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Mindful Teacher, Mindful School: A Must-Read for Every Educator
By Cynthia Nagrath, TIE Staff Writer 20-Apr-18
Spiritual guru and best-selling author Eckhart Tolle tells us, if you want to start meditating, take one conscious breath in and one conscious breath out. In his book, Mindful Teacher, Mindful School, international school veteran Kevin Hawkins takes this instruction to the next level by laying out a practical and insightful guide on how teachers can bring mindfulness to the classroom by first bringing it into their own lives and daily practice. He does this with a simplicity and elegance that can give even the most skeptical reader a clear path forward, providing specific tools and strategies to get you started.
Drawing on his vast experience as a teacher, middle school principal, teacher-trainer, and mindfulness practioner, Hawkins understands that it is not just the job of teachers, but very much the responsibility of a school’s leadership team to create an overall wellness environment in their school community.
Changing the School Culture
The school culture should be one that nurtures the social and emotional development not only of the students but also the entire staff. It might seem like a daunting task to implement such a far-reaching wellness program, but Hawkins’ work can serve as a comprehensive handbook in exploring the process. From understanding mindfulness to following practical exercises and applications, teachers can get started immediately, even in the midst of a hectic school day with a classroom full of students.
“Mindfulness is the awareness that arises when we pay attention, on purpose, in the present moment, with curiosity and kindness, to things as they are.”
Teachers, Put on Your Oxygen Masks
The core theme of the book is that a focus on teacher self-care needs to precede every other effort related to effective teaching. In order to teach mindfulness to their students, teachers must first practice it in their own lives, much the same way airline passengers are advised to adjust their own oxygen mask before helping children to fasten theirs. This is counterintuitive for many teachers evolving in school environments where the outward facing interactions teachers have with students, parents, and administrators require teachers to always be on, which leads to a constant state of physical, mental, and emotional stress.
Teacher burnout is a real phenomenon, as teachers are dealing with increasing performance-related demands and are often dealing with difficult students and challenging conditions. Hawkins highlights recent studies indicating that these increased stress levels are more than anecdotal, and the stress level of teaching today is having a negative impact on our schools and the teaching profession overall.
• Over 40 percent of U.S. teachers leave the profession in the first five years, primarily due to stress and burnout (Ingersol and Stuckey 2014).
• Seventy-five percent of U.K. teachers are suffering from anxiety.
• Eighty-two percent of U.K teachers are suffering from a lack of sleep.
• Seventy-five percent of women teachers report that the job has affected their mental health and wellbeing (NASUWT 2016).
An October 2017 USA Today article reported that teachers’ mental health is declining due to job stress. The article sites a survey by the American Federation of Teachers according to which more than half of the 5,000 educators questioned reported that their mental health is an issue. Fully 58 percent said their mental health was “not good” for seven or more of the previous 30 days. A similar survey in 2015 found that just 34 percent of respondents felt the same.
Teachers are not the only ones experiencing stress in the school community. There has been an alarming increase in mental health issues among children and adolescents in recent years.
• According to a 2012 Chief Medical Officer report, 10 percent of U.K. children have a diagnosable mental disorder (Murphy and Fonagy 2012).
• In 2014, a survey of 830 U.S. college student counseling centers reported a 94 percent increase of “severe psychological problems,” mostly anxiety disorders and serious psychological crises (Gallagher, 2015).
• The World Health Organization (2016) reported that depression is the top cause of illness and disability among adolescents and suicide is the third leading cause of death.
Address the Stress
Lifestyles are out of balance these days with children and adolescents spending more time indoors with digital devices than outdoors in nature and interacting with their peers. The World Health Organization (2016) recommends that schools address these issues. “Building life skills in children and adolescents and providing them with psychosocial support in schools and other community settings can help promote good mental health.” Mindfulness-based interventions present a non-medical, self-regulating solution available to anyone, anytime.
If the causes of stress aren’t likely to go away, then the logical solution is to manage how one deals with stress. Hawkins is careful not to present mindfulness training as the panacea to solve all of these problems but makes a clear case that “Mindful awareness training can help us with challenging experiences and difficult emotions, thoughts and sensations, but we can simply use it for the ease and joy of slowing down, being more in our bodies and being more able to appreciate the present moment.” The 7/11 breathing technique is an easy strategy for beginners.
Your Stress = Their Stress
Nuffield Health, a healthcare company in the U.K., has recommended establishing more Directors of Wellbeing in schools after asking students, “What are the major impacts on your sense of wellbeing in school?” The most common answer was: “How stressed my teacher is today.” Therefore, Hawkins advises teachers that “Keeping your own wellbeing in mind is essential to create the experiential conditions to inspire students to learn.”
In other words, he argues, “How we teach is as important as what we teach.”
The Three Aspects of Mindfulness
Hawkins does not suggest that teachers should start teaching this practice to students directly. He lays out the three steps for schools seeking to establish mindfulness, social-emotional learning, and wellbeing in their communities:
Wellbeing in Schools Is No Longer a Luxury
Hawkins likens the wellbeing movement in schools to the onset of IT in education. For a while it was only the early enthusiasts who utilized computers and technology in the classroom. But he reminds us that, at a certain point, it became untenable for a teacher to say, “I don’t use computers in my classroom.” After a while there was no negotiation—it became a basic requirement. Hawkins predicts that the same shift towards wellbeing will soon be standard, with “an overarching construct for a variety of life-enhancing approaches in schools.”
For any teacher or school looking to start a wellbeing program, Mindful Teacher, Mindful School provides the perfect blueprint for building a mindful school community.
New to meditation? Start with a simple breathing exercise.
This simple technique is a favorite among teachers and students alike when in need of a quick way to calm nerves before an exam, presentation, performance or other stressful moment.
• On an inhale, count to seven and on the next exhale count to eleven.
• Try to match the count to the breath, rather than force the breath to fit the count.
• Pay attention to your counting; this can help unplug from the “story” about the event or feeling.
• Do about three or four of these, really focusing on breath and count, noting any differences.
• Repeat as often as necessary!
The 7/11 is a way of extending our exhalation. When we are stressed, we tend to hold energy inside and in the upper part of the body. Breathing in this way is like sighing—a long letting go of air and accumulated stress—and has a calming effect.
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04/23/2018 - Gail
The focus of the book being reviewed is spot on when it describes the advantages of mindfulness meditation. I am aware that many schools in the UK and the US are employing just these principles. By having the teachers practice it for themselves, they can demonstrate their success to their students. As I read through the review and came to the 7/11 Mindfulness Technique, I attempted to try it for myself. It was hard to match the count to the breath because I found myself forcing the breath to fit the count. It took quite a bit of time to relax enough to attain a balance. This is a practice I plan to repeat. I agree that this practice should be implemented into as many school as possible. The benefits far outweigh any obstacles.