Lately, the term mindfulness has been getting my attention. I see it in book titles, journal articles, health care newsletters, education blogs, and the popular media. I even heard an ad for an office called Mindful Dermatology!
I began to wonder what it meant to be mindful. Would becoming mindful help me become a better teacher? Could becoming mindful help me to form closer relationships with my students and their families, help me cope with the cascade of demands inherent in being an early educator, and contribute to a healthier balance between my work and my personal life? I realized that these are high priorities for me at this point in my career. I decided to make this the focus of an action research project: the final assignment for my master’s degree in Early Education.
What is Mindfulness?
Amy Saltzman, author of Mindfulness: A Guide for Teachers defined mindfulness as “paying attention to your life, here and now, with kindness and curiosity”. Sadly, according to Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, the average adult spends 47% of their day NOT paying attention. I have seen that many of us operate on “autopilot,” with our attention fragmented between electronic devices and hectic multi-tasking. We are not able to pay attention to ourselves, our surroundings, or others when our minds are so full of “chatter.”
Mindfulness training teaches the use of meditation and focused movement, such as yoga and t’ai chi, to bring one’s attention to the present moment. Mindfulness techniques practices today are related to ancient Buddhist meditation practices and other Eastern religions, but today’s movement is secular. For many, it has become a way to improve their health and happiness in today’s busy world.
What are the Benefits of Mindfulness?
Numerous studies have shown that an improved sense of well-being can be fostered by integrating mindfulness into the busy lives of teachers. Research has shown that mindfulness helps us become more aware, more focused, more accepting, and thus more compassionate toward ourselves and others. Meditation, in particular, helps people cope with stress and anxiety, and thus enjoy life more fully.
I wondered what better gift than mindfulness could we give ourselves, and in turn, our students? I believe that the implications are huge, since teachers leave the profession at an alarming rate due to stress and professional burnout. The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future reported that 46% of new teachers leave the field within five years. Mindfulness training is beginning to be included in college programs for adults entering high stress fields such as education, business, healthcare, and even the military.
How Can Mindfulness Help Teachers and Students?
Meena Srinivasan wrote in Teach, Breathe, Learn that a teacher has the ability to affect students by his or her example. She discovered that her own mindfulness created a positive climate in the classroom. Holly Elissa Bruno described how our brain’s mirror neurons cause us to imitate the feelings and activity level of those around us; even our heart rate becomes a subconscious influence on those nearby. The teacher has the key role in the classroom, as their demeanor becomes contagious and spreads through interactions with students.
Mindfulness has been described as “the art of conscious living”. Could practicing mindfulness help me to become a more conscious teacher? Specifically, I hoped to become less stressed and anxious about my performance, and more appreciative of my own efforts and the accomplishments of each child. I hoped to improve my ability to focus and pay attention to my students, instead of being frequently distracted by the “chatter” in my brain.
I hoped to be more in tune with my students by observing and listening closely to them, and able to design curriculum based upon their interests and abilities. I hoped to be able to create a routine and an environment that would support my own mindfulness and that of my students, as well.
I am happy to report that learning to become more mindful has helped me to make progress toward meeting these goals. My action research has shown me that practicing mindfulness has had a positive effect upon my teaching practice. I plan to continue learning about mindfulness and integrating it into all aspects of my life.
Shifting My Focus
At the end of my study, I began to change my focus from myself to my class. For example, we now begin each day by meditating in our morning meeting. Many of my students claim that they now meditate at home, and that it helps them when they feel upset, frustrated, or scared. I have seen that doing yoga and mindfulness activities throughout the day helps me and the children get ready to focus on new learning. Activities such as meditation and guided imagery have been shown to contribute to growth in emotional intelligence, which helps all of us to improve self-control and interact more positively with each other.
We have begun using a “mindfulness clock.” This is a program I set up on my computer to sound a long, low bell every hour. This bell provides a time for me and my students to stop, take a breath, observe, and proceed. Inevitably, one or more of us will say afterwards, “I really needed that!” Some- times when things get hectic in our classroom, I will hear one of the children imitate the bell by saying “bong” and see them stop for a moment to regroup. The benefits of this type of pausing and breathing activity are supported by research that used children as subjects, and is why mindfulness is being taught in many schools today. Children who learn mindfulness techniques experience the same positive outcomes as adults, with the added incentive that mindfulness contributes to academic success by improving their ability to focus and pay attention.
I believe that mindfulness has a “ripple effect” in that one person influences others, who will then go on to influence new people in their circle. These ripples can spread throughout a classroom, a school, a community, and beyond. The Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Happy teachers will change the world” He believed that a smiling, relaxed, teacher becomes “the weather in the classroom”
I once told my kindergartners that I noticed that if I was feeling a certain way, before too long they often seemed to feel that way, too. One of them piped up and said, “Yeah, we are like your remotes!” By becoming more mindful I want to convey to them a sense of optimism and hope, and a belief that whatever comes along, they can deal with it. Learning about mindfulness has been a gift that I gave myself, and one that I want to give, in turn, to my students.
Target 2 – Leadership: FWSU will foster the development of teacher and student leaders who provide innovative opportunities for local and global student-centered learning.
Action Step: (1) Provide multiple avenues for students and staff to lead, advocate and serve within the school and community. (2) Develop learning habits, communication and problem-solving skills necessary for collaborative learning and leadership.
Indicators of Success: (1) Teachers embrace the role of coach, facilitator and co-learner in a student-centered learning environment. (2) Creativity and risk-taking will be evident.
Jenny Blackman is a Kindergarten Teacher at Fletcher Elementary School