As teachers, we often begin a new school year full of hope, promise, plenty of plans and even more to-do lists. Much attention is given to students feeling nervous on the first day of school; however, the same could be said for many teachers! Teachers are in an almost constant doing, driven mode at the beginning of the school year, as there is so much to get "done." In many ways, this can make for a successful school but it can also contribute towards the ever-rising burnout rate of teachers.
In developing more sustainable schools, we must remember to cultivate joy in our profession and in our classrooms. And in order to do this, we must remember to make room for joy in our own lives. As is often overlooked in the busyness of our days, it is we, the adults, who create the ethos of a school. At Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP), we encourage teachers to first "be mindful" themselves so that they are better able to "teach mindfully", which will better equip them to then "teach mindfulness". So much of creating this type of ethos and climate comes down to relationships - the most obvious ones being the relationships to our students, their parents and our colleagues. However, throughout my years of teaching, the relationship we develop with ourselves has everything to do with the quality of the others. How we engage with our own thoughts, emotions, bodies - and the interrelationship of these - provide a foundational form of knowledge for us as educators and ultimately, as human beings. Just as the APPG on mindfulness in the UK is moving towards building a more mindful nation, politician by politician, we can do the same towards building mindful school communities, teacher by teacher, student by student.
These days, there are many definitions of mindfulness out there, many of which are argued at the textual and semantic level, but in developing a whole school model, it is important to keep the definition accessible and applicable. Ultimately, mindfulness means "to remember" - to remember our core values, our motivations, our key aspirations - in order to approach situations, whether they are perceived as good or bad, in a more aware, constructive and healthy way. It brings us out of automatic pilot and sets us up to approach life in a spirit of inquiry, equanimity, and compassion. This can be extremely beneficial for a school, especially when we are able to transfer the awareness and knowledge gained on the cushion to the larger everyday realities of busy school life.
With a new school year upon us, here are a few key tips to consider towards developing a mindful school culture and to begin right where we are:
1. Start small - remember to begin with yourself. Developing and deepening your own personal mindfulness practice is the most powerful first step. Your "way of being" will speak for itself and have an impact on those around you, both personally and professionally. Consider taking a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) or Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) course near you. If there isn't one, go to UMass MBSR Online for the official online course. MiSP also offers an 8-week course in mindfulness, ".b Foundations", and, beginning this year, will be offering retreats for educators.
2. Group sits - start a daily morning or afternoon group sit with other colleagues. It's a matter of providing the space and opportunity for teachers to come together and practice. This, in turn, nourishes not only a sense of community but also offers reminders to 'season the day' with mindfulness. The practices can be based on MBSR/MBCT or you might consider a book club around Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman and follow the guided practices together. Go to MiSP's website for an excellent selection of books.
3. Start a Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) and Mindfulness Steering Committee at your school - Bring together colleagues who are interested in implementing more school-wide efforts in SEL and mindfulness. But remember it begins with the adults, research shows that any SEL and mindfulness programme is only sustainable when the teachers are also actively nurturing these qualities in themselves. And again, it really comes down to one thing - relationships.
As Jon Kabat-Zinn points out, "listening is an act of love." As educators, let's all do our part to listen more to ourselves and to the young minds in our care, in order to reflect and respond to not only the bigger issues, but, more importantly to appropriately attend to all of the small events, struggles and celebrations that make up our day-to-day lives. May we all flourish and nourish ourselves this year so we are better able to do our part in developing school communities with joy and conviviality.
Mindfulness in Schools Project is a not-for-profit organisation specialising in mindfulness training for school communities - not only the pupils but the teachers, parents and others who care for them. For more information, please visit http://mindfulnessinschools.org/