Learn to be more mindful. It’s likely been on your mental to-do list for years, somewhere between Lose 10 pounds and Get your finances in order. And over the past decade or so, mindfulness has crept its way into the conversation around innovation in education. But while much of the conversation focuses on student-centric initiatives, there’s real evidence that cultivating teachers’ mindfulness practice can have a significant influence on the classroom experience. Read on for the latest, and for a look at two prominent programs that are helping teachers jump in and get started.
Patricia Jennings started practicing Zen meditation at age 17 and, when she began her career as an educator, incorporating mindfulness into her classroom felt like a no-brainer. “Bringing mindfulness into my teaching practice, being present with my students, seemed to really benefit me in my teaching,” says Jennings. But it wasn’t until she started supervising student teachers as an adjunct professor that she saw a real opportunity. “I started thinking, mindfulness might help teachers be more aware of themselves and notice their own emotions better.” And if they could better regulate those emotions, she posited, especially in an environment like the classroom where taking a break and leaving the room typically isn’t an option, they might also respond better to student misbehavior, improve classroom management skills, and develop stronger relationships with students.
After finishing her doctorate, Jennings and two other colleagues went on to develop CARE for Teachers, a program that delivers a combination of emotion skills training and mindful awareness practices. Educators typically participate in a series of four full-day workshops with the CARE team, a one-day booster, and check-ins between sessions by phone. Using the aforementioned model, the team just completed a recent study in New York City that involved 224 teachers and 36 schools and netted impressive results: Teachers who participated reported significant increases in adaptive emotion regulation and mindfulness, along with significant reductions in psychological distress and time urgency (that stressful feeling of never having enough hours in a day). The study also found that the training fostered more emotionally-positive classrooms, teachers who were more sensitive to student needs, and a more productive use of time for learning—supporting the theory that teachers’ well-being and the classroom environment are inextricably linked.
There’s a similar philosophy at Mindful Schools, an organization that got its start in California in 2007 and has since trained more than 25,000 educators from all over the world. While the group supports teachers interested in implementing mindfulness techniques directly with students, they strongly recommend that teachers start by developing a personal practice. Their introductory course, “Mindfulness Fundamentals,” covers techniques focused on improving the individual’s well-being, reducing stress, and increasing focus and emotional balance. Oren J. Sofer, a senior program developer with Mindful Schools, explains: “You need to have a personal understanding of what you’re teaching. If you were teaching someone to swim but you’d never been in the water before, you wouldn’t be a very effective swim instructor.” When a teacher has experience with the benefits, techniques, and challenges of a mindfulness practice, says Sofer, “Not only is that going to make them a better mindfulness instructor, but it’s going to make them a better teacher.” And even if a teacher never directly teaches mindfulness to their students, the benefits to the teacher are well-documented and, in turn, have an effect on the how a teacher manages their classroom. As their practice develops, “They’re going to be more available, they’re going to be more present, they’re going to be more responsive to their students.”
Even if you’re not quite ready to make the leap into a full-fledged mindfulness practice, there are easy ways to test the waters. Next time those feelings of stress and anxiety start to creep in, whether at home or at school, “Stop and take three deep breaths—three deep, mindful breaths—and just pause. Just take a break,” suggests Jennings. Often that simple act can stop your “fight or flight” response in its tracks and allow you to more calmly pick up where you left off. And from there? Stay focused on that next breath. And the one that follows. And the one after that…