Mindfulness for teachers and learners – musings a year on

It’s been just under (edit: just **over** a year! Life got in the way of this blog post – book chapter resubmission deadline and last few weeks of term, I’m looking at you!!)  a year since the universe conspired to guide me towards taking up mindfulness. The 2nd of March, apparently, so 10 days hence (edit: 8 days ago!) will be the anniversary of when I picked up my first book about Mindfulness – “Mindfulness for worriers” by Padraig O’Morain. At about the same time, Rachael Roberts promoted her 30 ways to Mindfulness book which you can obtain from her very thought-provoking website, and the then TD coordinators promoted a certain Futurelearn course (see below!) Since then, I’ve learnt a lot about Mindfulness and developed my own practice of it, doing multiple courses, reading around it and integrating it into my daily personal and professional life and into my teaching. This blog post is a reflection on what has changed for me in the last nearly a year.

The first aspect of the journey has been learning about mindfulness and trying to apply it. There are two Futurelearn courses about it – Mindfulness for wellbeing and peak performance (this is the one the TD coordinators promoted and it is running again starting on Monday!) and Maintaining a mindful life (this is aimed at people who have already done the wellbeing and peak performance one) – delivered by Monash university and I have done each of them a couple of times, getting more out of them each time as my practice has developed. My choice of tense is deliberate – I am still learning about it and will probably repeat those courses again this year. As with many things in life, the scope for learning with mindfulness is infinite, because as you evolve so what you take from courses or reading etc evolves too. Here are some things I have learnt:

  • I have learnt how to be more aware of where my mind is and bring it back to the present moment when it wanders. (Some mind-wandering is harmless but general lack of awareness of where the mind is can lend itself to worrying/rumination/awfulising/catastrophising.) I have spent a year gently training my ability to bring my mind back to the present moment whenever I notice it wandering, so that I am better able to that when it goes in a direction I don’t want to go in. Which leads me to…
  • I have learnt that I am not at the mercy of my thoughts, I don’t have to follow them all or get bogged down by then. They are there and there will always be new thoughts popping into my mind, but just like buses coming past a bus stop, I can choose whether or not to board them.
  • I have learnt a lot about how the mind works. This includes the different parts of the mind and the different systems at play in the mind, as well as how they influence my behaviour. As a consequence I am better able to recognise what is going on in my mind at various times/in various situations and use that knowledge to influence the direction things take. This is partly as a result of the Futurelearn courses, partly as a result of extra reading and partly as a result of Rachael Roberts’s Facebook group, Life-Resource Lightbulb Moments, which is connected with her blog too. One of the many things that has happened in this group is a virtual book group – we all read (well I am still reading!) The Chimp Paradox. This has involved reading a portion of it and then discussing it on a thread within the group. I wouldn’t have read the book (or as much as I have so far, ongoing!) without the recommendation and the motivation of the reading group, much less had the opportunity to discuss it. So, if you are interested in mindfulness and how the mind works, join the group!
  • I have learnt how to meditate and how much I need it in my life! I now meditate for approx 40 minutes in the evening before bed and sometimes I manage to do a bit before work too. Minor meditative moments can also occur throughout the day. Fridays include extra meditation but more about this later! Meditation has a positive effect on the brain. For me, my evening meditation routine has really helped my sleep – I fall asleep much easier after it. Occasions where I can’t get to sleep because I am too wound up about something are much fewer and further between.
  • I have learnt to use red traffic lights as a mindfulness bell. So, rather than getting annoyed by a minor delay, I use them as a reminder to be fully present. They are little islands of calm in the commute now instead of irritation points. In connection, I have learnt to accept that Sheffield drivers are frequently rather inconsiderate and unpleasant, and not use up precious energy in getting worked up about it. Getting worked up doesn’t change their behaviour, it just affects me negatively.
  • I have learnt  how to deal with stress more effectively. Case in point the last couple of weeks. A colleague I work closely off has been on sick leave, resulting in a big increase in my workload. Where in the past I would have used a LOT of energy and time worrying about not being able to do everything, this time I communicated calmly with the leader relating to one of the hats I wear and explained what was happening to the other hat, then made myself an extensive list of things to do for said other hat and how to do them. Then it was just a case of focusing my energy on ticking them off, one at a time. Crucially, when the weekend arrived and I went home (and indeed each evening when I went home during the week), I deliberately focused my mind away from work and onto home stuff, allowing my mind and body a rest from the stress. (This is where the mindfulness concentration training comes in – being aware of when it started to wander towards work meant I could bring it back, repeatedly, away from work rather than being in a constant state of high alert due to stress.) Last year when a workload-time-related stressful situation arose, I handled it a lot less well – communicated unmindfully and spent far too much time panicking. The issue was resolved fairly quickly but it could have been resolved a lot more effectively. Live and learn! And Iearning I am!
  • I am much more aware of when my mind is slipping into states that are not useful to me. I’m human, so it is prone to do so! Thus, if something happens which goes against what I would like to happen (holiday to Sicily that was meant to happen on Monday next week but is now cancelled, I’m looking at you!), yes I am angry and disappointed, but I also choose to limit the amount of time and energy I allow myself to spend on that. Better to accept that it is what it is, find things to be grateful about (e.g. it would be a lot more stressful for me if I were already there and the lock-down kicked off!) and refocus on now and things I CAN influence (e.g. this will be a useful opportunity to knock my garden/greenhouse into shape ready for growing everything that is currently germinating in my propagators! I will also have more time to complete this fundraising challenge that I am currently undertaking!) By being better able to notice when my mind is slipping into those states that are not useful, through mindfulness meditation training, I can redirect it sooner and more effectively. Multiple times.

