After spending two years as a biology teacher in one of the lowest performing high schools in California, I know that nothing can fully prepare you to lead a classroom. You must be thrown into the deep end and thrash until you learn to swim.
I don’t remember that much about my first few months at Kennedy High School, other than that they were some of the most stressful, traumatic months of my life. I woke up in sweaty sheets every morning, feeling like I was going to war. In this state of constant anguish, it was easy to let the natural defense mechanism of mindlessness take over. Looking back, I wish I had been taught mindfulness long before getting in front of any students. In fact, I believe it should be mandatory for teachers to learn mindfulness techniques. Having experienced the before and after, I have 5 reasons why I wish I had practiced it with my class from the beginning.
1) Mindfulness and awareness allow teachers to overcome stress and enjoy teaching
It’s amazing how natural it is for us to put on blinders to the world, to step back from our experience because we’re afraid of what might happen if we’re fully present for it. Most of us do this all the time and never even realize it. Practicing mindfulness allows teachers (actually, anyone) to accept what’s happening in the now – to acknowledge, without judgment, the quality of their environment and experience.
As a novice teacher, I remember doing everything in my power to reject what was happening in moments of stress, which, in my situation, were most moments. Students sensed this and it created a profound disconnect between us. It wasn’t until I began cultivating my own mindfulness practice five months into the school year that I was able to overcome my stress enough to even identify what was really happening in my classroom. I started forming real relationships with my students, my content, and, most importantly, myself. That’s when I started to see and feel real change.
2) Mindfulness is classroom management
It was February. Mindfulness was helping me to feel like myself again and the relief was immense. But classroom management continued to be a huge problem for me. I did everything I was taught – I stated expectations clearly, created positive incentives for following them, and enforced violations fairly and consistently. No matter what I did, these were high school students who would much rather see Snapchats than cells.
Then, my roommate who taught kindergarten told me how he started off every day with five minutes of classroom meditation. He told me that it had been shown to have a dramatic effect on student behavior, that it set a tone for calm, curious learning.
Of course, I was pessimistic about it working in my class. I envisioned the response: fart noises punctuating laughter as the whole exercise blew up on the launch pad. To my amazement, despite a few hiccups, students embraced this new ritual. Each of my periods began their days together in calm awareness and they even came to depend on it – some days I would forget our meditation, but students would remind me without fail. Student buy-in in my leadership grew immensely.
3) Mindfulness improves classroom culture
In my classroom, we started off the year as a fractured group. I didn’t know where to lead my students and they felt that. There was no glue holding us together. I refused to acknowledge how they felt, how I felt, and as a result, no one was present. We all coasted on autopilot through each period, all of us just trying to make it to the end of the school day, to the end of the week.
I won’t say that mindfulness was a silver bullet or that it brought us all together as one happy dancing family. I still had to work hard to set students up for success and make my classroom a place where they felt safe and wanted to be. But mindfulness was a foundation and I believe our culture grew from it.
This one may seem obvious at this point, but it’s really the only true measurable outcome that I can tie to mindfulness’s effect on my classroom. What I love about mindfulness is that it’s really all about curiosity. It’s about approaching each breath, each moment with non-judgmental awareness and inquisitiveness. You know what else is all about that? Science. In fact, it’s safe to say all learning depends upon that attitude.
In my class, students started off each period with a ritual that made them not only ready, but excited to learn. And learn they did. After my first year, our school’s pass rate on the biology California State Education Test shot up nearly 20%. Of course, this was not a controlled experiment; there were many other factors at play. But like I said, mindfulness was a foundation.
5) Mindfulness provides relief for students
The community in which I taught was one of the most dangerous places to live in California. Every year, students were shot and killed, sometimes multiple per year. To this day, I continue to hear tragic, heartbreaking stories from the Kennedy community. As educators, we now understand that students who live in these communities don’t suffer from PTSD, they suffer from CTSD – continuous traumatic stress disorder. You know how I felt in my first months of teaching? Many of my students spend their whole lives feeling like that. And, unfortunately, going through life with blinders on is an effective defense mechanism for CTSD.
I heard from many of my students how they liked my class, how it made them feel calm and safe. Again, this isn’t a controlled study – I also kept my classroom clean, played calming music, and talked openly and honestly with my students. But I was doing those things all year and it wasn’t until I implemented mindfulness that students actually began to appreciate those things.
To all students, teachers, and administrators out there, consider how a mindfulness program could work for your school. Check out our curriculum or schedule a consultation with Aviva Executive Director Mary Sanders. And if you just want to get more tips like this, use the sidebar to subscribe to our weekly newsletter to get them delivered straight to your inbox. We’ll also throw in our eBook How to Implement Mindfulness into Your Classroom in 5 Simple Steps.