longer overwhelmed by these demands and enjoy teaching more.
Can someone be a good teacher without practicing mindfulness?
Of course! Some people are just naturally more mindful than others. I have found that most teachers who you might consider “naturals” are naturally more mindful, which makes them great teachers. However, not everyone is a natural born teacher and we can all learn these skills with practice.
You say that our original survival instincts may not be helpful in the fast-paced 21st century. Can mindfulness help us to “evolve?”
I certainly hope mindfulness helps us evolve our emotion regulation system so we are less reactive and more responsive to our face-paced world.
Can mindfulness, positivity, joy and love work with all children, even the disruptive ones?
The children who are most disruptive need our mindful, positive and loving attention most of all. We all come into this world with an innate desire to be a valuable contribution to our family, friends and community. When our needs are not met, we try to find this sense of belonging in dysfunctional ways. When we help these children by giving them our love and compassion, while also helping them feel connected to their community, I have seen them transform.
What is one of your best examples of mindfulness working in the classroom?
In the book I talk about a high school English teacher who was at one of my workshops. She was new to teaching and she seemed timid and frightened. During a follow up session, she told us a story about how she had applied mindfulness to a particularly difficult teaching moment. She had come to class prepared to teach subjunctive clauses to her class of freshman. Unexpectedly they all turned on her moaning about how much they hated grammar. Her mindful awareness helped her recognize the signals of fear and anxiety in her body and she took some breaths to calm down and stop taking their behavior personally. Then she turned her mindful awareness to her students and noticed the emotional intensity of their reaction and she became curious about it. She began to ask them questions about how they were feeling. She came up with a way to change her lesson to respond to their feelings. She told them to write a poem about why they hate grammar. She gave them two rules – they had to use a subjunctive clause in the poem, and they couldn’t use the word “hate” – they had to be more articulate. Her students became excited about the opportunity to share their strong feelings about grammar and began working on their poems. Later she shared with me that she was on the verge of quitting her job. She thought she wasn’t cut out to be a teacher. After this experience, she gained confidence she could do it after all.