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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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From Shambhala SunSpace.

In this excerpt from Deborah Schoeberlein’s new book, Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness: A Guide for Anyone Who Teaches Anything, we learn what mindfulness is, what it isn’t, and how the benefits of its practice might show themselves.

Mindfulness isn’t a panacea for the world’s problems, but it does provide a practical strategy for working directly with reality. You might not be able to change certain things in your life, at work, or at home, but you can change how you experience those immutable aspects of life, work, and home. And the more present you are to your own life, the more choices you have that influence its unfolding.

With mindfulness, you’re more likely to view a really challenging class as just that, “a really challenging class,” instead of feeling that the experience has somehow ruined your entire day. Purposefully taking a mental step back, in order to notice what happened without immediately engaging with intense emotions and reactions, provides a kind of protection against unconstructive responses and the self-criticism that can slip out and make a hard thing even harder. Even just pausing to take a breath can help you slow down, see a broader perspective and redirect the energy of the situation.

I’ve had moments (as I’m sure have you) when a cascade of little annoyances gathered momentum and I lost it—only to regret my outburst later. Developing mindfulness promotes awareness of the cascade, but from a distance. This way, I have a better chance of working with my assumptions without losing my perspective. Annoyances can be events that don’t have to gain momentum, rather than triggers for more and more difficulty. Mindfully noticing the discrepancy between what I wanted to accomplish and what I actually achieved provides useful information without the distraction of unproductive anger, frustration, or disappointment.

I’ve also known days when one challenging class rattled me to my core and poisoned whatever came next. Even after school, such experiences often lingered—as if the actual class weren’t bad enough, the ongoing mental repercussions were worse. If this has happened to you, then you’ll know exactly how painful and frustrating this feels. It’s easy to torment yourself by questioning your competence as a teacher when a forty-five minute class can cause you to take students’ poor behavior personally and lose your center. Even reflecting, “I should have handled that differently since I’m a professional after all—and I’m the adult in a room full of kids!” doesn’t really provide any practical guidance for the future.

So what’s the answer? Put simply, part of it is all about mindfulness: practice and application, and more practice and yet more application. Practice begins with developing mindfulness in a calm, quiet place, a place where the practice is comparatively easy. Application is about walking into a more challenging situation in real life, like your most difficult class, with increased skills and the confidence to help you stay focused, present, flexible, and available. Should you lose the quality of mindfulness you’ll eventually notice what’s happened. And when you do, you can practice returning your attention to paying attention, and redirect your awareness onto the experience of awareness. As you practice and apply mindfulness, you’ll gain skills that will help you accurately assess challenges and handle them with greater ease.

Having techniques that help you manage your own experiences and emotions is more comfortable than feeling powerless as a result of your emotions and habits or, worse, buffeted about by the changing winds of other people’s behaviors and the environment. It’s a simple fact of life that we cannot change other people to suit our will. Yet you can change your own habits and your relationship to your reactions—but reaching that goal requires effective strategies.

For more check out the book here.

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