Mindfulness for Teachers

Mindfulness for TeachersAs a middle school teacher, I try to be aware of the big picture—the curriculum—as well as the tiny shifting reactions of my students. I have to be conscious of how each child grows and changes over time so I can help all of them stay motivated and engaged. By the end of most days, my mind is tired yet still spins with what-ifs and should-haves. I regret mistakes made, opportunities missed. When my students are troubled—sometimes deeply so—I carry their distress like an overstuffed backpack.

So when one of my colleagues, Christina Torre, offered a way to work on this—through a class in mindfulness she would teach at the Montessori school where we both work—I jumped at the opportunity. Torre is earning a master’s degree in mindfulness, and she embodies the grace, calm, and thoughtfulness of someone who has dedicated years to practicing it.

Instead of overreacting to misbehavior, the very best teachers learn to redirect their students, again and again, to more productive, engaging material. As a teacher, I’m great at directing other people’s attention as it wanders. Working on my own is harder.

But what, exactly, is mindfulness? Essentially, it’s a technique used to focus attention and develop empathy through an awareness of our thinking, surroundings, and breath. It’s similar to Buddhist meditative practices developed centuries ago but applied in a secular way.

In Torre’s class, we sat, attending to the sensations of breathing. Or at least we tried. At first, I struggled with this quiet act of attention, my brain flitting to worry, fantasy, regret, or simply “What’s for dinner?”

Torre helped me learn that when thoughts or feelings impede my attention, I don’t have to shove them away. Instead, I can observe them, reflect without judgment, and then return to the sensation of my breath. I may not be able to control my mind, exactly, but I can learn to control my awareness and my reactions—a shift that will help me to be more calm and focused, more strategic and flexible, in my classroom.

As Torre explained to us, mindfulness tools are similar to the Jedi mind tricks that experienced teachers use with their students: Instead of overreacting to misbehavior, the very best teachers learn to redirect their students, again and again, to more productive, engaging material. As a teacher, I’m great at directing other people’s attention as it wanders. Working on my own is harder.

“When distracted from the present moment, we miss opportunities with the child,” Torre said. Through the practice of mindfulness, she has become less self-critical and more focused on trying to be useful, asking herself, with great compassion, “What do I need to change?” in order to help her students learn and grow.

Burnout is a reaction to giving too much that results in caring too little. And it is all too common among those who work in medicine, social work, law, and education—jobs that demand intense multitasking and emotional commitment.

“Mindfulness,” in this sense, is another way of saying “awareness,” one of the qualities we value most in teachers. Good teachers are quick to figure out ways to engage students in learning through communication, questions, and discussions. We can’t lose our tempers around kids or be distracted by our own thoughts or the minutiae of classroom life.

It made sense that exercising my “mindfulness muscle” would strengthen my teaching. Now, a study at the University of Wisconsin at Madison has shown that mindfulness training can even combat teacher burnout—that awful state in which a good teacher becomes exhausted, cynical, and too disaffected to be effective.

Burnout is a reaction to giving too much that results in caring too little. And it is all too common among those who work in medicine, social work, law, and education—jobs that demand intense multitasking and emotional commitment. When workers feel a lack of control, community, fairness, or reward, or when the workload is too intense, even otherwise competent professionals can shut down.

Burnout feels awful to those who experience it. But worse than the impact of burnout on a teacher is the impact on her students: A year spent with an exhausted, ineffective teacher can result in a terrible loss for a child.

The Madison study demonstrated that teachers who used a mindfulness technique called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction were better able to manage stress. They also had better classroom organization and were more effectively compassionate with their students. Teachers who did not do the mindfulness exercises showed greater stress and more burnout.

I am too new to the practice of mindfulness to know how much it will affect my teaching in the long term. For now, I’m hopeful that something as simple as sitting still and paying attention to my wandering mind will help me to help my students learn.

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