One evening, while teaching a mindfulness course to school staff, I asked them to think about the last time they were involved in a teaching observation.
“Notice the different elements of your experience,” I suggested. “Your thoughts, emotions, body posture; your impulses and actions.”
Their responses varied, but what they shared was how the experience had activated their defences. This is because our thoughts, emotions and impulses to act – together with our nervous system - are all connected, and stress triggers them.
I noticed something was going on with Susan, one of the teachers. “When you were describing the responses,” she said, “I felt I was seeing my own mind.”
Teaching observations had become a bête noire for her, even though she was an experienced teacher and head of department.
“I was a mess; I couldn’t perform. I would over-plan. I was crippled by stress,” she told me. “Thoughts like, this is going to be a disaster, made my body tense up and feelings of anxiety flooded through me.”
Reacting not responding
Seeing the process depersonalised it for Susan. She knew she wasn’t a bad teacher, or incompetent, but when she was triggered these thoughts and feelings took over.
She was reacting – a knee jerk action based on habit and auto-pilot – rather than responding, taking in the whole picture, including herself, and acting with awareness. To stop this happening, she needed to pause – to find a gap.
This is what mindfulness does, and it is no different for school leaders. By bringing awareness to thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations, you become more present and can make choices from a clearer state of mind.
It’s simple, doesn’t take long and practising it doesn’t require any special conditions.
Creating the weather
Research shows that school staff create the weather in the classroom – and leaders do this in the school generally. They have a huge influence on the atmosphere and, in turn, this affects pupils’ wellbeing and ability to learn.
If you’re stressed or unaware of how what’s gone before is impacting on you, that’s going to have a direct effect on those around you. Becoming aware in this way makes the difference between you being a calm breeze or whipping up a storm.
“I know I was always quick to react,” said Jan, a KS2 teacher. “If there was a problem in the class, I wanted to get it sorted so the children could go back to their work.” Practicing mindfulness taught her to take a step back. “Pausing has been really effective. I thought I was calm before, but I wasn’t.”
Finding your centre of calm
When I ask school staff about taking care of their wellbeing, they often tell me that they never have time. It’s true that schools can be frantic environments, and were even more frantic in the Covid era where there were high levels of staff sickness, student absenteeism and, in some schools, a doubling of child protection cases.
But the cost of taking a few minutes to centre yourself to be calmer and more purposeful is repaid many times over.
“It’s like a teaching method: slowing down the pace, the voice, everything you’re doing,” said Jo, a primary school teacher. “It’s important to be aware of the effect you have on the children and then notice the effect when you don’t do this.”
In this way, behavioural problems in the classroom are kept in proportion rather than escalating, and cross words with colleagues or parents - that take time to unravel - are less frequent.
There’s a bigger picture here. In the everyday grind of school life with its data tables and budget cuts, the enormous privilege of working with young minds can get squeezed out. Creativity takes space, a sense of freedom and the ability to experiment and take risks.
A stressed and tired mind is risk-averse, focused on ticking boxes and surviving the day rather than responding to the joy, ingenuity and humour young minds can bring.
Heeding the lessons of research
MYRIAD (myriadproject.org) was a large-scale randomised control trial looking at the effect of mindfulness in schools. Although aimed at lower Key Stage 3, because of its sheer scale (including over 80 schools), it’s worth paying attention to the findings as they are important across all sectors.
Even though the mindfulness lessons aimed at children didn’t have the effect that was anticipated, the impact of the training on staff was significant.
All school staff involved participated in an eight-week mindfulness course tailored to them. The study found that they benefitted from the sessions which could, potentially, then have a positive impact on students through better teacher-wellbeing, classroom instruction and school climate.
When it comes to mindfulness in schools, we may have been looking through the wrong end of the telescope.
By focusing on pupil wellbeing, we’ve left out a crucial factor, as Willem Kuyten, director of Oxford Mindfulness Centre and principal MYRIAD investigator, said: “Maybe we need to be rethinking the focus of our interventions on creating climates and contexts in which kids feel safe, respected, able to learn.”
Connect with yourself to build relationships
Although MYRIAD is the biggest example, smaller studies have shown how mindfulness has supported staff wellbeing.
Mark Greenberg, founding director of the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center, at Penn State, says it’s “a good place to start in helping schools become more caring places where children can explore their inner worlds is with the adults”.
Susan, mentioned earlier, reflected: “I knew I had it in me to be a really good teacher, but something was stopping me, and I couldn’t work out what it was. I realised I was really tense in the lessons and reacting too quickly.
I wasn’t listening.” For her, practicing mindfulness has been powerful and transformative, both personally and professionally.
By their nature, schools are built on relationships. By taking those moments to connect with yourself, you’re more open to connecting with others. When everyone takes a breath together, a bit more humanity is breathed back into the school day.
Finger breathing – a tool to calm yourself
This is a simple exercise to focus and calm you.
- With one finger, trace up one side and down the other of the fingers on the opposite hand.
- When you’ve finished, loop back round to start again, or swap hands.
- Notice the touch between the contact of the fingers.
- If you like you can, synchronise the breathing. Inhale as you trace up, and exhale as you trace down. But if this feels too artificial, feel free to let the breath come and go.
- Once you’ve mastered this, you can do it anywhere, like under the desk during a challenging class or meeting. Nobody needs to know you are doing it.
Why does this matter? When your head is racing, trying to stop and breathe isn’t always effective. The visceral nature of finger breathing gives the mind something to do. By engaging the senses of sight and touch, our mind is less focused on difficult thoughts and feelings.
This gives the mind a breathing space, allowing it to rest. The result of this short and simple practice is that the mind feels refreshed.
Kamalagita Hughes is a qualified teacher and lecturer who has been practicing mindfulness for 25 years and teaching it for 15. Her new book The Mindful Teacher’s Handbook: How to step out of busyness and find peace, is out now.