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Meditate your way to better teaching | Q&A with Ushapa Fortescue

Recently, I presented webinars for OUP entitled “Meditate your way to better teaching” The focus was on how teachers need to take care of themselves to avoid excess stress and burnout and how meditation and mindfulness are successful techniques for this. We explored many different techniques that teachers can use in their everyday teaching lives.

Here I respond to some of the questions I couldn’t answer during the webinar.

I’ve read lots about mindfulness but beyond ‘being more focused on the present, I’m still not sure what it is, because everyone is using the term for everything. Any definition for our purposes?

 This is an important question as we really need to understand meditation and mindfulness if we want to practice them.

The question came near the start of the webinar and I hope that I explained it later on, however there are so many misconceptions that I would like to take this opportunity to give a definition.

A definition of mindfulness from Mindful is “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”

People often think that meditation is focusing or concentrating on something, but this is not meditation. A definition of meditation is relaxed awareness.

An analogy that I was once told to help understand the difference between focused, concentration and relaxed awareness was to imagine you are on a train reading a book. The skill of reading takes concentration (and as teachers we know many sub skills) and a focus. So as the train is moving along you are focusing your attention on the words in the book.

After a while you put the book down and just look out of the window. As the countryside is passing by you’re not looking at anything in particular but you are seeing everything. You are relaxed and aware of what is passing by. This is the difference between concentration and relaxed awareness.

As mentioned in the webinar, meditation and mindfulness have enormous health benefits and this may be largely due to the relaxation that is involved. It’s really an opportunity to “turn up” for your own life, to not miss what is happening around you, because life, like most activities, works better when we turn up for it.

I’ve got a distraction problem. E.g. when I am listening to a tape or video I get distracted for some seconds and miss that part. Can meditation do something for this problem? What’s the solution for getting distracted?

Distraction is something we all have experience of. Especially in the modern world we live in, we are almost encouraged to multitask, and so many things are vying for our attention that it’s no wonder we get easily distracted.

In the “watching the natural breath” technique, we used the things that may normally be seen as distractions (feelings, sounds, thoughts) to actually help us relax. Instead of fighting them or trying to ignore them, we used all those things to bring awareness to what was happening in the present moment. So instead of taking us away from the task they actually helped us to engage with it.

The likelihood is that we will get distracted and that’s natural. When it happens, use one of the senses to bring your awareness back to the present. The sounds, bodily sensations, sights, smells that are around you. And be kind to yourself when it happens. If you feel bad when it happens you will become tense, meditation needs relaxation, so when you notice you are distracted, be thankful you have realised you are distracted, and then you can come back to the present moment.

Can you also mention how to stay focused and mindful whilst actually teaching a class?

Like any new skills, it needs a lot of practice.

One of my meditation teachers used to say “If you were going to parachute out of a plane, you wouldn’t start sewing the parachute while you are in the plane! You would make it while you’re on the ground, check it, do some more test runs, make sure it works before you jump out of plane with it.”

The same is true for meditation and mindfulness. As for many it’s a new skill, so practice where and when you are most likely to have success. Teaching in a classroom is a very focused and involved activity, so trying to meditate for the first time in the class perhaps isn’t the best idea. Practise the techniques while you are relaxed and conducting a simple activity, such as walking or clearing up the classroom. Then once you’ve found a technique that works for you, use it while doing more complex activities.

Some techniques that work perfectly and can have powerful results in the classroom are neutral gear, breathing into your centre and changing the focus techniques, as these can all be done while doing other activities.

Can we ask the students to do the relaxing technique too?

Many schools are introducing meditation to students with amazing success levels.

If you find a technique that works for you and feel it would be beneficial for your students, then you can try it out. The important step is that you first use the technique so you have an experience and understanding of it.

Jamie Bristow, Director of The Mindfulness Initiative, says “You wouldn’t ask a teacher who can’t swim to teach a swimming class from a textbook,” if we are interested in bringing meditation and mindfulness into the classroom, we have to start with ourselves.

So yes, a relaxing technique might work very well for older or adult students.

Make sure the exercise or technique you choose is age appropriate. Remember that sitting silently might be a pleasure for us, but it’s potentially not so for younger learners.

