Introduction to Mindfulness: A Lesson for Teachers and Staff

“Between a stimulus and a response there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and freedom.”

–Victor Frankl, quoted in Bouncing Back by Linda Graham

The following lesson was one that I developed and used with a group of staff members (including teachers, a guidance counselor, a technology director and an instructional coach).  It is the first lesson in a set I hope to provide for willing participants.

I began the lesson by stating my background, which I will describe here as well.  I began my own mindfulness practice a little over a year ago.  It began with ten minutes of silence a day followed by about ten minutes of journaling.  Since that time, I have attended a number of retreats, conducted much research, and increased my meditation time to twenty minutes most days of the week followed by journaling.

I am no expert in mindfulness.  However, I do feel passionately about its ability to change the lives of those who are willing to commit to silence, reflection, and acceptance as part of a daily practice.  If you choose to use this lesson independently or within a group setting, please do cite the source of your lesson materials and contact me to provide feedback.  Enjoy!

Part I: Defining Mindfulness

1.  Read “What is Mindfulness?” silently and use metacognitive markers, or another annotation system, to annotate the text (if using the handout version.

  • ? – I have a question about this
  • * – I have a comment about this
  • ! – I was surprised by this

What is Mindfulness?

Despite the fact that every human experience is filtered through the brain, there is little focus on cultivating this space into a place in which we want to be. Author Michael Singer aptly states that if we were to take the voice (or sometimes voices) in our minds and imagine him or her as a person sitting beside us, that person would hardly be someone we would trust or value as a confidant. With constant contradictory sentiments and continual reminders of one’s less admirable characteristics, we would probably dislike said person intensely, in fact.  

And yet, we trust our minds to guide our every decision and invest our emotions in the stories they tell. 

Through training, called mindfulness, individuals can choose to consciously strengthen specific pathways in the hopes that the mind will eventually become a kinder, quieter place. Srinivisan defines mindfulness as:

…the energy we cultivate through kind, present-moment awareness. It involves the practice of coming back to the peaceful, compassionate space we all have within ourselves with curiosity and without judgment. When we come back to this space repeatedly, it grows. The mind is like a muscle- the more it lies in certain states, the more it will seek them. Mindfulness is a way of training our minds through intentional awareness so that they stay in a more peaceful and compassionate state. (27)

Mindfulness is an “experience-based” practice. It takes engagement in the process to both learn it and to teach it (Rotne and Rotne 47). In other words, the positive effects of mindfulness will only be experienced through what Ronte and Rotne describe as an, “intentional, systematic way of developing a compassionate and insightful presence in the world” (21). There are two major ways to do this:  

  • Formal practice – meditation, silence, movement, journaling, etc.
  • Informal practice- bringing conscious awareness and attention to daily life and “returning to the moment” while recognizing the transience of experiences

In either practice, there are always two parts to sustaining mindfulness: awareness and acceptance. 

  • Awareness means continually coming back to the present moment and being aware of what is happening internally and externally
  • Acceptance means viewing and experiencing these things without judgment, or being compassionate to others and to oneself

2.  Discuss this reading section as a group.

  • What was important?
  • What questions do you have?
  • Was anything surprising?

Part II: How (or Why) Does It Work?

  1. Read “How (or Why) Does It Work” silently and annotate the text (if using the handout version)

How (or Why) Does It Work?

Like babbling streams and rushing rivers, our neural pathways are built upon the waters of our every thought, memory, and insight. Each time we engage in a mental process, the currents of that path grow stronger and the banks are washed into deeper and wider channels, making it easier for water to flow. So to which tributaries do we give our energy, and to where are they leading?     

