How to be a Mindful Teacher

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At the beginning of my first year of teaching, I hung a sign on the wall of my bilingual third-grade classroom that said, “En este salón, todos son maestros y todos son estudiantes.” In this room, everyone is a teacher and everyone is a student.

Without realizing it, I was voicing the philosophy behind the learner-centered environment with learners engaged as teachers and teachers as learners. My students were bilingual and bicultural (mostly Mexican/American). As a devoted yoga practitioner and instructor, I knew that I wanted to incorporate yoga and meditation in my classroom from day one.

Mindfulness and multiculturalism go hand in hand. The two keys to multiculturalism are openness to new information and the legitimacy of different points of view. With a multicultural mindset, there is an awareness that equality does not mean sameness and different does not mean deviant. As mindful, multicultural learners of all ages, we must pay attention to details, both externally in our environment and internally in how we process our experiences.

Mindfulness is based on the present and the continuous creation of new ways of thinking about oneself, others and situations. It is simply focusing on what is happening in the present moment instead of constantly being drawn into the past or future.

Mindfulness is not all kittens and rainbows. Being open and experiencing the present moment fully puts us in an uncertain position. Mindfulness is a conditional view of the world (i.e. this could be the way it is versus ‘this is THE way it is’).

Mindlessness is easier: to rely on generalities, stereotypes and assumptions; to place blame; and to oversimplify or unnecessarily complicate things. Also known as Fundamentalism, mindlessness is based on the past and is defined by a rigid reliance on old ways of thinking.

As any teacher knows, the emphasis on standardized testing and conventional curriculum is only keeping us running in the race to nowhere. Instead of waiting for laws to change and the nature of assessment to evolve, we can begin the process of teaching mindfulness today. By modeling, practicing, discussing and persisting at mindfulness, we become more calm, clear, inspired and insightful thinkers and learners.

With practice and discipline, mindfulness will become second nature. Practicing mindfulness facilitates the ability of being aware of being aware.

The simplest mindfulness practice is listening to the breath. Of course, you will get distracted, sometimes by an endless parade of thoughts, all about the past or the future. Mindfulness is simply, deliberately paying attention to the act of paying attention. Metacognition.

Practice: Set a timer for one minute. Sit and notice your breath. Every time your mind wanders, gently and calmly bring it back to the present moment, back to the breath.

I have been blessed to work with principals and students who have encouraged me to teach yoga and mindfulness. My third grade students and I would sit on the carpet first thing every morning and practice a few yoga stretches and then sit silently (some more silently than others) in meditation. We started with 30 seconds and worked up to three minutes. And that was at a public school in Texas! In Guatemala, I taught a writing course to ninth grade students. I introduced meditation during a lesson on writing haiku. Many students asked if we could practice every week. Seeing them progress in meditation, concentration and creativity was one of my most gratifying experiences as a teacher.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that simply turning our attention inwards, and concentrating fully on the ‘in’ and ‘out’ breath cultivates calmness in the mind and body. According to him, seven minutes a day is enough. This simple method will help people make their choices with conviction and clarity of mind, and to adopt a more positive and creative attitude towards them. Now, seven minutes can seem like a long time at first, but starting with just one or two minutes gradually adding a minute each week aids students’ mental endurance and attention span.

Teaching mindfulness does not mean teaching Buddhism. Suzuki Roshi says,

“mindfulness is, at the same time, wisdom. It is the readiness of mind that is wisdom. But we should not become attached to some particular wisdom, such as that which was taught by the Buddha. Wisdom is not something to learn. Wisdom is something which will come out of your mindfulness. So the point is to be ready for observing things, and to be ready for thinking.”

My students wrote persuasive essays based on their “ten-day challenge” projects in which they chose a habit to start or stop doing for ten days in a row. Many vowed to quit using Facebook, quit eating junk food, or start reading for an hour a day. Several chose to practice mindfulness (in the form of sitting meditation) daily. I am truly touched by the sentiments these young teenagers are expressing in their essays. Here are a few examples:

  • Peace is something that we all wish for, unfortunately our country Guatemala is very dangerous and it is hard to feel like we live in peace. But when you meditate you feel like it is actually possible, you feel good and you live peacefully from your inside.
  • If you think that meditating only takes your time away and you think you have better things to do, well you should really try because probably most of you are stressed out and need time for your own.
  • The effect this procedure had on me were exceptional; I had a more relaxing day, my daily worries were not bothering me as they always did they were still there but they had a least stressful effect on me that normally gets me very tired and overwhelmed.
  • How many decisions do we make daily? How many problems do we encounter daily? That’s why it’s so healthy to process things at the end of the day. Just take a few moments pondering about your day and it won’t only bring you a smile about the happy moments but it will remind you of the hard ones and how well you managed them, making you be proud of yourself. A person that is proud of themselves and has the ability to analyze his life not only from a different perspective but with a healthy perspective and open mind is a person that is emotionally healthy.

How can we create and support learning environments that trust students to use their time well and to learn the consequences for themselves of not doing so?

We as teachers must model mindfulness. We must help our students understand the value of mindfulness and the consequences of mindlessness.

Mindlessness is a learned behavior. Mindfulness is a daily practice, moment to moment.

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