As well as learning more about Mindfulness and using it myself, I have in the past year also used it with students in the form of a short (+-2 minute) meditation at the start of each lesson. Feedback from various groups of different levels has been primarily positive. Out of 65 responses gathered thus far, 57 have given positive feedback (relating to concentration, calmness, relaxing stress etc.), 5 have said they aren’t sure or not helpful but not unhelpful, 1 said it wasn’t helpful due to being too short and 2 said it made them feel sleepy! For some of those who respond positively, it seems to make a huge difference. Here are some of the comments that came with the feedback:

This was indirect feedback i.e. the students mentioned the meditation in a question not relating to the meditation!

These below are all in response to more direct questioning:

All in all, I feel this has been a very positive outcome. Mindfulness and education is becoming a more popular topic of discussion, even in ELT, with Pearson recently hosting a series of three webinars about it, and it is definitely something I want to pursue further. At the moment, the start-of-lesson meditation is the main extent of what I do, with a little bit of focus on concentration, particularly in relation to listening to a 10 minute lecture twice, having already listened to fifteen minutes worth of twice-repeated conversations, as my students have to do in their listening exam. In the future, I want to look more into how I can help them train their concentration and do this more systematically.

All that really remains to  be said now, then, is thank you universe for starting me on my mindfulness journey just over a year ago! 🙂

Do you practice mindfulness? When did you start? What changes have you noticed since then?

TD Workshop – Mindfulness in Teaching

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.

How?

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.

How?

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! 🙂

 

Macmillan World Teachers Day Online Conference – Emma Reynolds: Mind full or Mindful?

On the 2nd October 2019, Macmillan Education hosted an online conference in honour of World Teachers Day. I managed to tune in for Emma Reynolds who presented second, though I had to leave before it finished as the day was running late and I had a meeting to attend. I have finally caught up with what I missed via the Youtube recording of the event. (Check it out if you also missed out!)

Emma is an MBSR-accredited teacher who lives just outside Barcelona. This is her website and here is the Macmillan recording (again) but cued to her session (which I really recommend watching – she delivers it in a very engaging way and you get to experience mindfulness rather than just read about it in my blog post!)

Her session was called…

Mind full? Or Mindful?

She started by inviting us all to close our eyes and just notice sound. That could be sounds in the room, sounds outside, even the sound of our own breathing. Then we were asked to notice our breathing and the movement of breath in and out of the body. In other words, a very brief awareness of sounds and breathing meditation. A quick, easy way to get back in touch with the senses, which is one of the key elements of mindfulness.

Then she told us that she usually starts sessions like this by asking participants to put their hands up if they have ever experienced stress. Of course, everyone puts their hands up. Life is stressful. Being human is stressful. Being a teacher is stressful, it is a stressful profession. Emma proposed to offer us some practical tools for teachers to bring to classroom experience, to calm nerves, to deal with emotions, to avoid the spiralling mind, so that we can be present with our students. As one of the webinar participants said, though, these aren’t just strategies for the classroom/workplace, they are strategies for life.

We moved on to the following questions:

  • what is stress?
  • how does it feel?
  • how does it affect us?

Emma invited us to think of something that had happened in the last week or two (not a really big, traumatic life experience, just a run of the mill stressful situation), to close our eyes and put ourselves there for a moment, to picture where we were, what we said out loud and what was said inside ourselves. Then we had to feel it – how does it feel in the body? Where in the body? Is it a tightness in the chest/belly? Tension in the neck muscles? Faster breathing? Pounding in head? There is an actual physical experience.

When something stressful happens, we start with a thought process, which then fuels emotions which then show up in body sensations. That is the fight or flight system in our brain kicking in. That system is a survival mechanism which all humans and animals have. It responds to threats by preparing us to fight, freeze or run away. All the physical ‘symptoms’ of stress are connected to it. It is the body being told by the system “We need to do something and do it NOW!” Which was useful when we were faced by sabre-tooth tigers back in the day but how useful is it when it’s triggered by an email arriving in your inbox? Or a chance comment from someone? Probably not very.

The fight-flight system, Emma explained, is a very finely tuned mechanism, like a hair trigger. And if you are tired or overwhelmed, then even more so – one small thing can make you explode. She talked about the amygdala area of the brain, which is the primitive alarm centre that acts on instinct and the pre-frontal cortex which is rational, thinking part of the brain. She asked us to imagine walking down the street, not concentrating, when a bus starts coming, we step off the pavement, the bus might be about to hit us but then…we’d be propelled back onto the pavement. Without thinking about it, it would just happen instinctively, spontaneously. The image of the bus would hit the retina of our eye, trigger the alarm system and flight would get us back onto the pavement. The prefrontal cortex gets flipped out of the way by the amygdala and it happens in milliseconds – “before we know it”. It is very reactive, which is useful for running away from tigers but not at work. At work it looks more like receive a rude email, reply, send, and then “oh…er…oops…”. Stress, frustration and anger have the same effect as the tiger. So we may be reactive to situations, shouting at a class, being rude to someone, feeling cut off from everyone.