The process of building the contours and tributaries of our brains began at a very early age, for better or worse. The systems and patterns that determine each individual’s responses to life are forged early and likely will not change without conscious and targeted effort. Graham explains,

We now know, from the latest advances in neuroscience, that capacities for resilience are innate in the brain, hard-wired in by evolution.  How well these capacities develop as we mature depends on our responses to our life experiences and how those experiences shape the neural circuitry and functioning of our brain- which in turn influences our responses.  Whether we tend to bounce back from terrible setbacks or stay where we’ve been thrown depends on learned patterns of response to others and events.  These patterns become fixed, not just incorporated into a behavioral repertoire but deeply encoded in our neural circuitry, from an early age.  They shape not only the ways we cope with challenges but also the functioning of the brain itself. (xxvi)

We can, however, reshape the landscape of our brains through awareness of neuroplasticity and conscious conditioning toward new behaviors. With these tools, individuals can choose which rivers run dry and which streams will become the major waterways of thought and active response.  

Conditioning is creating responses through repeated actions and patterns

  • Conditioning can create responses and patterns that are very hard to break
  • Conditioning can also be used to change patterns to new, preferred responses using repeated actions/thoughts 

Neuroplasticity is the concept of brain flexibility and growth  

  • The capacity of the brain to change is what allows for conditioning to be effective

2.  Watch the video on neuroplasticity

3.  Discuss the reading and the video together, beginning with the facilitator drawing attention to the quote at the top of the handout:

“Between a stimulus and a response there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and freedom.”

–Victor Frankl, quoted in Bouncing Back by Linda Graham

Note that in accordance with brain research on neuroplasticity, individuals are capable of making another choice and changing their brains; however, there must be the “pause” between the stimulus and response. This is the work of mindfulness training- to create this space and silence.

5.  Journal on the following two prompts:

  • Where do you find outer silence in your daily life?
  • Where in your life do you find inner silence? (If the group struggles with this question, the facilitator might mention personal experiences, such as in nature, while looking at art, while dancing, doing yoga, playing a sport etc.)

6.  Share out journal responses. Facilitator states that these experiences of “inner silence” are also a benefit of continual mindfulness training

Part III: What Are the Benefits and Why Teachers Need Mindfulness

  1. Read “What Are the Benefits?” and “Why Teachers Need Mindfulness?” and annotate the text (if using the handout version)

What are the Benefits of Mindfulness?

Mindfulness helps to facilitate:

  • Stress management and development of inner peace
  • Conscious awareness of the current moment and less unwanted focus on past and future
  • Freedom to choose thought and action patterns and not get “caught” by unwanted habitual responses
  • Empathy and connection to others
  • Improved ability to listen

In regular meditators, studies have shown that certain areas are “thicker,” or contain a higher density of neurons than the average brain. These parts of the brain were associated with “sensory information” and “awareness” resulting in an increased ability to exert focused attention (Rotne and Rotne 131).

Furthermore, in studies monks with a regular meditation practice showed significantly less stress when encountering a worrying incident than those without a meditation practice. Stress affects the part of the brain (frontal lobe) that deals with setting goals, planning and reflection on process. It also deals with decision-making and the interpretation and response to other’s emotions. When the average person encounters a stressor, all of these abilities are lessened. The amount to which one can effectively manage stress will improve brain function.    

Why Do Teachers Need Mindfulness?

Teaching is a very complex job. Danielson estimated the number of “non-trivial” decisions to be up to 3,000 per day for classroom teachers. Virtually every moment of an educator’s day includes some decision point.      

It is a highly demanding profession.  In the article “Why They Leave” on the NEA website, it states that on any given year, “one-third of all new teachers leave after three years, and 46 percent are gone within five years.” Stress from teaching is a contributing factor to these percentages.

And yet, the job of a teacher is so incredibly important. The mental growth and emotional health ohumanity is built on the foundation of a good educational system. Rotne and Rotne state:    

Teachers are the most important professional resource children have for learning, growth, and development. But many teachers suffer from chronic stress on account of a tense work environment and feelings of inadequacy. In spite of the fact that teachers are so crucial for the well-being and prosperity of the next generation, the teaching profession has neither the status, nor the opportunities equal to the expectations placed on teachers. (27) 

It is no wonder teachers struggle to sustain themselves in the profession. In a work environment where collegial conversation is limited, bathroom breaks are timed, and one’s each and every move is charted by thirty sets of eyes, stress is almost guaranteed. However, studies show distinct benefits for teachers who use mindfulness techniques, including, “elevated levels of self-compassion and a decrease in psychological ills such as anxiety, depression, and burnout,” says USC Berkeley’s Greater Good. 

