It’s Monday morning, a full day of classes, and you’ve just remembered that the marking you spent Sunday evening doing is locked in your car. You’ve already received a dozen emails (from a mixture of colleagues, parents and students), six of which are marked urgent. You still haven’t replied to Aimee in Year 11, who sent you an essay that she’d written in her own time. By the time you get home that evening, you realise that you haven’t stopped for so much as a glass of water in several hours. This is a fairly standard start to Ian’s week. Teaching, with all its chaos, is a wonderful, rewarding profession. It’s definitely not one that leaves you with time in the day to stop and smell the roses or, sometimes, even think.
Let’s compare this with the experience of a Year 8 boy, Adam. Those who don’t teach him know him as ‘the one that’s always sat outside the Head’s office’. A lot of his life takes place online, a world he both loves (the absorbing games he plays with his friends) and fears (why did Tim not respond to my friend request?). Adam is annoyed with his mum but doesn’t really know why. During your lesson later, you’ll ask him to stop speaking over you and he’ll get frustrated. He leaves, something kicks off in the corridor, and he finds himself sitting outside the Head’s office. Again.
The Head, Mrs Eileen Forster, looks up from the Senior Leadership Team meeting she is chairing to see Adam sitting outside her office, and knows that there is a flagged email from his mother from a week ago in her inbox that she has not responded to yet, alongside 300 other unanswered emails.
There is absolutely no doubt that teaching brings with it incredible highs, but let’s be honest: it’s hard work. Both staff and students find aspects of school life a challenge, but are they really so different? Ian, Adam and Mrs Forster are each essentially navigating the same ‘frantic world’ as best they can (Williams and Penman, 2011). For this, they need attention, resilience and an ability to respond skilfully to the day’s demands. Is there a quick fix? No. But there is something that might be worth a try.
The world is all-abuzz with the word ‘mindfulness’: adult colouring books, mindfulness apps and fad diets have all capitalised on the promises that mindfulness appears to make. Mindfulness is a capacity we all have to bring awareness to each moment, with interest and care. Mindfulness practices help us stabilise our attention, so we can be more intentional, responsive and kinder to ourselves and to others. Rather than acting as a ‘cure’ for the things life throws at us, it can be viewed as one of the routines we have in place to help keep us healthy, like eating a balanced diet and taking regular exercise. But what does this have to do with schools?
Currently, collaborative research is being undertaken by researchers from the University of Oxford, King’s College London, University College London, the Medical Research Council Cognitive and Brain Sciences Unit and the University of Exeter (Kuyken et al., 2017). The MYRIAD Project (My Resilience in Adolescence), which started in January 2015, is investigating whether a mindfulness-based intervention is effective and cost-effective when compared with normal classroom teaching. The MYRIAD Project is a cluster-randomised control trial with a sample size in the region of 25,000 young people at baseline. Following a series of baseline questionnaires completed by Year 7 and 8 students, schools are randomised into either the Mindfulness Arm or ‘Teaching As Usual’. Those schools delivering the mindfulness-based intervention will have a group of teachers trained in mindfulness, first for themselves, and then trained to teach it to others. Participating students, aged 11–14, are visited throughout the project and complete a series of questionnaires, reflecting upon their thoughts, feelings and behaviours. The project is also looking at teachers, both the best way to train them and how we can support their wellbeing.
You might be wondering what a mindfulness-based programme looks like in a school setting. If you’re thinking of a class full of children, sitting on their desks in the lotus position, then you’re not alone. Search engines produce images like this too. The programme delivered in the MYRIAD Project has already been tested in several smaller-scale studies (Huppert and Johnson, 2010); (Kuyken et al., 2013)). It is designed as a series of lessons to be taught as part of the normal school timetable, fitting in alongside other teaching of personal, social or emotional wellbeing. All lessons have an element of psycho-education and brief mindfulness practices. This is supplemented by practice at home, emphasising to students that their active participation is crucial.
Let’s think back to the individuals we presented at the start of this article and imagine how a mindfulness-based programme might help them.
First: Ian, the teacher. To deliver a mindfulness-based programme, Ian must first develop the skills required by practising mindfulness himself. Committing to this was a stretch at first; he’s already so busy that it seemed just another thing on his plate. However, over time, he noticed that mindfulness practice made him a more intuitive person – more in touch with his emotions and the signals his body gives. When Adam, the challenging student, kicks off, Ian is more accepting of his own feelings of irritability. He responds with discipline, but also with greater compassion and care. When Aimee comes at lunchtime, he feels confident enough to give her his full attention for 15 minutes and say, ‘I have not had time to write comments, but get out your notebook and I’ll give you some verbal feedback.’ Aimee values his honesty, wholehearted attention and feedback enormously. At the end of both of these exchanges, Ian is better able to let them go, and move on to the next thing. Before, he would have ruminated about how he should have done better.
Now Adam. He thought the mindfulness lessons were a waste of time at first, but as the weeks went on, he found himself using some of the skills to help him. He learnt that most of his friends agreed that their minds wander around all the time but that it’s possible to direct attention to different places. He also learnt not to give himself a hard time if he didn’t get it right. Before, he was always in trouble due to anger that appeared as if from nowhere. Now, when he gets a burning sensation in the pit of his stomach, he lets his teacher know that he needs a minute outside. His ability to be more curious and kinder to himself seems to be helping him deal with his relationship with his brother, who he still finds really annoying. He realises that it’s much better if he gets out of the way and listens to some music when these feelings arise. What he likes most about the mindfulness strategies is that he can use them in all sorts of situations.
Mrs Forster, the Head, is no different. During her meeting, she notices the sense of rising tension and the associated cascade of thoughts: ‘It’s Adam again; I really should have answered his mother; I am going to have to work all weekend again to get on top of my emails; my husband is fed up with me.’ She lets the thoughts pass, adjusts her posture so that it is more upright, dignified and open, and says, ‘Sorry – I missed what you were just saying. Can someone summarise please where we’ve got to?’ She has noticed that starting and ending meetings with a few moments of mindfulness practice has meant that they are often more productive.
Life as a teacher is fast-paced, hectic and centred around the best interests of others. However, if you find yourself feeling like you need to slow down and reconnect with your love of your subject, or that you’re at the bottom of your list of people to care about, then mindfulness might be something to consider. You could find yourself approaching Monday morning with fresh eyes, not mourning the loss of the weekend. Naturally, this isn’t going to happen overnight or all the time. Teaching will always be a juggling act, even for the most mindful of practitioners. It’s mindfulness, not magic.