What can we do about this? How can mindfulness help? Everyone has that reactivity, the amygdala brain area, but we can learn to notice and bring back control to the thinking part of the brain. The mind is often full of thoughts:

It wanders off into the past, rehashing situations that have already happened, or the future, planning all sort of things e.g. what if this, what will I do when; projecting usually stressful, worrisome thoughts about the future or “if only” about the past. The brain has a negativity bias, or a tendency to look for problems/scan for threats. It likes to worry about how to fix things that may or may not happen in the future. I.e. imagined problems, so trying to fix things that aren’t actually there. This means that you are here but your mind is not. You are not present. And that means you are missing the positive present moment experiences. Emma suggested next time we are in the shower, to try to be present – be aware of the smells, the sounds, the sensations. That is an example of getting into the senses and out of the mind.

Children are all about the senses but as we become older and socialised, we lose contact with the body and get stuck in the mind. Lots of stressful ruminating results. Emma told us about a Harvard study which found that we are lost in thought 47% of the time. In other words, stuck on autopilot. There was an app that pinged participants every so often and asked them What are you doing? What are you thinking? And it would be something like having dinner, thinking about tomorrow’s presentation. What are we missing? The shower, the food, the lovely sensations, the appreciation, the excitement, in other words enjoyment of now. We are always somewhere else.

Automatic pilot is not bad. It can be useful. For example, riding a bike we can just get on and ride without thinking about it. We need a certain amount to function in life. However, it is not useful to be stuck/lost in thought all the time, or stuck in the present moment being judgemental of it. (“I don’t want to be here. I don’t want this. This is bad” – resentment, stress.) Mindfulness can help us here. Emma’s definition of Mindfulness is knowing what you are doing whilst you are doing it without judgement. And the without judgement part is important – we may often notice what we are doing but in a resentful/judgemental way, ruminating. Mindfulness allows us to notice what is happening and step away in a non-judgemental, kind way. It is a way to step of the the cycle and start to do something proactive to calm down and get the thinking lid (prefrontal cortex) back down, so that you can deal with the situation creatively and with wisdom.

Emma then talked to us about formal and informal practice. She said the formal practice, meditation, is a loaded word but it’s really just sitting down, being quiet and tuning into sound, breathing and the body. Informal practice is noticing the senses, or information from the senses, in the present moment, for example in the shower or brushing teeth or eating. When your mind is full of to do list or worrying, tune back into the senses and what is happening now. Notice the sensation of feet on the floor. She explained that we can send our concentration/awareness/mind to different places, e.g. the feet. The untrained mind flies about all over the place, training awareness can bring it back., place concentration where you want it to be. When you notice it wandering, you can bring it back. The more you practice, the less and less it will wander. She likens the mind to a puppy. When you are training it to sit and stay, it will keep wandering off every two minutes but practising over and over and over, giving praise, reward, treats, bit by bit the puppy will stay. The same goes with mindfulness. We need to practice over and over but in a kind, non-judgemental way. Notice the mind has wandered, not get frustrated, just gently bring it back.

All of this is also relevant for students. When they get angry or upset, it means they are flipping their lid, and as teachers we can recognise they are stressed and feeling threatened, and help them bring their thinking lid back online again.

Bring awareness to thoughts (gentle curiosity). What is the narrative? What emotions are in there? How does it show up in the body? Curiosity is key.

Emma told us about the “3 step breathing space” activity:

  1.  How are my thoughts? Allow thoughts be, just noticing but not getting caught up in a narrative. What emotions are here? How am I feeling? Where is it in my body?
  2. Centre attention on the breath.
  3. Become aware of sounds or the body.

This can be done very quickly to bring yourself back to the present moment with kindness, care, compassion.

Emma said that the language we use is very important here. “There is anger here” not “I am angry” – the former gives us some distance, allowing it just to be, noticing how it feels in the body, recognising that it is just that system response. Then we give the mind something to do e.g. focus on the breath. You can do it whenever and wherever you notice yourself getting stressed/frustrated, to break the cycle through the moment of awareness.

Then she gave us some other activities we could try:

  • “Look up and smile”

If you are feeling a bit stressed, e.g. before you go into the classroom, look up and smile. It releases good, positive chemicals in your brain, even if you don’t feel like smiling. Then you can enter the classroom with better energy.

  • Frame things differently

The thought “I’ve got so much to do” usually hunches you over and makes you feel very heavy very quickly. Instead, straighten up and shout it out loud (as if you are excited about it!) How we frame things can make us feel better. Sensations of stress also accompany excitement. It’s the same sensations but a different narrative/framing.

  • Labelling

Stop the alarm bell by labelling what is going on. “There is anger/frustration/tiredness here”

  • Take in the good

Consider what is good right now in this moment. This counters the negativity bias.

  • Create calm moments

There is so much bombarding us these days, that our minds can’t tell the difference between real threats and perceived threats. The stress response happens just the same – we get adrenaline and cortisol flowing. But what we need is the calm, soothing rest and digest system, to give the fight/flight system a break. One way to do this is slow down. E.g. walking, try walking a bit slower, noticing how it feels, what you can see, hear and smell, to take you out of the mind and into the body.

