Back To School

by Richard Burnett

Hands up, teachers, if you don’t like the start of term. You know, that bit where all the adults come together and discuss sensible things, the boring part. I mean, didn’t we become teachers so that we could teach children? Do we really need to do all of this … other stuff?

Of course, we do. It is all necessary and important. But it strikes me at the start of every term that schools, as organisations, are strange and wonderful places.

Last week I was lucky enough to visit the Oxford Mindfulness Centre’s 2019 Summer School. This was a different kind of school – full of adults who loved the subject enough to give up a week of holiday for it. Only one week long. No homework.

The OMC, if you’ve not heard of it, sits within Oxford University’s Department of Psychiatry and is one of the world’s foremost centres of excellence in mindfulness. If we worry that the recent popularisation and ‘shallowing out’ of mindfulness will lead to it dying out as just another fad, then it ought to provide at least some reassurance that a Professorship in Mindfulness and Psychological Science was recently endowed, in perpetuity, at one of the planet’s oldest academic institutions.

Chris Tamdjidi, Director of the Kalapa Leadership Academy, gave an excellent talk on mindfulness in the workplace. He has worked with organisations big and small across the world. But it got me thinking about these strange and wonderful places – schools – as organisations.

Everything Chris was saying rang true when I thought about it at the level of Senior Leadership Teams, Boards of Governors and teams of support staff – in other words at the level of the adults who work together to run the place. Some teams already work brilliantly together and others need help, with all the inevitable disfunction, inefficiencies, egos and agendas that might beset a team in the commercial world. In this context, mindfulness is not a million miles from mindfulness in any other workplace.

But there is another level at which schools are extraordinary beasts, and why implementing mindfulness in schools is a particularly fine art.

The answer, of course, is that they are full of children. And teachers.

One of many strange things about schools as organisations is that most of the adults – the teachers – don’t actually work together – at least not in the normal sense. We might see each other at the start of every term for meetings and CPD when we wish we didn’t have to. We might see each other in the staff room during break when we wish we had more time. But most of us, most of the time, are in the classroom, and when we are in the classroom we are more or less on our own.

Except, that is, for the 30 or so other human beings in the room and the reason we teach: the children.

A school might, like any organisation, be a collective of people and processes with a common purpose, but for those 50 or so minutes each class becomes its own little world, six or seven times every day. At any moment in a school there might be dozens or even hundreds of lessons being taught – entirely separate from each other – each with its own colour and climate, determined to a significant extent by the calibre and character of the teacher.

So the alchemy of a school is that for most of every day it is an ‘organisation’ that functions in a way that is remarkably flat and fragmented. Children are the lifeblood of the school and they are taught in separate cells (in the organism sense, not the prison one!) with each cell having its own dynamic, for better or worse.

In secondary education, pupils are taught a different subject by a different teacher, often in very different ways from lesson to lesson. This variety is the beauty of the beast. And which lessons do you remember? Which teachers got you thinking and got you learning? Which made the greatest impact on you? The geek? The performer? The crazy one? The quieter one? The one who entertained you? The one who surprised you? The one who listened to you?

So do we actually want all classroom teachers to be ‘mindful’ this term? At one level yes, of course we do, in the same way we want them to be kind, to be patient, to be more aware of what is unfolding in their lessons, to notice their own reactivity and nip the unkind comment in the bud.

But do we want every teacher in a school to ‘practise’ mindfulness on a daily basis? No, certainly not. I think this is unrealistic and unhelpful. I worry sometimes when I hear fervent practitioners talk about developing a ‘mindful school’. What do they mean by this? Do they mean everybody practising together on a regular basis? Do they mean an obligatory silence at the start of every lesson? I hope not. It is unlikely that the eccentric maths teacher with HFA will join a group sit; you will not get the Spanish teacher they call Dora the Explorer to start with silence if she usually starts with a song.

What then, do we mean by a genuinely ‘mindful school’?

We do not mean that, at the start of every term, all teachers are obliged to do a body scan as part of CPD. For some in the staff room, this will only deepen their September gloom.

It means a school where mindfulness is accepted and understood. It is learned by children as a basic skill in the same way as reading, writing and counting.

I might not be the English or Maths teacher, but I understand and appreciate why children learn these things. It is the same with Art, Music, Physics or History. I might not teach them, but each of these subjects has its place as a discipline in a school and is respected. Children do enough of them to know what they are. Some give them up, some keep them going a little, others become experts. Our hope is that mindfulness is available to all and a healthy part of every school’s ecology.

I remember the chess player, Jonathan Rowson, describing to me how mindful attention is like a fifth limb, reaching out for sensory experience and becoming more skilled in managing it. Not to cultivate our pupils’ capacity for mindful attention would be like depriving them of this extra limb, a part of what we sometimes call ‘executive function’. In a mindful school, mindfulness is understood by teachers and pupils alike as a capacity that we all have. It is a mode of mind worth cultivating, a gear worth finding.

I remind myself of this now as term begins. It is always a gear I find myself reaching for when the meetings are going on too long. Schools are strange and wonderful places …


MiSP offers several ways to bring mindfulness to your school …

  • Start with learning about mindfulness yourself on our 8-week online course: .begin
  • Get a one-day introduction to the science of mindfulness and learn to deliver our four lesson .breathe curriculum to help students through transition: teach .breathe
  • For those teachers who have already participated in an 8-week mindfulness course, train to teach mindfulness to your pupils with Teach Paws b (7-11) or Teach .b (11-18).