2.  As group members are finishing, also have them write down the percentage of time they spend thinking of the past or present, as opposed to being in the future (in the initial group, members said 80-100%)

3.  Discuss annotations and personal responses to the text

  • What percentage of time did you spend in the past or future?
  • What benefits of mindfulness are most appealing to you?
  • How did you personally connect to “Why Teachers Need Mindfulness?”

4.  Have group members look back at the benefits of mindfulness section of the handout and set an “intention” for their practice

  • An intention is basically a statement that encompasses the new skill, awareness or characteristic on which they would like to focus
  • If group members want to, they may share these. This should be optional, however

Part IV: What Does Mindfulness Practice Look Like?

  1. The facilitator should review aloud and model “What Does Mindfulness Practice Look Like?” for the group and expand upon ideas as needed:

What Does Mindfulness Practice Look Like?

There are MANY ways to engage in a mindfulness practice, but here are a few basic guidelines for beginning a practice:

  1. Place: Find a relatively quiet, comfortable place where you can be alone for the duration of your practice without distraction
  2. Posture: Sit in a chair or on the floor (perhaps with a pillow beneath you) in a position where your back can be fully straight and upright.
  3. Breathing: Breathe relaxed, full breaths, slowly and deeply. Some people choose to breathe through the stomach.
  4. Awareness: Attention should be focused (especially in the beginning) on something specific. Most beginning meditators focus on the breath. Don’t try to control it, just notice it going in and out, the way it feels in the body, the sensations of the air moving through the lungs, the nose, the mouth etc. Awareness will get caught up in thoughts and emotions, but just bring it back to the present over and over again
  5. Non-Judgment: It is normal to experience and get “caught” in thoughts and feelings. When this happens, gently come back to the moment without condemnation and judgment. Practice empathy for yourself.    

A practice might also include other activities, such as mindful walking or eating. In addition, mindfulness is a lifestyle as well as a practice. Taking a moment to come back to the present and notice what is happening and what one is feeling is a way to disrupt habitual patterns, maintain empathy, and engage in the moment while limiting judgment or distraction.

2.  Model posture and have group members practice

3.  Model breathing and have group members close their eyes and notice where they feel their breath and share out with the group

4.  Explain that the group will be engaging in a five-minute mindfulness practice. Have everyone get into a comfortable posture and then begin this recording

5.  After the mindfulness practice, have group members write down three words to describe their experience

6.  Share out responses

Part V: Individual practice

  1. Read Final Notes together

Final Notes

Mindfulness can calm the rushing rivers of unwanted, detrimental thoughts and habitual patterns, in some cases, allowing them to run dry completely. In their place, new peaceful, flowing streams can develop. This process takes time and concerted effort, but the mind shapes every moment of reality, so it is worth the investment.  The inner world, whether it is run by stress and self-condemnation or choice and freedom, is the one reality we can never escape.  

2.  The facilitator should pass out and explain the “assignment” for the next two weeks. It is as follows:

Assignment

Part I: Are you mindful?

  1. Take the mindfulness quiz from Greater Good from UC Berkeley referenced in your “Introduction to Mindfulness” handout
  2. Print out your results and reflect upon what you learned about yourself from this quiz (in a short writing)

Part II: Practicing mindfulness

  1. Set an intention to notice where you find silence in your daily life for the next week; remind yourself daily of this intention in the mornings and at any point throughout the day.
  2. Commit to five to ten minutes of silent mindfulness practice and five to ten minutes of journaling on how your intention and practice are developing for five days of seven each week for the next two weeks
  3. After week one, you may decide on a more individualized intention for yourself rather than noticing silence. For example: creating space for patience, noticing others emotions etc.  

The group will meet again to discuss their developing practice and continue in mindfulness training with a focus on gratitude.

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