  • Traffic light bell

(She suggested this during the Q&A but it fits in with this section of practical suggestions.) Use red traffic lights as a mindfulness bell: instead of getting irate because it is delaying you, think “ah, red light.” And do the 3-step breathing space activity while you wait. Then you are back with a choice, you can choose not switch on the negative complaining narrative about the red light.

Emma gave us the secret that repeated behaviour, whether good or bad, gets wired into the brain and becomes more likely to be triggered in the future. Mindfulness gives us a choice to respond differently. Ultimately, if what you are doing doesn’t serve you, do something differently. Mindless chatter generally isn’t serving.

She recommend using apps such as Calm, Headspace and Insight timer, and doing an MBSR course. Once you do such a course, you could then train to become a mindfulness teacher and bring it into your school.

She finished with this lovely quote: Happy teachers will change the world. 🙂

A really fantastic session, great to see it as part of the Macmillan World Teachers Day conference line-up!

Scholarship circle: Using mindfulness meditation (3)

Meeting three already? Yup! This term is flying… (For previous and future write-ups, see here!)

Today we started with a 20 minute meditation as the consensus was it was much-needed (we have a lot of marking going on at the moment so everyone is a bit frazzled). Again, everyone agreed that it felt shorter than 20 minutes but minds managed to fit a lot of wandering in (unsurprisingly!). My mind certainly did a lot of wandering and I did a lot of bringing it back to the breath/various body parts/sounds as the meditation specified, as well as acknowledging to myself that I *was* finding it difficult and that that’s ok. (As vs. getting cross/impatient/frustrated about it!)

We agreed we felt better afterwards but one of us also said she was starting to feel angry that modern life requires this kind of thing in order to feel better. Another said that rather than getting angry with modern life, better to flip it and focus on what there is to be grateful about – using the example of well actually modern life is better than life for Louis XIV, who had candlelight only, no showers, less choice in terms of food. And then we talked about gratitude in general, coming back to the concept behind No. 11 in 30 Ways to Mindfulness. There was talk of a longitudinal study that one of us had read, which showed that people who kept a gratitude journal were happier than the control group who hadn’t. However, we also agreed that even if you didn’t necessarily write it down all the time, training your brain to perceive in that way is helpful. I used my own second week as an example:

I forgot to record anything on Monday, did too many on Tuesday (much like Week 1, my recording is hit and miss!) etc.

We also discussed how using meditation with students was going. Largely good but as some groups have changed (got large numbers of different students) due to post-late-arrival setting, there have been some teething issues around that. The good news is, the teachers in question want to persevere! We then talked about to integrate Mindfulness into our teaching beyond just doing a meditation at the start of the lesson. I told them about what I had done in our first listening lesson this term, which was to draw attention to the fact that the mind DOES wander and it’s normal for it to do so – the key is to notice it and bring the attention back. Obviously very important when you have a long listening recording (lecture) to listen to and make notes on, especially when exam questions follow – which is what we are preparing them for, as well as for university study of course. I used this slide to illustrate it:

We then brainstormed other ways of integrating it. So, for example, after students have listened to a recording, getting them to reflect on how they listened – did their mind wander a lot? Were they were aware of it? Did they bring it back? Did they keep bringing it back each time it wandered or did they give up? That kind of thing. A similar reflection could be done after any given task, not only listening. (The mind will wander indiscriminately, not only during listening recordings :-p ) We acknowledged also that doing the meditation at the start of each lesson is also attentional training so it supports this kind of metacognitive approach, helps students to train their brains/get better at managing/directing attention.

We all came away feeling much better and happier at the end of the session – and it went really quickly! (Possibly because we spent the first 20 minutes meditating!) 🙂

Scholarship circle: Using mindfulness meditation (session 2)

Today (Thursday 10th October 2019), our Using mindfulness meditation scholarship circle met for the second time. This time, there were 12 of us including me (last time – write-up here – it was 8 including me)! 3 new, 1 back from leave who had already been planning to come. There will be at least one more, who is on leave this week, joining us next week too. I hadn’t expected such a positive response to start with, never mind growth week on week! (Speaking of week on week, all write-ups will become available here!)

Today, we started with a 10 minute meditation (10 minutes and 10 seconds to be exact) and this time we all found it felt shorter. There were comments around mind wandering, so we talked about that being normal, it’s just what the mind does. So it’s not about “emptying the mind”, but about noticing that it has wandered and bringing the attention back.  That led nicely onto the “training the puppy” analogy that I learnt about on the Futurelearn Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance course (which I am currently doing for the second time!) – the mind is like a puppy that you are trying to train to sit and stay. It will wander off repeatedly. You need to bring it back repeatedly and GENTLY. If you shout at it/get cross/get impatient, it will just try to run further away.

Next, we talked about meditation practice and I gave out a printout of a pdf of tips for establishing and maintaining a mindfulness meditation practice. One of us said she doesn’t like routine, so doing it at the same time every day/week doesn’t work for her, another recognised that you can meditate for any amount of time – it doesn’t have to be a big chunk of time it could just be a few seconds, ten seconds, thirty seconds of bringing focus to the breath/the body/sounds. That moved us on to talking about informal mindfulness practice as well. We talked about mindful eating and the eating a raisin/piece of chocolate mindfully exercise, about savouring what is happening in the moment e.g. a shower, and being fully present. We talked about mindful walking (in my case often mindful running!) and forest-bathing (one of my favourite things to do, in conjunction with running!).

