By Sam Bradford
I’m seeing more and more about mindfulness in the classroom. Usually these tips include breathing exercises and yoga poses. Don’t get me wrong--I enjoy a good downward dog as much as the next yogi, but I don’t find these practices to be very effective in the classroom setting. Despite their proven benefits, I teach high school students, and I can’t deny that the response I get from earnest attempts at incorporation is at best polite humoring and at worst outright mockery. The irony of doing yoga in the classroom is that it often becomes the kind of distraction you are looking to avoid.
Until yoga, breathing, and meditation have become normalized in elementary and middle school settings, I think high school teachers have to be more subtle about it.
How do we do that? First, let’s define mindfulness. For me, mindfulness is about remembering what you value and what’s important, despite all the white noise of internal chatter, stress, and external distractions. So, in order for mindfulness to work, you first have to articulate what you value. You have to do that internal work. Break out the old journal and start asking the big questions. Why do you teach? What do you stand for? What gives you purpose?
Once you have some clarity, here are the top five ways I have found to encourage remembering those values in the classroom.
Tip #5: Buy a chime, or, in other words, don’t use other words.
I’ve always loved observing colleagues. I did it as much as I could as a student teacher, it was part of my job description as an administrator, and now that I’m back in the classroom full time, I’m always asking colleagues if I can sit in on their class. One thing I have found in all this observation is there is rarely a moment where there is silence. Outside of a test, which brings its own naval fleet of anxieties, someone--unfortunately, it’s usually the teacher--is always talking. Words, words, words, as Hamlet said.
So I make it a goal to speak as little as possible in class. I still have to repeat myself, but once I started paying attention to it, I was shocked at how much I talked just to fill space. How many of my students' insights have I blocked with my own nervous chatter?
And, of course, students are quick to stop paying attention to things that ultimately don’t matter. The more you say, the less they listen.
One thing I did to address that is to use a chime of some kind. I use a singing bowl, which I ring to mark transitions. There is no “excuse me, students, let’s begin,” no “ok folks, simmer down”, and certainly no “Everybody shut up!” I ring the bell, and they know what it means. I don’t have to say a word.
A chime, for the silence it signifies, has been a transformative tool for me.
Tip #4: Log the Good Vibes
I’m here for the students. I believe that the best teachers become voices that the students carry with them for the rest of their lives, voices that encourage them, give them strength, allow them to stand up, find the humor, or take a risk. I carry the voices of my past teachers with me, and I’m sure you do, too.
If mindfulness is about remembering what matters, I have to remember, in the middle of a lesson on participles, that I’m here to be that everlasting voice. Sometimes that’s hard to remember when you’re in the proverbial weeds.
So, I keep a log of sentiments students and parents have shared with me that helps me remember. Thank you notes, letters from alums, all the kind words that remind me that I have influenced people’s lives. Any time I receive such an email, I flag it under my “warm fuzzies” folder. At the start of the school year, I have a ritual of reading all of them.
If I feel lost and stressed before a lesson, spending the last five minutes before class reading from the “warm fuzzies” folder will make for an infinitely better class than if I do five more minutes of panic Googling. Why? Because I’m reminding myself of what matters.
To take it a step further, spread the vibes to someone else as an act of gratitude. Here’s a challenge: the next time you are short on time and stressed and prepping for class, instead of saying yes to whatever frenzy is going on, write a thank-you email to someone for something. See what happens. I dare say you’re going to be a lot more present with your students, and they will respond to that.
Tip #3: Stand at the Door and Greet Your Students
Speaking of gratitude, I have to share some. The most helpful book for a first-year teacher is, in my opinion, Harry and Rosemary Wong’s The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher. It was the only book I found that gave specific, practical advice. First-year teachers don’t want theory; they want to survive. The book was a life raft to me.
I mention this because there’s one page where they suggest greeting the students at the start of class. And, because I was a first-year teacher suffering from a yearlong panic attack, I needed advice on how to greet them--with a smile, eye contact, a firm handshake (after COVID-19, I’ve switched to the fist-bump), wearing professional attire, etc. The book is so aware of its audience and so lovingly geared to the bone-head that I was that it even gives an annotated photograph of such a greeting.
Well, I remember thinking, at least I won’t screw up the way they enter class. . . So I’ve been an at-the-door greeter ever since, and I think it makes a huge difference. It marks your acknowledgment of your students’ humanity before anything else. Before I say a word about my discipline or the day’s objective, I want all of my students to feel seen and heard. I want them to be called by their name. I want them to be acknowledged as a person.
What kind of message do you send when students walk in, and you’re rifling through your papers, or reading emails, not even looking at them? Is that how other professions treat clients? Is that how you would treat a guest to your home?
Also, there’s so much to gauge from body language and nonverbal communication. I know who’s in a good mood, who’s worth checking in with, who maybe needs a little extra encouragement.
Tip #2: Apologize and Own Your Mistakes
I have family members--people I lived in the same house with--who I’ve known for decades and who I have no recollection of ever hearing them apologize. That means one of two things: either they don’t make mistakes, or they don’t own up to them. Guess which one is the truth?
Making plans is so crucial to an educator--you have to have a roadmap. I’m a big believer in backward design, like any other decent teacher, but I think the ability to apologize is as important as the ability to plan. Life will happen. Interruptions will occur. The plan will fall apart. Emotions will rise, and you’ll say or do something that you shouldn’t.
Don’t be in denial of it. Own it. I have found that some of the most powerful moments when a class has gelled or when a discipline issue has resolved itself were when I said I was sorry, owned a mistake, and worked through it with them.
High schoolers are obsessed with perfection. They have so much to perform for: GPAs, scholarships, championships. We need to model that it’s human to err. What matters is what we do after we mess up.
If you can model that, you have a chance to quiet some of their anxious, fear-based drive for accomplishment and perfection.
Tip #1: Practice "Connections"
This, to me, is the power tool of mindfulness in the classroom. I don’t claim any credit. I got it from the School Reform Initiative, who got it from the Quaker Church. Admittedly, I am so taken by this practice that I once attended a Quaker service.
You can read the protocol description, but the idea is simple. Everyone puts away all electronic devices. You start class with a five-minute period where anyone can, if, in the words of the Quakers, they “feel moved by the spirit,” say one thing, school-related or not, big or small, silly or serious. You can’t respond to anyone else’s comment, and you can’t have any side conversations. In the last minute, they can say a second comment if they want. After five minutes, connections is “closed,” and nobody mentions what was said in connections.
I use my singing bowl to open and close connections. Sometimes students talk, and sometimes it’s quiet. Some kids watch other kids for cues. Some kids close their eyes and breathe. After connections ends, I’ll debrief with them: “What did you notice today?”
I know it sounds hokey, and, to be fair, it takes the students a bit to get used to it, but I am amazed at how classes gel around this practice. I am astounded at the things students have revealed. It is a practice of silent empathy, of getting a sense of what is going on in the lives of one another.
I have found that 11th and 12th grade students love this practice (most of the time). For 9th and 10th grade, the spontaneous element can be too much. A good scaffold for them is to go “in a round,” where you go around the room, and when it’s their turn, they can say something or pass.
Heraclitus says that we never step into the same river twice. Classes are the same way. We’re still C-block English 11, but today is different. X person got to bed late because it was his sister’s birthday party. Y person is stressed because her parents are getting a divorce. Z person flunked a test five minutes before entering your class.
What’s the river like today? Is the current fast or slow, muddy or clear? What do you do differently now that you know? Those little changes are what mindfulness is all about.