Have you ever been in a conversation and at some point started drifting off and thinking about something completely irrelevant?
Have you ever found yourself thinking about the people that make you mad or the things you could have done better whilst cooking, vacuuming or watching your favourite TV programme?
Have you ever got so distracted in the middle of a task that you managed to forget what you had set out to do in the first place?
Have you ever obsessed about work or about what your next blogpost was going to be about whilst in the middle of a relaxing massage or a delicious meal? And before you know it, the massage/meal is over and you had forgotten to take the moment to enjoy it?
With the increased pace of modern living and the need to multitask and squeeze more into every single day, it is no surprise that something is needed to counteract our busy minds. The newest buzzword of this decade, 'mindfulness' is not only talked about in meditation retreats, but also in management and leadership training, and in medical fields for its stress-alleviating benefits.
So what is mindfulness?
Psychology Today calls it a state of active, open attention to the present. When one is mindful, one observes one’s feelings and thoughts from a distance without judging them as good or bad. Being mindful means living in the moment and awakening to experience. However, this concept is by no means a new one. Tracing back to its Buddhist roots, mindfulness is one of the key teachings of Buddha said to lead one onto the path of enlightenment.
But how mindful are we teachers?
Many of us would recall classes we have taught and lessons we have had where we felt truly 'in the flow of things' and we were 100% there with our students, listening intently to what they had to say and reacting accordingly. These are often the lessons where time takes on a different quality and the four-hour lesson seems to be over in the blink of an eye.
Could we say that there are aspects of mindfulness taking place in such lessons?
But how can we move towards being more mindful in the classroom?
1. Focus on the now
Of course the students' background, your past lessons with them, your future direction you have in store for the class, and so on, all influence what you do in the classroom. But let your knowledge of the students and your plans for their future stay at the back of your mind and bring them to the forefront only where you need them to inform certain decisions.
Respond to what is happening now.
2. Listen to what your students are saying
And not what you think they should say or what they have said before. Be genuinely curious about their opinions, their lives and their backgrounds, and who they are (apart from being your students).
3. Embrace the flow
So the students get excited about a particular topic and start to chat away. Your lesson plan and the timings you have meticulously planned for each stage of the lesson are now messed up.
Let it go and allow yourself to lose track of time (and the lesson plan).
Tune into what the students are saying and where the conversation is heading, and ride the wave. It will make you so much more sensitive to the ebbs and flows of the ongoing discourse and will help you understand what it is they need (be it lexis, grammar, pronunciation, skills work) to communicate better.
4. Stop worrying about what your students think of you
I’ve seen many teachers who try too hard to be liked, whether it be through cracking inappropriate jokes, filling the silences with nervous chitchat and an unnecessary running commentary, or the overuse of self-deprecation.
There is a difference between wanting students to look up to you or be impressed by you and wanting students to enjoy the lesson. Don’t get them confused. Students can still have fun without their teacher playing the role of the clown or needing to be the centre of attention.
5. Know when you don’t know
The English teacher does not have to be the encyclopaedia of England and the English language. That’s what the internet and David Crystal are there for.
Be comfortable with the fact that you can’t know everything and have the courage to ask and find out. Take note when you come across something you didn’t know before, whether it be a fact about a student, a new grammar/lexical item, or a piece of trivia from a coursebook or lesson resource.
6. Be aware of your own reactions
Why do you find this particular student tough to deal with? What is it about him/her that gets you so riled up?
How does he/she make you feel? Angry? Frustrated? Helpless? Defensive?
Is it because he/she is quite the opposite of how you see yourself as a student?
Is it because he/she does not meet your expectations of what a student should do and how a student should be?
What are these expectations based on?
Or is it because he/she pushes certain buttons in you?
In order to deal with tough situations in the classroom, it is important to deal with our own emotions first of all and understand the reasons behind why we are upset.
The same goes for seemingly positive emotions.
Why does this class make you feel happy? Is it because they are showing improvement? Is it because they like you? Is it because they don’t cause any trouble and are easy to handle?
Is it because the activity is working? What aspect of it is working? How do I know that?
A better understanding of what makes ourselves tick contributes a great deal to job satisfaction.
Have you ever had to teach whilst going through a difficult breakup or a traumatic family problem? You might have been in pieces before you walked into that classroom, but the moment you set foot in it, you placed whatever problems you had at the door, and focused entirely on the students and the lesson.
Teachers who have done the above often say that they might have been dreading teaching in such a difficult period of their lives, but they certainly felt refreshed being truly in the moment with those students in that lesson.
One might argue that whether it be intentionally or accidentally, many of us have experienced being mindful in the classroom at some point.
But can we continue to be mindful and aware for more of the time we spend in our classroom?