Lisa J. Lucas, an author, consultant, and professor in the field of education, knows firsthand how much a mindful approach to the role of teacher can contribute to a positive classroom atmosphere
Mindful is the word of the moment, and mindfulness in education has exploded. It sounds so obvious; who doesn’t want to be mindful? The alternative — mindless —certainly isn’t what most of us are striving for. However, mindfulness in education is in the precarious position of being relegated to a programmatic approach. Mindfulness has hit the mainstream, so much so that it is even being coined “McMindfulness.”
We certainly don’t want to mandate mindfulness. To be honest, the word mindful doesn’t accurately depict what I think we, as busy educators, truly need. Our minds are full enough. Instead, we could benefit from some presence.
First, let’s determine what is meant by the word presence. Presence is a secular, informal term, intended to be applicable to daily life. Being present is simplistic, yet difficult. It’s available to us at any moment, and it goes by many names. Athletes refer to it as “being in the zone.” For soldiers and first responders, it’s “situational awareness.” Artists see it as “flow,” thinkers consider it “contemplation,” and the mainstream has coined it “mindfulness.”
The name doesn’t matter; it’s the feeling of peace and stillness that is important. I like to think of presence as a cousin of mindfulness. It’s a way of being attentive, curious empathetic and compassionate — essentially social emotional intelligence for educators.
Many of us in education feel a bit overwhelmed. My preferred word to describe how we often feel after a day at school is “flattened.” By practicing presence, we can find a way to manage the overwhelm that we feel in connection with the over-scheduled, overextended lives we all seem to be leading.
As educators, practicing presence gives us the ability to anchor ourselves so we aren’t carried away by the ever-changing challenges of daily classroom life. Being present means we can observe our own internal state before we react to events so that we can respond thoughtfully. Presence allows us to be more aware and to observe ourselves and others non-judgmentally. If we’re anchored in presence, the drama doesn’t carry us away. The simple act of being present has the power to change how we interact with our students and colleagues.
If we want to foster healthier learning environments, we can begin by first attending to our own self-care by modeling presence in the classroom. Just as we learn to play the piano or train for a marathon through practice, we practice presence one moment at a time. And it’s not once and done. It’s a lifelong habit. We begin this way of life by being more attentive, curious, empathetic and compassionate.
Many schools are introducing mindfulness meditation to students, which helps cultivate awareness of thoughts, emotions and physical sensations. All are great skills for our students to learn. There are now mindfulness curriculums that have step-by-step instructions for teachers to read. However, mindfulness isn’t meant to be a script, much like you wouldn’t ask a teacher who can’t swim to teach a swimming class from a textbook. Shouldn’t we as educators explore and tune in to our own needs before we attempt to guide our students?
My book, Practicing Presence: Simple Self-Care for Teachers,explores practical strategies to practice presence before we layer on the expectation that you’ll teach it to children. A mindful culture could transform the way we live and work, but like any systems change, you can’t mandate what matters. Change is a process, not an event, and I believe this process begins with individuals.
We can begin exploring presence by trying a 1-minute presence pause.
All you have to do is sit without an agenda for one minute. If you don’t have a minute, you don’t have a life. The idea here is to shift from “doing” to “being,” for just a minute.
- Sit down, plant your feet flatly on the floor and sit up straight.
- Place your hands- palms down on your lap and close your eyes.
- Set a timer for one minute and begin to tune into your breath; just notice the inhale and exhale. If you get distracted, smile: you’re normal. Refocus your attention on your breath and try not to get hijacked into the drama of your thoughts. Just let them go and keep bringing your attention back to your breath. Think of this as attention training. We begin by noticing how scattered our attention can be.
- When the timer sounds, open your eyes gradually, stand up slowly and intentionally transition into the next part of your day.
You may notice that you feel just a slight bit lighter and more centered, or possibly you feel a bit less anxious. Occasionally, you may notice that you are anxious, slowing down can tune you into sensations that were overlooked before you paused. No matter how you feel, acknowledge the feeling without judgement.
And that, my friends, is the beginning of practicing presence. I believe that if we don’t build some type of practice into our work and home lives, the days and nights just blur together and we only pause when we fall into bed at night, exhausted.
More present-moment practices can be found in Lisa J. Lucas’ book, Practicing Presence: Simple Self-Care Strategies for Teachers. Lucas is an associate professor of Early and Middle Grades Education at West Chester (Pa.) University and was previously a school district administrator, an instructional coach and a classroom teacher. She provides workshops, coaching and consulting in classrooms throughout the country.