Five things I learned after five weeks of teaching mindfulness to teachers

Earlier this spring, after years of research and personal practice, I decided to finally put my thoughts together and offer a mindfulness-based class on teaching and wellness. The class is modeled after the popular 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program developed at the Massachusetts General Hospital, with readings, practices, and discussions designed specifically for teachers. If you’re interested in learning more about how these types of classes work, there are hundreds of online resources you can find through a basic Google search. There are even MBSR classes available for free, although I have not yet found a free one designed specifically for teachers.

For those of you unfamiliar with MBSR type programs, I think it would be helpful to describe some of the basics of this class. First, the students are exposed to videos, articles, and other media relating to the science and practice of mindfulness. Each week’s content is tied to a specific topic and practice in the 8-week MBSR sequence. Each weekly unit also introduces a foundational formal practice, such as sitting meditation, body scans, and yoga, paired with what are called “informal practices”. The informal practices are mostly about applications of mindfulness in teaching and learning. Finally, the class meets once a week to debrief and discuss each unit’s content and practices.

The overall sequence of the course starts with practices designed to increase awareness and attention, followed by strategies for dealing with reactivity, stress, and negative emotions, and concludes with methods for improving interpersonal relationships. We are currently a little over half way through the course, and I thought it would be interesting to share some of my impressions so far.

Heightened awareness can be therapeutic

It is interesting to see what happens when we refine our awareness and come face-to-face with our often reactive and unfocused habits of mind. Many teachers in the class were simply shocked at the amount of time they spend mindlessly reacting to situations, engaging in negative self-talk, and “going through the motions”. While this realization was uncomfortable at first, some teachers have started to comment on the value of just being open to their experience in a more direct and less judgmental way. Many have noted that allowing thoughts to surface, rather than suppressing them, has helped them shift to a more curious rather than reactive disposition. This has allowed them to be more present for others, as they are not overly involved in their internal dialogues and reactions.

Learning what we can and can’t control is difficult

I’ve written before about the pitfalls of well-intended perfectionism. While there is certainly nothing wrong with having high standards, having impossible standards and then beating ourselves up when we don’t reach these standards can lead to tremendous and often unnecessary suffering. In mindfulness, we learn to see the world the way it is rather than how we think it should be. It’s not that we don’t strive to make things better for ourselves and others, it’s that we decouple our intentions from our expectations. We can strive for better while knowing that there is very little in the world that is completely under our control. For some students in the class, it has been difficult to let go of expectations about what they think they should be getting from these practices. Some have expressed feelings of failure when things haven’t gone exactly how they imagined. Of course, real changes take time, and there is no way to “get ahead” in mindfulness. In a world in which we are used to instant gratification and the illusion of control, grappling with our own limitations can be both difficult and immensely liberating.

The space to choose is powerful

We should be grateful for those habits that we have cultivated purposefully, especially when they benefit ourselves as well as others. However, many of our mental habits, including unchecked reactions, anxieties, and fears, often lead to unnecessary suffering and delusions about reality. The practice of mindfulness is all about giving yourself the mental space to notice these reactions as they arise, examine their triggers, and over time, increase your capacity to choose your actions. This begins with the simple act of being present and allowing some space between your internal reactions and what follows. One teacher remarked that after a few weeks of practice, he began to notice the swell of physiological activity that would occur during difficult teaching situations, and how the simple act of noticing gave him space to choose wiser and more compassionate actions. This mental “gap”, which is actively cultivated during mindfulness, is perhaps one of the most powerful outcomes of the practice.

Group discussions are tremendously therapeutic

It has been incredibly inspiring to witness the therapeutic effect of providing teachers with the space to come together and discuss their difficulties, insights, and triumphs in a safe and nurturing environment. There is something powerful about knowing that we are not alone in our suffering and insecurity, and conversely, that there is joy to be found in the success of others.

Every little bit helps

As expected, many teachers have been unable to consistently complete all of the readings and practices required for the class. Despite this, it appears that even small amounts of practice have been beneficial. This makes me hopeful for the efficacy of these types of programs, as we all know how difficult it can be for teachers to find enough time in their schedule for regular practice. In the coming weeks, I hope you’ll come back and learn about some of the teaching related practices we are exploring in the class. Over time, it is my hope to develop a specific set and sequence of practices that might be beneficial for teachers on a limited schedule, or for those who simply want to explore these practices on a more ad-hoc basis. While there is of course, no substitute for regular practice, even limited practice might be beneficial for those interested.

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