"Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness" by Deborah Schoeberlein
1 March 2010
"Some people need to know their goal or they can’t search at all. For others, though, the quest itself is enough."
Gerald Morris, The Quest of the Fair Unknown
Nearly twenty years ago, I taught a class on HIV prevention as a visiting specialist at an urban middle school in the Northeast. The students were street-smart seventh graders who clearly questioned whether they had anything more to learn about sexual decision-making and disease prevention. While their health teacher stood nervously at the back of the room, the students sized me up.
One girl noticed my maternity clothes and saw an opportunity to test me. She raised her hand and asked, “Well, so, it looks like you’re gonna have a baby…and, um, that probably means you had sex and didn’t use protection…right?”
It was a teachable moment the likes of which I’d never imagined. There was enormous opportunity there—and also the potential for the entire class to derail. My face burning, I took a deep breath and paused, collecting my thoughts, centering myself while the students’ buzz of “I can’t believe she said that!” and “Ooh! What’s the teacher going to do now?” quieted.
“Yes,” I said, “that’s how it usually happens when you plan to have a child.” Everyone laughed. Then, once the tension diffused, I drew their attention to the link between staying healthy as a teen and having options as an adult. We discussed responsibility for our own health and well-being, as well as that of others. Real-life relevance, in the form of my seven-months-pregnant figure, was right there in front of them. They got the point.
I got the point too—though, of course, it was different from theirs. I had dabbled with meditation, and that experience had unconsciously primed me to notice what was happening—inside me and among the students—as soon as the girl asked her question. I experienced myself standing in front of that class with all eyes on my belly. (This feels really intense.) I felt the impact of thirty students’ perceptions and unspoken questions about a typically taboo topic. (There’s a lot of energy in the room right now.) I noticed that I had the ideal opportunity to teach with my words, my physical presence, and my emotional response. (Take a breath, focus.)
In the moments before I spoke, as I breathed and waited for quiet, I noticed the quality of my inner thoughts (scattered), feelings (uncomfortable), and physical sensations (flushed) as well as the students’ reactions (amusement combined with an increased willingness to take both the class, and me, seriously) and behavior (direct gazes, along with some laughter and squirming).
I noticed all these things without becoming wrapped up in any of them. I felt multiple emotions, but focusing on my breath helped me witness them without reacting unconstructively. I knew that responding to the girl’s question in a calm, gentle, and kind manner would convey a powerful message about protecting health, making responsible choices, and caring for others.
By switching my attention to my breathing and opening my awareness to what was happening, I could better manage my own emotions, reactions, and pedagogical response.
Doing so positioned me to meet my students’ needs and capitalize on this intense—and very teachable—moment. I didn’t need to manage their behavior, because they shifted their attention and adjusted their own actions in response to my example.
The discussion that followed was transformative for everyone. There were clear boundaries—I was the teacher and they were the students—but we were also “in sync.” We were all there, really there. They understood the relevance of classroom learning in real life, as expressed by my belly. I understood that teaching modeled being in the moment and could infuse the classroom with openness, presence, and caring. And I came to see that students learn as much if not more from what we do as teachers and how we are, than from what we say.
That was my first direct experience of mindful teaching in the classroom.
A second illuminating moment came in a sex education class with high school students whose behavior had already put them “at risk” for a range of undesirable health outcomes.
These sexually active students had already “been there, done that” and were skeptical of my assertion that, except for cases of abuse or assault, everyone has some degree of control and choice about sex. They’d comment dismissively, “That’s not true—sometimes it just happens.”
Everyone knew that the “it” was sex, and the “happens” referred to the absence of an active choice. They weren’t talking about abuse or assault; rather they viewed having sex as an acceptable default option associated with certain conditions and situations, like being drunk or high. Sex-by-default was also a frequent outcome of “leading someone on” or having the feeling that “it was easier to let it happen than to say no.” The more I heard these comments, and over time I heard them in many high school classes, the more I thought about what students were really communicating.
The underlying issue that informed their responses was basic: my students didn’t have the skills to pay attention and develop an awareness of what was happening, in the moment, with their bodies, emotions, and thoughts. In other words, by the time they understood what they were doing, experiencing, and/or enduring, it was too late. As a result, they had far fewer available options than they would have had before their sexual activity escalated to that stage. They couldn’t say no, in part, because they had trouble accurately interpreting what was happening—much less predicting what was coming next.
Most health education models are based on the presumption that people do know what’s happening and can therefore assess situations and make rational choices. Even social and emotional learning (SEL) curricula assume that students already have some basic familiarity with self-awareness and self-reflection on which to build specific competencies with practice. But what if students don’t have this baseline level of awareness and the attendant option of informed behaviors?
Telling them about prevention wasn’t going to help if they weren’t present while taking risks. My immediate challenge was to teach students the skills that would enable them to “show up” and be active agents in their own lives. In short, they needed to learn to notice what they were doing in the moment so they could decide what to do next. Mindful teaching facilitated my insight, but I knew the quality of my presence by itself would not translate directly into students’ skill development.
That’s when I began teaching mindfulness at school.
Deborah Schoeberlein has more than twenty years’ experience teaching fifth- through twelfth-grade students, developing curricular materials, providing professional development for teachers, and pursuing freelance journalism. Author of the book Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness, she is a recognized leader in developing the field of contemplative education and has published widely on HIV prevention and other health issues. Currently, she directs a multi-site school-based health center for kindergarten- through twelfth- grade students and their teachers.