by Claire Kelly
Like many, I started practising mindfulness because I was in search of something to help me manage the stress of my job. What I wasn’t expecting were the added side effects of greater mental space, room for creativity, and increased teaching efficacy.
Wellbeing and Mindfulness
Over the past ten years, a groundswell of research into mindfulness training (MT) in youth-based contexts has been understandably focused on outcomes for young people. 1 The well-documented benefits include improved emotional regulation (the capacity to effectively manage one’s emotional reactivity), interpersonal relationships, coping with stress, depression and anxiety; and even psycho-biological outcomes such as blood pressure and heart rate. 2
In line with these findings came a recognition that the wellbeing of those working with young people should also be a focus for research. Teacher stress and burnout (exhaustion with depressive symptoms) can negatively impact pupil engagement and learning through teacher absenteeism, and high numbers of people leaving the teaching profession.3 Indeed, 73% of newly qualified teachers in the UK consider leaving. 4
Given these potential negative and costly effects of teacher stress, there is now impetus to identify effective interventions to support teachers to stay healthy and remain within the profession. What is less often mentioned is the extent to which even basic mindfulness skills have the potential to simply make you a better teacher.5
Teaching on Autopilot
Why do teachers teach? Because they enjoy it? Because they want to make a difference? Because they have a passion for their subject and they just want to share it with others? Yet, as we move along the teaching career ladder, we often become disconnected from the very thing that brought us there. Targets, administration, policy development and enforcement begin to take precedence over teaching and learning.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that the word “education” comes from the Latin “educare”, which is often translated as “to lead or draw out”, as opposed to “dump knowledge upon”. However, having taught for many years, I had almost completely lost touch with the excitement of finding new ways to engage and ‘draw out’ learning from those I taught, simply because I was stretched taut in terms of time and energy.
Lack of mental space is stifling for anyone, but particularly when faced by a group of 30 teenagers. You desperately want to bring them with you on a learning journey, yet they know within seconds of you starting a class you have taught 20 times before that your heart just isn’t in it. In turn, nor is theirs.
As I entered Week five of an eight-week mindfulness course, I realised that I had been teaching on autopilot for years! My mind had been elsewhere while my body went through the motions of ‘bestowing knowledge’ on the groups before me. There was no room for creativity, no opportunity for the students to draw learning (and thereby any sense of self-efficacy) from their own discoveries. It was stifling for them and for me.
So how does mindfulness help? On a fundamental level, the present moment awareness that lies at the core of mindfulness practice provides great opportunities for teaching and learning. When fully present (as opposed to one’s mind being on one of the hundred other tasks needing completion that day), the capacity to really listen to what your students have to say is increased. You begin to pick up on subtle signals that a student may be struggling or on a point of discovery, and needs gently nudging this way or that to help them extend their understanding. In effect, we begin putting the learner at the heart of teaching and learning, encouraging students towards self-knowledge, accompanying them on that journey.
There is now a growing body of research evidence that mindfulness training for school staff may develop an increased capacity to decentre from strong or difficult thoughts and emotions, and increase self-compassion.6 With this comes greater professional self-efficacy (the belief in one’s ability to persevere with a course of action in pursuit of a valued goal).7 In turn, higher teacher self-efficacy has been linked to perseverance with challenging students and improved pupil behaviour in the classroom8. What does this look like in the classroom?
Let’s imagine you have a student in your class who regularly ‘presses your buttons’ through talking while you are talking or not paying full attention to instructions.
In that moment you may notice your own reactivity: a tightening in the jaw and chest; a sense of rising anger; an urge to call them out and humiliate them in front of their peers. Yet, with this inevitably comes a shift of atmosphere in the class as a whole – a mirrored ‘tightening’ then pervades the rest of the session, stifling creativity and any joy in learning. And what nearly always follows is your own sense of shame or disappointment that you ‘lost it’, and with it, you lost the group as a whole. What mindfulness training can do is help you to recognise those signs of reactivity, ground yourself long enough to be able to step back from any urges to shout or humiliate, and then re-engage with more calm and a sense of self-efficacy.
You may even take the time to talk to the student in question afterwards, seeking to understand rather than be understood. There is nearly always a deeper cause for poor behaviour in class, yet we rarely take the time to fully understand where it is coming from. You may even find yourself bringing that student on board, giving them a sense that they have been heard, acknowledged and valued.
In summary, emotion regulation and self-efficacy in teachers contributes to effective teaching practice. In turn, the potential here to fundamentally change the “weather” in the classroom and the staff room is profound.
Changing the weather in the classroom and the staffroom
In the busyness of our days working with young people it can be easy to slip back into long-established teaching habits. This is not usually the result of laziness or lack of vision, but often an act of self-preservation as we simply try to get through the day in one piece.
Yet, through practising mindfulness, I have learned that it doesn’t need to be that way. Mindfulness has helped me develop emotional resilience and reduced reactivity. With this has come greater mental space and clarity, and the potential to be creative and fully present in my teaching. When I notice myself slipping back into my old habits, I remind myself that it is not always what we teach but how we teach, and indeed simply how we are with those young people we have the privilege of working with.
Haim Ginnot sums it up beautifully in Teacher and Child (1993):
“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I’m the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather.….. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humour, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or de-humanized.”
Claire Kelly is the Mindfulness in Schools Project Director of Curriculum & Training.