At this point I asked if anyone had looked at the 30 ways to mindfulness pdf that I had emailed out after the end of the last session. (Click on the image of it below to go to Life-Resource, where the download of this is available!)

Inevitably, a couple had but most hadn’t and those that had hadn’t got as far as trying anything. So I told them about the one I had tried, which was Day Eleven – Be Grateful. Since Friday last week I have been writing down 3 things each day that I am grateful for on that day. Not the big things like family, friends etc, but small and specific things. I used a sticky note on my laptop desktop to record them. Here is what I ended up with between then and today:

Obviously I haven’t yet written down anything for today but today’s session will feature! As you can see, my counting skills leave a little to be desired. On Tuesday I only managed one, on Wednesday 4, and three for the weekend as a whole rather than three each for Saturday and Sunday! However, despite my ineptitude in recording, I was thinking about it each day – noticing when good things happened and thinking I could record them, even if I didn’t necessarily get round to it! For me that is a win enough – it pushed my perception of each day to be more focused on the positive rather than the usual negative! And I really noticed it, in terms of that extra positivity going on! So I can definitely recommend no. 11.

Next we finally got onto the topic of what we want to get out of this scholarship circle! (Though, given the membership increased so much this week, it’s just as well we didn’t get round to it last week!) Here is what I managed to get down of what came out of that discussion:

  • to be less stressed (this connects with doing a meditation at the start of each session)
  • to learn how to do it with students/increase confidence around that (this connected with a discussion about concerns around student reactions and the importance of it being optional and so forth)
  • to have a week where people can practise what they would do with their students on us! (so, connecting to the bullet point above, to help people build confidence)
  • to have a session where people can make recordings of themselves doing it (one of us is going to bring in some equipment for that) as some members have decided that they would rather do it with the students than lead it, or are not comfortable leading it for various reasons.
  • to work on the English pair of shoes visualisation (this idea came out last week and is being carried forward)
  • to bring it into our professional lives more – start module meetings with a short meditation, start marking week sessions with a short meditation and so on (which I think is a brilliant idea!)
  • where needed, to change our mindset from “there’s no time for this in class” to “there’s not enough time *not* to do this in class” (i.e. the resultant improvements in focus are needed for effective study/use of class time.

Finally, I challenged everyone to try and do a meditation or two (of whatever length) between now and next session, AND, of course, to pick something to try from 30 ways to Mindfulness for the next week. (I’m going to continue with the Being Grateful one but pick something as well!)

Our time seemed to be up very quickly but what a lovely session it was, once again. As I said earlier, definitely on my gratitude list for today! 🙂

Scholarship circle: Using mindfulness meditation

Today (3rd October 2019) was the inaugural meeting of the USIC@the ELTC Using Mindfulness Scholarship Circle.

We created this scholarship circle to:

  • to explore the use of mindfulness (both formal and informal) for ourselves as teachers.
  • to explore the use of mindfulness (both formal and informal) with our students

There were 8 attendees including me.

We started by doing a 5 minute guided meditation (called The Full Stop), played through my laptop. Interestingly, one of us thought it had lasted a lot longer than five minutes while others thought it had only been 2-3 minutes. Once the recording had finished, we discussed how it felt. The plan is to do a guided meditation at the start of each session (varying from 2-20 minutes in length). A couple of us mentioned a feeling of “twitchiness”, including around the eyes. (It was suggested that closing eyes generates a feeling of vulnerability and this was the first time we had meditated in a group like this before so that was perhaps to be expected.) I found it more difficult than usual because my brain kept wanting to wander off into thinking about what was going to happen next in the scholarship circle (I suggested its creation so I was nervous!! 🙂 )! We also talked about how it can be difficult to put in place and sustain a regular meditation practice (so I plan to bring a printout of a pdf of tips for just that which I got from the Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance Futurelearn course I did earlier this year to share with everyone!).

We then moved on to talk about our personal experiences of Mindfulness (I won’t go into mine again, I already talked about it here) and about how using it with students had been going so far. Our term only started at the beginning of last week so it’s early days but a number of us had been trying it with students following the TD session I did about it based on this post. So far, so positive, in terms of student response from both foundation and pre-masters students. Not everybody who attended today has tried it with students yet  but they have plans afoot now 🙂 . We also discussed the student experience here, the pressures they face, and how our mindfulness/meditation initiatives could be helpful for them in that context. One of the things we have decided to work on is a meditation/visualisation script to encourage students to get into an English frame of mind at the beginning of class. Watch this space! We also shared resources that we have used and Lilian Eden sleep meditations were mentioned by one of us as a Really Good Thing for sleep. I mentioned Padraig O’Morain,in particular his books e.g. Mindfulness for Worriers.

We were also supposed to discuss/pin down what we want to get out of this circle and how it’s going to work, but time slipped away so we have relegated that to next week. We did agree, though, that developing our own meditation practice by starting each week with a meditation is a definite must. You can’t pour from an empty cup and all that. I have also suggested, in my follow-up email after our meeting, individually trying out an idea (picked individually at random rather than as a group) from 30 ways to Mindfulness

(scroll right down….keep scrolling…or if it is your first time to visit the site it will probably appear as a pop-up when you land!) from Life-Resourceful, to try out and share experiences around in our next meeting next Thursday. We’ll see what the take-up is next week and beyond!

