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Mindfulness for Educators 101

In this edition of Teaching Tips we explore another strand of our work – mindfulness. We define mindfulness as the natural human capacity to pay attention to our experience as it is happening in real time. Unfortunately, our current way of life typically overrides this innate capacity— and we too often unwittingly train ourselves in distraction, inattention, stress and lack of awareness of ourselves and others.

There is another option. We don’t have to be completely beholden to busyness and the attractions of the digital universe.  We can choose to intentionally cultivate our capacity to be present and to attend to inner and outer experiences through practices that strengthen awareness in the same way that physical exercise strengthens our natural capacities for strength, flexibility, and endurance. The growing body of brain research tells us that when we do practice mindfulness, we enhance our ability to focus, regulate challenging emotions, extend compassion and kindness to ourselves, and expand our capacity for joy and wonder.

The capacities cultivated by mindfulness are also deeply connected to our aspirations to positively transform classroom and school culture. When we can recognize and let go of habitual and unhelpful thoughts, work with and regulate difficult emotions, and consciously cultivate kindness, compassion and gratitude, we also:

  • develop our social and emotional competencies
  • become capable of recognizing and letting go of implicit biases
  • learn to co-regulate with students, colleagues, parents who have histories of trauma
  • and prepare to facilitate the  successful implementation of restorative practices in discipline.

In short, when schools and educators commit to mindfulness practice, we are better able to create school and classroom cultures that support the healthy and successful development and learning of all our students.

Because of our daily and lifelong training in distraction, the core practice of mindfulness is simple but not always easy. In mindfulness practice we:

  • stop and pause
  • bring attention to our present moment experience with curiosity rather than judgement
  • notice when attention has wandered from the present moment
  • gently return attention to the present moment—over and over again.

As beginners, we typically practice mindfulness by paying attention to the physical sensations of the body breathing.  This simple, single focus helps build the mindfulness “muscle” that over time we can extend to more and more elements of our experience.

When we practice mindfulness, we inevitably notice that despite our intention to pay attention to the present moment and body breathing, the mind incessantly wanders. The mind is a kind of thought-generating machine.  And, yet, when the mind wanders, marvelously, without having to do anything consciously, we eventually become aware that our attention has moved from the breath. Our minds will always wander and our awareness will always notice.  We can then take note of where the mind has gone, label it “thinking,” and gently return attention to the breath. We practice neither repressing the distraction of the thinking mind nor indulging it.

As thoughts, emotions or sensations inevitably arise, we can bring curiosity rather than judgment to our experience—and then simply and gently return to the breath. The cultivation of curiosity over judgment develops kindness, self compassion, and even humor towards our habitual patterns.  “There it is, again. And again.  And again….”—we might say to ourselves. In this way, we create a new internal habit of curiosity that can be used in any situation in which we are learning something new but find ourselves slipping back into unwanted old habits.  When we replace aggression toward our mistakes with gentleness and even amusement, everything gets a lot easier and more joyful.

In our school settings, we can take even a few moments before or between classes or at the beginning of a meeting to engage in the practice described above.  Pausing in this way can support us to reset and refresh ourselves—and it might even shift the way we experience our day and show up for ourselves and our students.

If you would like to sample a version of this simple practice, please click here and scroll down to listen to the guided Pause practice in English or Spanish.  Feel free to download it to your phone and share it with others.  Enjoy this or other supports to build mindfulness into every day.

Every year, in the Spring and Fall semester, PassageWorks Institute offers SMART in Education™  – an evidenced-based personal renewal program designed especially for faculty and staff working in ECE-12 settings – in school districts in the Boulder and Denver metro areas.  Schools and school districts often offer fee subsidies to support educators and staff who want to attend the program.  Please check our calendar for courses offered in your school districts.  We are working on our schedule for Spring 2019 and will have live registration sites by December.  Stay tuned!!

Please email Rona Wilensky (rwilensky@passageworks.org), Director of Mindfulness Programs, for more information on how you can bring this program to all teachers and staff at your school.

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