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Expert Voices

Mindfulness in education

Mindfulness in education is gaining welcome ground, however research reveals there are countless resources introducing learners to mindfulness, but considerably less on teachers practising mindfulness for their own wellbeing. 

“You can’t really practise mindfulness in a school until teachers are mindful,” comments our education director, Joni Gordon, currently researching Māori mindfulness for her PHD. 

“You can’t teach these strategies to our learners while our teachers are frazzled and tired and overwhelmed and unwell.”

Teacher stress and burnout has been an ongoing challenge in education, and this year has not made things any easier. Multiple sources of stress include time demands, workload, student disruptive behavior, and organisational factors. 

Teacher burnout manifests as being frazzled, reactive, emotional, drained, and unable to engage with family or friends. All too often, teachers have not had the resources to help them cope with burnout, resulting in sickness or having to leave the profession altogether.

Mindfulness is one such resource and is crucial in preventing burnout and greatly improving teacher wellbeing.

“When I properly got into mindfulness, it changed my entire practice,” adds Joni. 

Mindfulness is about paying attention in the present moment, on purpose, and without judgment. But what exactly does it do for teachers?

1. It allows us to be present

At any given moment teachers are multi-tasking at a level unthinkable to most people: communicating information whilst making quick decisions whilst thinking of what is ahead whilst identifying lack of attention whilst responding to questions whilst dealing with their own circumstances; and doing all of this amid constant upheaval this year. 

Mindfulness allows us to be with our learners, as they are, in front of us, and means we can respond, rather than react to situations. It allows us to take a breath and decide on an answer or a course of action.

2. Mindfulness helps us manage students we find challenging

All teachers have problems with particular students who misbehave in the classroom. Mindful awareness helps us attend to what’s happening with a child to cause them to misbehave. 

“Mindfully recognising our emotional responses toward students may help us understand why they are behaving the way they are. 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. These feelings can help us respond more appropriately to the underlying issues of our students, and help us shift from a negative appraisal to a state of compassion.”

Patricia Jennings, leader in the fields of social and emotional learning and mindfulness in education. (Greater Good Science Centre Magazine)

3. Mindfulness creates intention

Teachers rush from home to school, from classroom to classroom and from one subject to another, most often with no break whatsoever.

“If you don’t punctuate a book, the book becomes a blur, it becomes meaningless, and it’s a bit like that with our life,” says Craig Hassed, Associate Professor at Monash University, “if we don’t punctuate it with spaces, it also becomes a blur. So you might punctuate your day with say, two full stops. That is, practice five or 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation before you get into your day, before you set out for school in the morning. And again at lunchtime or after school.”

 Similarly, a comma may be a moment between classes where we give ourselves 30 seconds to centre ourselves, walk attentively to the classroom, or enter the room with purpose. That way, we have prepared ourselves for the next activity, and our learners will respond to that intention. 

4. Mindfulness prevents burnout

Multitasking is fraught with disaster, it increases the mental load, it increases stress, and it impairs communication and memory. Mindfulness allows us to focus guilt-free on one thing at a time.

The benefits of this are staggering and this is where being judgement- free comes in: the more frazzled and overwhelmed we are, the more we judge our performance and reaction and the less value we place on ourselves as teachers, and so the downward spiral continues. Being aware of our environment, emotions, reactions and judgements allows us to control our reactions and respond more effectively, thus increasing our overall wellbeing.

5. Mindfulness supports a better classroom environment

Teachers who are more mindful tend to be more organised in the classroom and more attentive to learners, so much so that it actually affects how the teacher communicates and teaches.

Studies have also shown that while mindfulness resources for learners are incredibly beneficial, students who did not learn it directly, but had a teacher who practised it, experienced similar outcomes as having practised it personally.

6. Mindfulness creates a compassionate school community

Mindfulness can be a shared collective intention that teachers undertake before going into class. This creates an environment of calm and valuing wellbeing, and it filters to all parts of the school environment. 

“Mindfulness cultivates compassion and kindness, and that should be central to any teaching practice.” 

Joni Gordon

7. Mindfulness ensures that you have enough love left over 

“It’s so easy to use up all of your love when you’re at school,” says Joni, “so much so that you have none left for your family. Mindfulness fills up your cup a little bit.”

When you have given out so much to everyone else, mindfulness is a moment for you to fill your own cup. You can’t have love for your family, your learners, your teaching practice without a cup that’s at least ¾ full. 

We are so aware of our teachers white-knuckling it to the end of the year, which makes it all the more necessary to take a moment to exhale, get present and try to deal only with the now. 

Take care of yourself.

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