There are loads of possibilities with this circle, but I don’t want to dictate what we do. It’s important to me that what we do and where we go is a group decision and that the space remains a stress-free one rather than something that becomes an additional burden on teachers’ workload. I have no doubt that it will be enriching for us all and our students (both directly and indirectly!).

Using Mindfulness with Students QandA

Yesterday I did a short TD session with the teachers in my team about using mindfulness meditation with students. This is not a write-up of the session, as the ground it covered is already largely covered in the afore-linked-to blogpost but I thought I would make a note of the questions my colleagues asked and my answers, as it is possible that others reading my blog post about using meditation with students, or who are just thinking themselves about using meditation with students, might have similar questions floating around in their heads!

Did you do the meditation at the start of every class?

Yes, every single class for two terms! And also when small groups of students came to do their seminar discussion exam, I led the meditation before starting their exam so that they would be calmer.

Did you use the same meditation every time?

Yes, the same one every time! So the students were familiar with and knew what to do/how it works etc. I think it also means that students can focus on the meditating, not on processing what it is that they are being told to do.

Did you get bored of doing it?

No, I found it a lovely, peaceful way to start each lesson and bring the class together into a space of readiness for learning.

What about getting the students to lead it?

I didn’t try that but I don’t think I would because I want them to just be able to benefit from those couple of minutes, and not have to take the responsibility of leading it which might be quite stressful for some (which would be counterproductive!).

Did you notice a difference in their behaviour between the term when you didn’t do it and the terms when you did?

The key thing for me was that once we did the meditation each lesson, they were with me and focused on what was to come. (And if you look at the feedback from them in the blog post I linked to at the start of this one, you’ll see focus and concentration were the major themes!)

What about lower levels?

This wasn’t actually a question, but we also discussed about how it would work for lower levels and the consensus was that you could simplify it right down so that you say much less and have longer silences. So that there are fewer, simpler words but the meditation takes the same length of time. But also, provided you give them time to look at the print-out in the first lesson and they can check any unknown vocabulary, and provided you then use the same meditation consistently, linguistic issues can be dealt with early on.

Do you have any more questions about it? Feel free to comment with and I will happily add them and answers to this post!

Using mindfulness meditation with students

Last academic year, having discovered mindfulness myself and done a 4-week Futurelearn course (Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance – next starting on 7th October and highly recommended!), I decided to experiment with using a mindfulness meditation with my foundation class students in their second and third terms. I finished the course sometime around the end of their first term, so the beginning of term two seemed the logical time to jump in, if I was going to do it.

As it was the first time for me to try something like this with students, I was very nervous about it BUT my belief in the potential benefits for them gave me the courage to try. Just prior to the first lesson of term two, I adapted the shortest mindfulness meditation from the Futurelearn course (the “Comma” – so called as you can use it to draw breath briefly and reset throughout the day) so that linguistically it was more accessible to my students. I didn’t have to make many changes as I had a high level group, but with lower level students I would make further adaptations/simplifications. In the first lesson of term, I distributed print-outs of the meditation and asked students to look at it and discuss these questions in pairs:

  1. What is this? What is it for?

  2. Why do you think it is called “Comma”?

  3. Have you used anything like this before?

  4. What could be the benefits for using it on a regular basis?

The “Mindfulness meditation: Comma” was obviously a give-away with regards to the what, and being Chinese students the concept of meditation was familiar to them. Once they had discussed the questions in pairs, we discussed them as a whole class. The fourth question is particularly important, as by talking about the potential benefits, you create some buy-in for when you then go on to say that the plan is to use this meditation at the start of each class.

What are the benefits?

  • It allows students to “arrive” in the lesson
  • It helps them focus their minds into the present, letting go of distractions such as worries generated by the previous lesson, content of conversations with friends, worry about various assignments, arguments they might have recently with friends/family – basically anything that isn’t happening now.

However, I will let the students speak for themselves. At the end of the two terms, having been observed teaching by my line manager who was impressed by the students’ response to the meditation, I gave them a little questionnaire to complete. There were four questions – one about the meditation, one about the listening logs we used at the start of one lesson per week (after the meditation), and then one about what they thought was good about AES (Academic English Skills) classes and one about what they thought would make AES classes better.

100% of them responded positively to the question about meditation (“For terms 2 and 3 we started every AES lesson with a short (2 minute) meditation. I think this was good/not good to do because…”). Here are their sentence completions:

I think this was good to do because…

  • it helps us to relax ourselves, and get our minds back to AES class.

  • It helps to concentrate on lesson better, feels great.

  • It was able to clear the mind and get ready to start the lesson in refreshing feelings.

  • It helps me relax after climbing up 7 floors. It helps me to concentrate easily. It could take up some lesson time.

  • I can pay attention for my AES lesson.

  • It made us focus better in the class.

  • Concentration.

  • This was a very good thing to as it allowed us to focus more.

  • It can clear my mind and help me focus on the tasks and activities.

  • It could help me stop thinking other subject’s work and help me be more focus in class.

  • During this section, I can relax myself before the start of the lesson.

  • It helped me concentrate better in class. I was able to clear my mind of all the unwanted thoughts and focus better. Relax too.

