By James Butler, M.Ed., author of Mindful Classrooms: Daily 5-Minute Practices to Support Social-Emotional Learning (PreK to Grade 5)
I remember my rookie year in teaching like it was yesterday (it was 2002), and I sure would have benefited from having some mindfulness practices of my own to help me move through the oft-overwhelming first year of teaching as clear-mindedly as possible. There is so much happening, and it seems like new and challenging situations/expectations arise every day. Rookie year is unlike any other year in your teaching career.
As the SEL (social and emotional learning) mindfulness specialist for the Austin Independent School District, I have the fortune of working with and supporting first-year teachers with mindfulness—the practice of cultivating moment-to-moment awareness of ourselves and our environment. Here are five mindfulness-related tips to help you move through your first year of teaching and come back for year two. Please keep in mind that patience is key for all five of these tips.
You can even imagine “. . . and be patient” written at the end of each of the tips.
1. Start with Yourself
This is crucial. Mindfulness will not work effectively in your classroom if you don’t have some type of personal practice and believe that it’s worthwhile. In fact, if you implement mindfulness techniques without any personal background experience and just as something for classroom management or as a way to “keep kids quiet,” then you can cause harm to students. And we became educators to help students, not harm them.
Thankfully, there are some great apps that offer free subscription services to educators. I highly recommend signing up for Calm; Stop, Breathe & Think; and Headspace and exploring their practices/formats to see what works best for you. Simply click on the links and fill out the brief forms on the sites, and you’ll be granted access.
Carve out a time for yourself to practice mindfulness consistently, and you’ll end up doing it much more frequently because it’s a part of your routine. My home practice started during the five minutes it took for my coffee to get ready in the morning. I was usually on my phone or computer during those five minutes and wasn’t productive with that time. Integrating mindfulness into that time that I already had available every day helped immensely, and it eventually became a habit. An extremely healthy habit.
Think of a time that would work for you to practice mindfulness (morning, after school, before bed), and go with it. You know yourself best, so figure out the best way for you to consistently integrate mindfulness into your life.
2. Build Relationships with Your Students
You might be thinking, “How is this a mindfulness practice?” A huge part of mindfulness is being present, and when you’re able to be present with your students, you can start to form trust. When you’re present with your students, you’re showing that you care about them, what they’re interested in, what drives them, and what causes them to slow down or shut down.
All this is extremely important to know if we want our students to succeed to the best of their ability. Notice what they need, and realize that every one of your students is going to need different things in order to feel comfortable in school. And if our students don’t feel comfortable, they’re not going to be able to learn as well, or at all. According to “The Impact of Stress on Academic Success” at Evoke Learning, “A number of researchers have discovered that psychological stress affects the thinking skills and brain development of even the youngest student.”
A few powerful ways to build relationships with students are starting or ending the class/day with handshakes or greetings, asking students to fill out a questionnaire about their interests and then appealing to their interests through your teaching, truly listening to your students and allowing their voices to carry weight in decision-making in the class, being “selectively vulnerable” with your students (letting them know a bit about who you are and that you’re human), and attending extracurricular activities outside of school.
3. Get to Know Your Students’ Families
This mindfulness practice is similar to building relationships with your students in that it requires a great deal of presence, compassion, and awareness. In my 14 years of teaching in the classroom, I always expressed to my students’ families that they were the number-one teachers in their child’s life.
We may be trained educators, and you might have educator kids in your class, but no one knows our students like their families do, so it’s important to honor that. Get to know your students’ families through creative and personalized interactions with them. Trust that parents care about their kids and want what’s best for them.
If families are not showing up to events, returning forms, and so on, there could be a multitude of reasons for that. Perhaps their work schedules don’t line up with the school schedule. Or perhaps school wasn’t a comfortable or safe experience for them as kids, or their voices haven’t been heard at school. Getting to know your students’ families and showing them that you care is one of the most important and mindful things you can do for your students.
And lastly, understand that if your students and their families don’t look like you or didn’t grow up like you, it’s extremely important to be open to their perspectives and be aware of any judgments or biases you may have. Our brains are wired to label and sort into categories, so it’s imperative that we stay present and notice any discomfort that might arise when we notice how other people differ from us.
As a white teacher with many students and families of color, I’ve learned that different doesn’t mean wrong. It’s just different from my lived experience, and that has led to many amazing learning opportunities. I’ve learned so much from Zaretta Hammond’s excellent book, Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain. I highly recommend it!
4. Learn and Share the Science of Mindfulness
I love science and looking at how things work, so learning about the science of mindfulness has been one of the most interesting aspects of teaching mindfulness in my classroom and to teachers over the past 10 years. There is some cool research behind mindfulness, including its benefits to the brain, what our breath can do for us, and how it impacts our focus, relationships, and mental health.
From preK through high school and beyond, learning and teaching about how mindfulness can help the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex is powerful and gives a cool glimpse into neuroplasticity. Also, check out how we can regulate our nervous system just by controlling the way we breathe. Learning about the science definitely helps with staff buy-in, but it’s equally as important for student buy-in.
As I travel to schools and classrooms in Austin and throughout the United States and Namibia (I taught there in 2009 and went back this summer to share mindfulness), the science behind mindfulness is the most sought-after information and creates the most interest for building a personal practice.
5. Provide Options
Starting with yourself, building relationships with your students, getting to know your students’ families, and learning about the science all lead to understanding the importance of options when it comes to mindfulness.
First, mindfulness should never be forced on someone, and there’s no one way to sit or do it. Mindfulness doesn’t have to be just sitting and being quiet. There are many ways mindfulness can be practiced with the goal of being more present during our everyday lives.
Sharing some examples of mindfulness practices, including sitting, stretching, coloring, movement, music, and art, will help people feel more comfortable with mindfulness. When it comes to mindful attention to breath or quiet practice, offering options for what to do with our eyes (closed or gazing down), hands and arms (on legs palms down, on legs palms up, crossed in front of you similar to a hug), and feet and legs (feet down on the ground, legs/feet crossed in front of you or under your seat) can help people feel more comfortable.
It’s also a trauma-informed practice to offer options, because we don’t want to trigger our students by forcing them to sit a certain way or to close their eyes.
All that being said, remember to be patient with the process. Here’s a compilation of mindfulness resources for educators, and for more ideas regarding mindfulness in schools, check out our monthly Mindfulness Newsletter from Austin ISD.
James Butler, M.Ed., has been teaching kindergarten and prekindergarten since 2002. He has a B.S. in education and early childhood from Indiana’s Manchester University and an M.Ed. in curriculum and instruction from Grand Canyon University. He is now the SEL (social and emotional learning) mindfulness specialist for the Austin Independent School District (AISD), working with teachers, staff, administrators, parents, and grades preK–12 students. During the 2016–2017 school year, James helped implement a mindfulness curriculum in all 130 AISD campuses. He lives in Austin, Texas.
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