Of late we hear the term Mindfulness with a growing degree of frequency. It’s a meditation trend that’s become more and more commonplace in the home, workplace and particularly the classroom. Practitioners describe Mindfulness as the ability to be fully present and aware of one’s surroundings while maintaining a meditative distance from outside stimuli. “Mindfulness is the ability to attend to one’s present experience with self-caring,” says Mindfulness for Teachers – Self-Care and Student Focus instructor Andrea D’Asaro. “This process of checking in with oneself reduces both teacher and student stress.”
Through her course, D’Asaro brings to the fore a process initially explored while attending Western Washington University as a student in Education. “I began meditating while living in a house that doubled as a Dharma Study Group in Bellingham, Washington,” say D’Asaro. “Although difficult, I loved how meditation calmed my anxiety and gave me a fresh, confident perspective. I went on to study Zen in a Japanese monastery, Tibetan Buddhism with a female lama, and finally secular meditation-- Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.”
D’Asaro says it was this secular approach to mediation found in Mindfulness that gave her a means to incorporate it into classroom while teaching at an urban charter school in Philadelphia. “Soon my students formed a Mindfulness club where I taught them how to bring fun focusing activities to younger students and earn community service,” she recalls. “Next, I began offering basketball players and wrestlers a new ways to calm their nerves before games and tournaments. Offering training to teachers and in special education classes and senior seminars was a natural follow-up.”
Upon relocating to Seattle last year, D’Asaro began providing clock-hour workshops for teachers in Seattle, Everett and Marysville schools with an emphasis on incorporating mindful moments into the classrooms to regulate emotion and attention. “As a part-time special education and ELL teacher at Middle College High school, I use trauma-informed Mindfulness in two yoga-Mindfulness clubs for students.”
For those who work in education, it is common knowledge that teaching is now considered one of the most stressful jobs in the nation. “Half of all teachers leave the profession within their first five years," says D'Asaro. "Teachers are required to implement curricula without much support while addressing the social-emotional needs of students, who themselves are stressed, especially in urban schools."
D'Asaro points out that a recent survey by the American Federation of Teachers found that new Common Core standards, high-stakes tests, concerns about school shootings and the black-white achievement gap have created sky- rocketing teacher stress and anxiety. "With the increasing needs of students and accompanying longer hours, over half of teachers are reporting higher workplace stress than most other occupations, according to the Gallup poll," says D'Asaro. "When teachers are burning out from physical and emotional fatigue students, too, suffer and become less engaged in learning. This in turn increased teacher worries, since their evaluations are often based on student achievement."
The Mindfulness practice itself starts with a skill teachers refine early on in their careers: observation. “When teachers learn to pause and observe muscle tension and breathing as a short daily practice, they can easily notice stress in the classroom, and take a moment to return to baseline,” says D’Asaro. “Studies show that students receive secondary gains when their teacher takes a few mindful breaths to calm themselves and the class environment. Rather than blaming students for being loud or unfocused, the teacher takes responsibly for his personal state of mind. Students, in turn, feel more secure in such an environment and more likely to take risks in learning new skills, included applying self-calming in emulation of their teacher.”
D’Asaro says the act of releasing stress can actually act as an energy conductor. “Mindful breathing, body awareness, even mindful standing and walking can bring fresh oxygen and energy to recharge the mind and body. With practice, teachers can insert a few minutes of Mindfulness when stress arises, rather than let worries build up into burn out.”
The benefits of Mindfulness are long-lasting and self-perpetuating, as D’Asaro has seen from the accomplishments of her own students. “As a special education and ESOL teacher, I teach Mindfulness to at-risk teens and meet with them individually to check their progress and encourage improved study skills and self-regulation. One of my students, Steve, has been attending my group Mindfulness classes once a week: ‘I’m now able to notice when I’m not paying attention. I can make a choice if I want to focus on my work or take a few more minutes off.’” D’Asaro says Steve’s Mindfulness practice elevated his energy and creative bandwidth. He was able to improve his time management skills by developing his own study calendar while taking into account his daily habits and best times to focus.
According to D’Asaro, the mechanics of Mindfulness aren’t particularly complex, at the same time they require a certain degree of discipline. “Paying attention on purpose in the moment is the simplest definition of Mindfulness,” she says. “This is a human capacity that we all experience in moments of clarity, such as looking at the snow-covered mountains or stepping outside on a sunny day. However, most people don’t make a practice of consciously and deliberately placing attention on an object like the body or breath. This practice increases the function of the higher brain and the prefrontal cortex, which regulates attention and allows both students and teachers to better control their attention and important decisions.”
As we all can attest, being present and in the moment can be more difficult than threading a needle while wearing mittens. D’Asaro says it’s not impossible, “Without such a practice, it’s easy for our attention to wander into the past and project into the future—with rarely attending to the present moment. Pausing to enjoy the immediacy of our present experience is where we access our greatest power and humanity.”
D’Asaro says educators looking forward to taking part in Mindfulness for Teachers – Self-Care and Student Focus can expect a relaxed and mutually supportive environment. “We will practice short guided practices like mindful breathing, walking, standing and eating—and look at where they can be inserted in our daily teaching schedule to ward off stress where it’s most likely to appear.”
“Teachers can enjoy learning Mindfulness and the brain science that goes with it,” says D’Asaro. “They can also expect to learn seven types of Mindfulness and choose the ones might fit best into their daily routine.”
Click here to register for Mindfulness for Teachers – Self-Care and Student Focus.