One student was absent. Obviously the clear themes running through the responses are about focus/concentration and relaxation. You might be thinking “but I don’t want my students to relax in my class, I want them to work hard!”. I think though that the sense of “relax” here is in opposition to stress. The students where I work are under an immense amount of pressure, and research shows that when stress goes beyond a certain amount, performance and productivity drop. So, if my students are worrying about all the assignments and deadlines, and what they didn’t understand in the class they had before AES etc etc, they aren’t going to be receptive to what I teach them as they will be distracted by stressing and worrying. Additionally, experience shows that when they are relaxed and engaged (the two are not mutually exclusive), they perform well in class and evidence of their learning can be seen in their assignments. As for the one who said “it can take up some lesson time” – these students have hours and hours of classes a day and I saw them 4-6 (last slot) on a Monday (all three terms), 2-4 on a Wednesday (term 1+2) 3-5 on a Tuesday (term 3) and 1330-1430 on a Friday so particularly for those late afternoon slots, it’s tough on them, so it’s not surprising they welcomed the chance to breathe for a couple of minutes. The benefits yielded in terms of focus were, to my mind, well worth those minutes.

I’m really pleased with the results of my little experiment and this academic year plan to continue my use of the guided meditation at the start of each class. (Basically, I lead the meditation, which begins “Now, with your body balanced in the chair and your eyes gently closed”. The first time you do it, the students might be a bit giggly, looking at classmates with one eye etc but very soon it becomes routine and they do it very calmly.) I will also be leading a short session with my colleagues next week, to share this idea with them so that they can also have a go using it with their students if they want to. I’m planning to get them to do the meditation just as I would do it with my students so that they have a feel for what it is like. Here is a link to the unadapted version of the meditation that I used, by Dr Craig Hassad. It is the first recording in the list – One minute comma.

Do you do any kind of meditation with your students? How has it worked for you/them?

If you are interested in the science behind mindfulness and learning, I recommend this book:

Finally, for those who want to know a bit more about Mindfulness, here is a TED Talk about it by Dr Richard Chambers:

 

Mindfulness, work and life

On the 4th March this year, I received the following email from our TD team (thanks guys!):

On the same day, I also saw the following post from Rachael Roberts (ELT course book writer, MaW SIG coordinator a while back, Life coach/writer):

Coincidentally enough, on Saturday the2nd March I had picked up a book called Mindfulness for Worriers by Padraig O’Morain from my local library. I have since returned it and bought my own copy to reread:

I am convinced the universe was trying to tell me something!

That something being that Mindfulness was something I needed to bring into my life. So I took the hint and did the course!

It was four weeks long and had 3-4hrs of content per week. For me, it was the final two weeks of term and then my two weeks of Easter holiday. The nice thing was, that meant I could use the guided meditations extensively while I was in Sicily sitting on my hillside. Having that time and space to really get into the formal meditating really helped. It was a brilliant course, and I am so glad I did it.

Anyway, this post is not going to be a summary of the course (you should just do it!), nor a summary of Rachael’s book (you should just read it!) but more just a bit about what has stood out for me since accepting the universe’s little nudge and learning more about Mindfulness.

What do I mean by Mindfulness? Well, according to Padraig O’Morain it’s

“returning your attention, with acceptance, from your thoughts to your experience in the moment.”

This moment. This breath. Now. For an over-thinker like me, this was revolutionary in itself – the fact that I don’t have to be a hostage to what is going on in my head. I can say “yes, thoughts, I know you are there bubbling around but actually at this moment I am more interested in my breathing/how my feet feel/the weight of my hands as they rest on my legs/those daffodils that I am cycling past, those bluebells that I am running past.” I have the choice not to be dragged down endless rabbit holes of rumination (obsessing about things that have already happened) or worrying (about things that may or may not happen in the future). This doesn’t mean repressing thoughts or worries, but rather, while accepting them and acknowledging them, choosing to place the attention on something else, something in the present moment.

However, like they described it in the Futurelearn course, the mind is like a puppy – always wants to run off here, there and everywhere. It’s very easy to get caught up in thoughts. And, like the puppy, it takes gentle training for the sit and stay command to be learnt and heeded. Accepting that thinking (and overthinking!) is what the mind does, and not getting frustrated about it, is key. Instead, it’s a case of gently and repeatedly bringing the mind back to the present moment. And from there, you can identify which of the thoughts, if any, are useful to listen to and pursue, rather than just being stuck amidst a load of endless mind babble.

4th March – 22nd April… less than 2 months! So obviously, as far as I am concerned it is very much still a work in progress (and will be forever I imagine!) and I am very much a beginner, but even so, I am already noticing so many benefits:

