Yesterday (30th October 2019), I delivered a workshop at the ELTC called Mindfulness in Teaching.
I started by asking participants to articulate how they were feeling, what emotions they could notice and what sensations they could feel in their bodies. Then we did a quick meditation (the one that I normally use at the start of my classes with students at USIC). Then I asked them again how they felt, to notice the difference.
The outline of my session was as follows:
What is Mindfulness?
I asked everyone (I say everyone, there were three attendees plus the other TD coordinator!) in pairs to discuss what they understood from the term mindfulness and then shared a definition taken from Emma Reynolds’s recent webinar on Mindfulness for Macmillan Education:
“Mindfulness is being aware of what you are doing, whilst you are doing it, without judgement.”
(The ‘without judgement’ bit is important, as you can be very aware of what you are doing when you are resenting every moment, which is not mindfulness!)
Why use it ourselves?
I gave this equation as the basis for my explanation:
“Stress management + greater enjoyment = better wellbeing”
Talking about stress first, I borrowed from Emma Reynolds again, asking participants if they ever felt stressed (and of course the answer was yes – everyone feels stress!) and then using that as the basis to talk about what stress is i.e. the result of a chain of processes that starts with a trigger. The trigger is anything, whether internal or external, that the amygdala perceives as a threat. When a threat is perceived, the amygdala pushes the thinking part of the brain out of the way and swiftly prepares the body for fight or flight (or possibly freeze!). A useful survival mechanism when tigers and the like were a regular issue, not so useful at work. Mindfulness enables us to interrupt the mechanism and engage the thinking part of the brain, meaning we can manage whatever is troubling us better.
In terms of greater enjoyment, I explained that this is because mindfulness means being more present (without judgement) and spending less time ruminating about past events or worrying about future ones (or indeed resenting current ones). As well as being a relief (as we do not have to be a slave to our thoughts and wandering mind), this means that when we are doing something enjoyable, we are able to enjoy it more.
Here I talked about formal practice (meditation – no need for bells or being crosslegged!) and informal practice (bringing awareness to everyday activities, savouring things and bringing gratitude to experiences). I signposted 30 ways to Mindfulness which is a pdf that is available to download for free from the Life-Resourceful website to give participants of specific ideas for how to do this.
Using it with students
Having discussed the benefits of using it ourselves, I moved on to talk about possibilities for using it with students. This part of the talk then drew on the session I did with teachers here at USIC at the beginning of term but with an additional aspect of informal integration of mindfulness into lessons. First I myth-busted using meditation with students (it’s not just for monks, they won’t think you are crazy, you don’t need to be a mindfulness expert to do it, it’s not a waste of time or weird) and one of the participants added the question of religion and whether it might be seen as dogmatic. I explained that mindfulness meditation is not religious, as there is no deity involved, and is simply paying attention to the present moment through the senses.
After myth-busting, I talked about how I set up using mindfulness meditation with students: handing out a printout of the meditation, getting them to discuss what it was, the purpose of it and potential benefits of using it regularly and at the start of classes. The idea is to get some buy-in from the students. Feedback from my students (you can see it in this post), which I displayed and let speak for itself, was resoundingly positive. Since collecting this feedback, some of my colleagues have also started using mindfulness meditation with their students and I have started doing it with my new groups this academic year. Here is the feedback from the three students from my group this term so far who have completed my mid-term course questionnaire, in which I asked a question about the meditation:
(I will update this when they’ve all done that bit of homework!!)
As well as doing a meditation (concentration training, basically!) at the start of class, I have started to try and integrate the concepts into lessons by trying to raise students’ awareness of how the brain works. That is to say, the mind wanders. It is normal for the mind to wander, that’s what it does! The trick is to notice when it wanders and bring it back to the present moment. Notice again, bring it back again. And again. And again. Many times over. This is crucial for example when students are listening to a lecture recording in a listening class or exam. If they lose concentration, they miss vital information. And they WILL lose concentration (see above!). Therefore it is of value for them to be aware of this and to train themselves to notice when their mind wanders and bring it back. The sooner they notice, the less information they will miss. I used this image to introduce this idea to my students:
Another aspect of Mindfulness that can be helpful for students is in the context of nerves for example before an exam or presentation. Nervous stress/anxiety is the result of future worries (what if I don’t understand the recording? what if I forget what I am supposed to say? what if I fail? My parents will kill me etc). It happens to us all but it is something that mindfulness can help with. By noticing the stress response and re-engaging the thinking part of the brain (by reconnecting with the body, through the senses), we can calm down and deal with the situation more effectively. (Let’s face it, if the thinking part of the brain is re-engaged, the exam or presentation is much more likely to go well than if the lizard brain is in charge sending us into panic mode!)
This brought me to the end of the session, and I finished with my top tip for when your mind is racing (e.g. when you are trying to sleep), which I actually got from Padraig O’Morain: Focus on your feet. Your feet are the part of your body furthest away from your mind. If you keep bringing your attention to your feet (and your mind will keep trying to take it away again of course but just bring it back to your feet and repeat and repeat), eventually your mind will realise you aren’t listening and calm down. I use this tip often and it is very useful in the context of falling asleep! 🙂
These are the extra resources I shared at the end:
Do you use mindfulness? Yourself? With students? Would love to hear what your favourite mindfulness techniques are, if so, so please do comment! 🙂