In the webinar I explained a mindful walking technique. If you would like to try something similar for young leaners, you can use the famous superhero Spiderman to engage them and help them to understand. Spiderman uses his “spidey senses” to feel when he is in danger, or when someone needs his help.

To help young leaners become aware of their surroundings, ask the students to turn on their “spidey senses” for 30 seconds to a minute and then report back what they saw, felt, heard in that time. This can be done while sitting or while quietly moving around the classroom. This way it feels like a game, helping them to become aware of the present moment.


Ushapa Fortescue has taught for over 14 years both in the UK and abroad in a variety of contexts including primary and secondary schools, post 16 adult education, private language schools, Further Education colleges and Universities. She trains teachers and presents worldwide. Chloe is a qualified meditation facilitator who has lived and worked in meditation centres around the world for the last 13 years. She loves to show teachers how to stay relaxed, engaged and light-hearted in the classroom.


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Meditate your way to better teaching

Can meditation and mindfulness really make us better teachers?

Well the mounting evidence suggests yes!

Regular meditation can improve your immune system, energy levels, lower blood pressure, and enhance your sleep. And don’t forget its power to reduce feelings of anxiety or depression!

Over the last decade, various organisations have championed mediation and mindfulness to reduce stress, increase productivity, create calmer working environments, and improve the well-being of their employees. The educational sector is no exception. Meditation programs are now offered in schools worldwide. Many of these programmes focus on the learners, often boasting phenomenal results. A paper published by ‘Carry the Vision (2017)’ found a link between students that practiced meditation and positive emotions, self-identity, greater self-acceptance, and higher optimism. They also experienced lower stress levels, anxiety, and depression (Carry the Vision, 2017).

So the results are promising, but what do they mean practically for teachers? According to the Carry the Vision report, teachers found that meditation practice led to:

  • a more positive learning environment
  • more attentive children who were ready to learn
  • increased working memory, creativity and concentration
  • a way for students to reduce test-related stress and anxiety
  • less anger and aggression (as reported by the students themselves).

What about when the programmes are offered to teachers. According to research, teachers that practise meditation experience a myriad of benefits, including elevated levels of self-compassion, a decrease in anxiety, depression, and improved overall health (which means fewer unexpected sick days). Notably, teachers said that they were better able to concentrate and focus on their job duties.

In a study conducted with 224 teachers in high poverty schools across New York City, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, Jennings (2016) found that teachers trained in meditation reported fewer feelings of anxiety, depression, burnout, and perceived stress. Perhaps even more interestingly for teachers is what came from classroom observations. “Yelling went down,” says Jennings (2016). Classrooms were rated more emotionally positive and productive; overall students were much more engaged.

If teachers know how to reduce stress, stay relaxed and be more present in the classroom, there can be positive effects on personal well-being and the teaching environment.

So, how can we introduce mediation into our classes? Well, to quote Jamie Bristow (2017), “You wouldn’t ask a teacher who can’t swim to teach a swimming class from a textbook,” (2017). If we are interested in bringing meditation and mindfulness into the classroom, we have to start with ourselves!

Missed the webinar? Click here to hear me talking meditation and mindfulness in this webinar recording, and see for yourself the positive effects that they can have on your professional and private life.


Ushapa Fortescue has taught for over 14 years both in the UK and abroad in a variety of contexts, including primary and secondary schools, post 16 adult education, private language schools, Further Education colleges, and Universities. She trains teachers and presents worldwide. Chloe is a qualified meditation facilitator who has lived and worked in meditation centres around the world for the last 13 years. She loves to show teachers how to stay relaxed, engaged, and light-hearted in the classroom.


References

Bristow, J. (2017). How to Avoid A Poorly Designed School Mindfulness Program [online]. Mindful. Available at: www.mindful.org/4-signs-poorly-designed-school-mindfulness-programs/ . Accessed 13/4/18.

Carry the Vision. (2017). Benefits and Research of Meditation in Schools. [online] Available at: http://carrythevision.org/meditation-research-and-benefits/ Accessed 13/4/18.

Jennings, P. (2016). When Teachers Take A Breath, Students Can Bloom. [online]. nprEd. Available at: www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/08/19/488866975/when-teachers-take-a-breath-students-can-bloom. Accessed 13/4/18.