  • Instead of waking up in the night and then being unable to get back to sleep because I am thinking too much, if I wake in the night now, I do a body-scan (focus on each part of the body in turn, from the feet upwards) and drop back off much more easily.
  • Similarly, when I go to bed each night, I use the body-scan as a falling asleep technique. I also do a 10-20 minute guided meditation just before ‘lights out’ so my mind is calmer to start with.
  • I am better able to recognise when I am getting caught up in anxious, unhelpful thoughts and take a step back.
  • Because of being better able to recognise getting caught up in anxious, unhelpful thoughts, I am less likely to go down the rabbit holes of catastrophising/awfulising (basically blowing things out of proportion and thinking about worst case scenarios for everything), taking that step back instead. Thus, one stressor (whatever triggered the anxious thoughts) doesn’t need to become one thousand stressors (all the dark imaginings that follow it and trigger a stress response in my body).
  • Instead of getting road rage as I cycle to and from work, I am better able to accept that drivers are prone to being inconsiderate, accept that I will take approximately x amount of time to get from a to b and not fret, instead focusing my attention on what’s going on around me (better for my safety) and seeing how much beauty and diversity I can notice in the process. Flowers, trees, front gardens, a smiling baby, a shop front…some of those only while at red lights, obviously! Some, if I am moving, is just a fleeting glimpse but I see them rather than being on autopilot.
  • Mindfulness has also helped me get a handle on some disordered eating/anxiety issues which were triggered by bereavement last autumn. By helping me be more aware of what my stressors are and then through that being able to recognise that they don’t actually need to be stressors and using mindfulness techniques when they arise.

As far as work is concerned, I have got into the routine of starting my classes with a very short meditation (I do the speaking, the students do the meditation). The idea is that when they come into my class, their heads are full of what’s gone before (previous lessons, catching up with friends as they walk between classes, checking their phones etc) and what lies ahead (as in beyond my class – deadlines, homework, social arrangements, what’s for dinner etc), so by doing a one minute meditation, it helps them “arrive” and become ready to concentrate on the lesson at hand. I think it has helped improve their focus, but obviously I have no science of my own to back that up. It certainly makes for a very peaceful and pleasant start to the lesson, without using up much time.

The meditation I do with them is based on one from the Futurelearn course called “The Comma” – so-called because it allows you to introduce a short pause between activities into your day. I adapted it slightly to simplify the language and grammar used, to make it more suitable for my students. I introduced it in the first lesson of this term by handing out a print-out to each student and getting them to discuss a few questions around what it is, how using it could help someone and how using it at the start of a class could be valuable for us. Then we did it (and of course being the first time there was a bit of giggling and looking at each other before they closed their eyes properly! Subsequently that hasn’t been an issue) Finally, I said we’d do it at the start of each future class. They were agreeable to that and we have done so ever since.

I also try and do a “comma” or a “full stop” [5 minute meditation, so a slightly longer pause] or a body scan myself before I’m due to go and teach. It doesn’t always happen but when I do manage it, it is a good head space from which to go and start a lesson. It helps me transition from whatever I have been doing, to focusing more fully on what I am about to do i.e. the present moment and teaching. I have all the meditations from the Futurelearn course downloaded on my laptop and loaded onto my mp3 player (yes I still have an mp3 player, isn’t that quaint :-p ) so that I can use them “on the go”.

Outside of work, I always do a guided meditation at bed time – 5-10 mins at the start of my unwinding and then 5-10 mins just before I am about to try and go to sleep. Midweek, that is all I manage as far formal mindfulness is concerned. However, in terms of “informal” practice, I am constantly trying to do all the little day-to-day life things more mindfully, bringing my awareness into the present moment rather than operating in default mode while my mind is off diving down rabbit holes. At the weekends, though, I try and do more and longer (10-20 minute) guided meditations. As that is when I have more of a chance to. Currently, my bedtime reading is the Padraig O’Morain book pictured above. I have also (re)read his book called “Kindfulness” which combines Mindfulness and self-compassion, and have got his “Mindfulness on the go” book lined up. So it’s a steady drip-feed reminder of it for me.

In one week’s time, I will be starting another Futurelearn mindfulness course, also delivered by Monash university (with the same tutors who did the Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance one referred to earlier in this post) which is called Maintaining a mindful life. The former is aimed at beginners while the latter is aimed at people who have already done the former or are familiar with/already practice Mindfulness. I am very much looking forward to it!

Do you practice Mindfulness? If so, what resources do you recommend?

  • I’m aware there are various apps e.g. Headspace (I’ve used it a bit but not yet bothered paying for it as I have had enough to be going with through the Futurelearn course materials including the guided meditations and my Padraig O’Marain books. Who knows, maybe one day!) and others. Do you use any such apps?
  • Rachael Roberts’s site has some good stuff on it too (including a link to that book, downloadable as a pdf, which I mentioned at the start of this post!)
  • This site belongs to one of the course tutors from the Futurelearn course I did. “Body scan”, “Training the puppy” and “Body, breath and sound” all feature on the course. Body, breath and sound is the 10-minute one I most often do when I do 10 minutes. There are loads of others there, a wealth of experimentation possible. I have barely scratched the surface. (It is very easy to just use the ones you are familiar with repeatedly!)
  • Padraig O’Morain also has some guided practices and from this page links to another where he has even more audios! Info about his books is here. The website will prompt you to sign up for his “Daily Bell” which is an email newsletter thingy that includes a nice mindfulness-related quote as well as the usual guff about courses he is doing, resources and suchlike.
  • Here is a link to the Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance course on Futurelearn (running again in July in case you are interested) and here is the follow-up course, Maintaining a Mindful Life. Highly recommended.
  • For the science behind it all, Daniel Goleman and Richard J.Davidson have written “Altered Traits: science reveals how meditation changes your mind, brain and body

Please share any resources which you use by commenting on this post! I would really love to hear from you! 

And on that note I do believe it’s time for a guided meditation. 🙂