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Earlier this month, the cover story for the New York Times Sunday Magazine Section (3/7/10) asked “Can good teaching be learned?” It’s a really good question, and kudos to the Times for posing it front and center.
The story, entitled “Building a Better Teacher,” contributes to the ongoing national debate on education through addressing the importance of best practices in teaching. The basic premise is progressive: that the quality of teaching is essential to students’ academic outcomes. But the proposed strategy for building better teachers — namely focusing on understanding and improving the mechanics of teaching — is incomplete.

Teachers, like students, aren’t empty vessels waiting to be filled through education. Identifying teacher characteristics and elucidating the skills associated with delivering particular content areas won’t automatically show how to develop them. Furthermore, a teacher who learns and applies the tricks of the trade still may not be a powerful catalyst for student learning.

I agree with experts in the article who argue that, “great teachers are not born, but made.” But I disagree with the proffered answer that more “content-based” professional development will solve the problems. Absolutely, content-based education is important, but its efficacy is predicated on the assumption that teachers already have the skills to focus and sustain attention, increase motivation, maintain self-awareness and understand other people’s experiences.

Evaluation of teaching and learning in the United States suggests that there’s plenty of room for improvement in these skill areas. But, the good news is that research on mindfulness and the brain suggests that progress is feasible.

Mindfulness means paying attention to what’s happening in- and around you- in the present. Training the brain to develop mindfulness, and the complementary qualities of kindness, compassion and empathy, supports teaching and facilitates learning. This is the basic foundation of effective education — for teachers and for students.

What we do and say, as teachers, is ultimately more powerful than any fact we present or skill we promote. Curriculum alone won’t foster students’ academic achievement and love of learning. Teaching about social and emotional learning doesn’t promote pro-social behaviors unless classroom climate and school-based relationships reinforce and model healthy interactions. Stressed teachers can’t reach their potential, and stressed students learn coping skills and survival first, which leaves little energy for academics.

After years of teaching, I’ve come to believe that students of all ages crave genuine communication and connection; and that they are naturally curious and want to learn. It’s likely that students need their teachers’ attention even more than we want theirs . . . and it’s very easy for everyone to lose sight of this dynamic — and with grave consequences.

Teachers and students, alike, tend to focus on content and test scores. As a result, we dwell in the past or future, and not the present and education suffers. We need to teach, consciously, in the current moment, because the experience of learning is rooted in the present. Cultivating mindfulness, as a teacher, helps us anchor our students in the here and now — and that gives them the best possible conditions for learning.

Education research on effective teaching continues to grow, just as scientific research on mindfulness and neuroplasticity expands daily. Leaders in both fields predict that the results from each will inform the other. When that happens, we will know more about the interconnections among teaching and training the brain as well as nurturing the qualities that foster emotional balance and wellness.

And maybe then, the NYT magazine section will run another cover story on education that considers how mindfulness supports learning to teach, and mindful teaching enhances students’ learning. Building better teachers begins “within” each teacher, and doing so involves the head, and the heart, right now.

Deborah Schoeberlein
Author, Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness: A Guide for Anyone Who Teaches Anything

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