Take a mindful moment with these simple exercises for teachers. Photograph: Alamy
Mindfulness can help teachers reduce stress and boost confidence. Clinical psychologist Erin Olivo shares her handy guide for getting started…
In my 20-years of practice as a psychologist, I’ve found that mind-body strategies such as mindfulness meditation are one of the best ways to combat stress and anxiety – especially for teachers.
Research backs this up. There have been more than a dozen research studies, including one from RMIT University (pdf), that have investigated the impact of mindfulness for teachers. There is strong evidence that it can:
- Reduce stress and feelings of burn out.
- Improve emotional health, including self-confidence, empathy, compassion and patience.
- Enhance teachers’ ability to concentrate and focus.
- Improve health, including reductions in absenteeism.
- Enhance job performance (better classroom management etc).
But while mindfulness and meditation are no longer reserved for Buddhist retreats, you might still be unsure about how to integrate this practice into your life.
Meditation can be broadly defined as any activity that involves controlling your attention. Mindfulness is about focusing on whatever is happening moment-by-moment without being judgmental. In mindfulness meditation, you actively choose to control where your mind goes.
For example, you can choose to pay attention to your breath or the sounds around you. While that seems fairly simple, once you actually try it you’ll discover that your attention easily wanders.
However, it’s worth battling that because practising the regulation of attention ultimately helps you to live more in the present moment, and reduces the our tendency to worry about the past or future. This is hugely important because these tendencies are the root cause of much anxiety.
Each time you gently and non-judgmentally notice your attention wandering and actively bring it back to the object of your meditation, you are strengthening your mindfulness muscles. This is why it’s called a practice; mindfulness, like all skills, is something you develop over time.
Here are two practices for teachers to try before class begins, during your lunch break or before you go to sleep.
A mindful moment
Designate something as a signal for you to take a mindful moment, such as the ringing of the bell between classes, getting a text message or stopping at a light on the way to school.
The idea is to bring mindful attention to ordinary activities and just focus and observe. Briefly shine the spotlight of your attention on your breathing body, by first taking a moment to observe yourself inhale and exhale a couple of breaths. Don’t worry about changing your breathing in any way – the point is to simply notice it.
Next, take a moment to scan your body to see if you are holding any tension anywhere. If you are, try to send your next breath to that part of your body to release it. You can do this by imagining the breath entering your body and travelling to the place of tension, and then back out again on the exhale.
Before you conclude the practice, you might want to take a quick moment to give yourself a bit of encouragement: “I’ve got this, I’m going to take it moment by moment.” Or set an intention for bringing the mindful attention you just cultivated with you into the rest of your day: “I’m going to try my best to be present today.” Informal mindfulness is very handy – it’s when you are at your busiest that you need mindfulness most.
Mindfulness of breath
This is the formal meditation practice most people start with when they are first learning. It can be done for anywhere from five to 30 minutes or more.
I suggest that you start with a short period of time and slowly spend longer as you get better.
I like doing this first thing in the morning or before I go to bed, and you might try practising this in your classroom before your students arrive.
Find a quiet spot, sit in a comfortable position and close your eyes. It really doesn’t matter where you are when you practise as long as you can sit, stand or lie down without being interrupted for the duration. Imagine your attention is a spotlight that you can actively shine on whatever you choose to observe.
Once you are settled, direct this spotlight on your breathing. Observe the sensation of breath wherever you notice it: the rise and fall of your chest or abdomen, or the air entering and exiting your mouth or nostrils.
Without trying to change it in any way, simply notice the inhale/exhale cycles that occur. When you find that your attention has wandered, gently redirect the spotlight back to your breath.
One technique you might want to try as you’re learning to meditate, is counting your breaths. This will help you quiet your thinking mind by giving it a task to complete. After your first out breath, silently count one, and then after the next inhale and exhale, count two and so on, until you reach 10. If you become distracted at any point, gently refocus your spotlight back on to your breath and begin again with one.
When you’re ready to conclude your practice it’s a good idea to take a moment to acknowledge the time you have just spent cultivating calm and attention. You might try ending with a silent affirmation and intention such as, “I am peaceful and calm. Let me bring this into my life.”
Try doing these practices daily and you’ll soon reap the benefits of mindfulness meditation in all areas of your life.
Erin Olivo is the author of Wise Mind Living and a licensed clinical psychologist.
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