Every teacher has his or her own story about becoming an educator. Mine began with a journey from the East Coast to the West in the late 1970’s, to explore the beginnings of a movement that is now being called Contemplative Practice, or, Mindfulness in Education. For me, it was more of a personal journey, since becoming a teacher was not yet on my agenda. Not until I realized that the work I do is less meaningful, unless it is shared and passed on, did I fully embrace my path as an educator.
For the seven years I lived in San Francisco I involved myself in holistic healing practices. I worked with a yoga instructor who rehabilitated bald eagles using yoga practices. I studied the movement therapy techniques of Feldenkrais and Alexander to better understand my body in space and time. I worked with biofeedback to discover my ability to self-regulate. I engaged in Eastern Meditative practices and transcendental meditation to help cope with stress. I practiced Tai Chi and learned how to slow down and engage the core of my body in ways us Westerners, with our rapid-fire movements and ‘head-first’ methods had not yet truly experienced. It was not until I moved back East and took notice that the East Coast was way behind the West in the understanding of the mind, brain, and body connection, that I realized my path as a teacher, and resolved to incorporate mindful work in to my teaching practice.
It has taken almost twenty-five years for the world of contemplative practice and the world of teaching and learning, to meaningfully come together for the good of education in this country. There are now programs, such as “Mind-Up” and “Mindful Schools” in California working to transform schools by engaging students and educators in mindful practices. There are institutes and networks devoted to supporting research in mind/brain education and connecting research to practice in the classroom to help support student engagement, combat student and teacher burn-out, and promote better understanding of the connection between stress and poor performance. Now that we are better able to make these connections and begin quantifying what we always anecdotally and intuitively knew, these practices are becoming more mainstream.
How to incorporate these practices in the daily life of the classroom has been both my joy and my challenge. I have had the good fortune to work at a school that embraces the concept of Wellness as a deep and varied practice, valuable in its own right as an important part of learning. It is essential, in my view, that schools include contemplative practice as a 21st century skill, along with critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity (the 5th “C” if you will). What I have come to realize is that there are two ways to include mindful practice in the classroom. One way is to make room for it in the curriculum as a discrete practice. The other way is to infuse everything you do and teach with the energy of contemplation and deep awareness.
The first way is, in a sense, the easier way. It requires some creativity in terms of fitting it in to the daily schedule, but short and simple lessons and practice sessions can be developed. Last year I had the idea to begin our day with what I coined, “Call to Wellness”. I never liked how those first fifteen minutes of the morning went as children came in at different times with varied energy and baggage from their early mornings at home. Morning meetings helped, but required a plunge in to group activity, and/or staying seated and listening, which students need to do for large chunks of the school day. Morning routines required students to think about organization and expectations first thing upon arrival. What I wanted was for students to be calmly and happily ready to engage in learning. So, instead, as students arrive they quietly put their backpacks in their cubbies and come join us as we are in the process of practicing Tai Ji Qi Gong, a simpler form of Tai Chi that is easy for students to learn. No talking, only concentrated movement. From there we sit silently, with our eyes closed, for a few moments of mindful breathing before I greet each student in our circle, attending to their expressions and mindfully connecting with each child. This morning practice takes about ten minutes.
Another time I incorporate mindful practice in the day is immediately after lunch. Students come in to class and put their heads down on their tables. I talk them through a guided muscle relaxing and breathing exercise, and then encourage them to let go of feelings they don’t want to carry with them as they consciously exhale. We greet each other, again, as our afternoon begins. This afternoon practice takes about 3 minutes. These practices are acknowledged on our schedule, not as add-ons, but as important parts of our day.
The second way of including mindful practice is the most difficult, since it requires teachers to be trained to embody values of mindfulness that transcend the obvious, more accessible ways of talking about it and planning lessons around it. This, as teachers, and teacher trainers and mentors is our challenge. In order to do what is necessary to turn our classrooms in to mindful learning spaces we need to learn to regulate our voices, tune in to our gestures, and create an atmosphere where inner work is possible. I believe this is necessary in order to engage in and reflect on learning, and self-regulate behavior in the classroom. We need to provide training and opportunities for teachers to experience this for themselves in a personal way so they can then teach these skills authentically and with understanding.
I don’t know if it would be possible for me, now, to do what I do without the personal experience I had when I began this teaching journey. I hope to be able to work together with teachers, to bring these practices to life in all classrooms. I also know many of you are probably doing remarkable things in the classroom that may fall under the heading of contemplative or mindful practice. I hope we can share these ideas together to help better incorporate this fifth “C” as we continue to delineate and design best practices in teaching and learning. I look forward to engaging on discussion and sharing ideas!