Fake it ‘til you make it in classroom Mindfulness Teaching!

Fake it ‘til you make it in classroom Mindfulness Teaching!

Dr Chris O’Neill, Psychologist with forty years’ experience of working in schools, and one of the architects of mindfulness training in schools “Dot b” cirriculum, gives some advice on teaching Mindfulness in the classroom

How to Read the “Practices” from the Book, approach Chaos in the Classroom, and not blind them with science!

So! You’ve volunteered to teach mindfulness in school; what a hero!

In case they are any use, here are a few practical tips that you just might find encouraging:-

A) How to Lead Practices from the Book (Motto: Fake it ‘til you make it)

When you’re starting out teaching mindfulness, there is such a lot to think about, and it can feel overwhelming. What’s worse, the “experts” on the training courses or the tapes always make it seem so easy, calm and effortless…Believe me, they didn’t start out that way! Once you’ve had as much practice at meditating and teaching as they have, you, too will radiate enlightenment and inner peace (though I’m still waiting…).

In the meanwhile, give yourself a break. It’s OK to guide practices by reading from the book, and it can be a very good stepping-stone to doing it from your own experience. Though Alcoholics Anonymous don’t go as far back as the Buddha, there is practical wisdom in their adage: Fake it ‘til you make it!

Here are a few tips about how to read the instructions skillfully:-

• Reading with understanding: Reading a meditation is a bit like reading a story; it really helps if you’ve read it several times before, so you really know where it goes, how it ends (maybe the frog doesn’t change into a prince), and – in particular – what the point of it is. If you have read the instructions carefully, you will read with obvious understanding, and this will help both you and your students know what they’re doing.

• Matching the Mood: Like a juggernaut lorry, a fizzy, noisy class can’t go from 90 mph to 5mph in only a few seconds; it takes time, and the aid of gentle, gradual braking. Attempts to brake suddenly are likely to cause unpleasant screeching, skidding and the smell of burning rubber/frustration. Instead, ease down gradually, and start by matching the class mood (whatever it happens to be). If they’re loud and boisterous, you may need to start your instructions louder, brisker and beefier. When your moods are more in synch, you can begin to adjust your pace, volume and tone towards something more conducive to quiet and poised awareness. It really helps if you start all your practices in exactly the same way every time (eg brief FOFBOC or physically “getting into your bubble” etc), so it becomes a familiar routine, and then a habit. The force of habit can not only then help them “change gear” in class; it also rehearses them in how to start meditating when they’re on their own. It’s a special mindfulness BOGOF!

• Pacing & Pausing: When you read, the pace of reading needs to be adjusted so as to give them enough time to become aware of whatever it is you’ve just suggested. Sometimes this takes longer than you think. There need to be pauses (i.e. with no further instructions) so they can actually do the practice. It really helps your pacing and pausing if you try to do the practice with the class yourself, (as best you can, given that you’re also reading the instructions and watching how the class are behaving!).
Obviously, the age, ability, and “chemistry” of the class – and their current mood – will also affect the optimum balance of pacing and pausing. If they’re with you, you can experiment with a few slightly longer pauses, and see how it goes. (Go on, I dare you!)

B) Some thoughts on “controlling” the chaotic class (Motto: Feel the Fear and Do it anyway)

• To whom this is NOT concerned: You may be one of those astonishing teachers who either effortlessly commands impeccable order and good discipline, or who is so loved and admired by your classes that they hang on your every word, and are always eating out of your hand – or both. Wow, and well done! (The rest of us are not in the least bit jealous). You, O Admirable One, need read no further. But next time you meditate, please, of your goodness, send out good wishes to the rest of us…

• Still here? If you’re still reading, and are determined to give your students a good experience of mindfulness, but are feeling a bit apprehensive about losing control of the class (and why not?), please read on. The motto here is not so much “fake it to make it”, but, “Face the Fear and do it anyway”.

• Begin by owning up. Many of the things you will be doing in the mindfulness lessons will be out of your comfort zone. Even for experienced teachers with good classroom management skills, several of the exercises and practices may well bring you to the very brink of chaos and disorder, if not over the edge. Just think about it; asking children to sit still and be quiet is a fairly large “ask”, even before you invite them to lie down, walk around, eat chilli, or face up to electric shocks, spiders, gherkins etc. They are bound to be fairly – even extremely – reactive. But inviting them to become aware of their reactivity and their sensations are basic to the course, so we can’t avoid them.

• You may well be apprehensive, worried, or downright panic-stricken before and during lessons. This is perfectly normal; apprehension and fear are the taste of mindfulness lessons, especially in a school setting; it shows your threat/survival system (and amygdala, see Lesson 7) are in very good working order! (I know teachers who retired twenty years ago. From time to time, they still wake up in a cold sweat. They have been dreaming they are in front of a noisy class they can’t control. They, at least, have the luxury of knowing the terror was only a dream…)

• As best you can, notice your feelings (mindfully, of course!), and try to be kind and encouraging with yourself. If you can manage this whilst doing nothing other than stuttering through a riot, you will be simultaneously practising mindfulness very well, “facing the difficult”, and a wonderful example to your students. Well done! Look on the bright side: the Admirable Fearless Ones do not get these wonderful opportunities (that come so freely and fearfully to you), every gut-churning lesson!

(i) “Policing” the Practices:

• Becoming aware of sensations and reactions is unfamiliar and difficult for everyone, whatever our age, and it requires all our attention. For practical purposes in class, this means that no one should be talking or shuffling during the practices, otherwise their attention is distracted or divided, and this then makes it much more difficult for everyone else to focus on their own experiences.

• So, no one should be talking or shuffling during the practices, not because you are a tyrant, but because the practice needs a quiet protected space, if any mindfulness is to stand any chance of being established at all.

• Know what you can do to get some quiet. There are as many ways to create quiet as there are teachers. Sometimes, it’s just a lovely class with a lovely teacher. Some of you are Olympic medalists at shushing, death-staring or giving meaningful looks. Others have bells, whistles, gongs and whirling tubes (yes, really) to signal silence. Others have hand signals, count-downs, or good old Bogeyman threats. Some schools have rules, procedures and professional hit men. Whatever.

• Make sure you can actually make your strategies work. Whatever strategies you have at your disposal, you need to know what they are, and whether you can make them actually, really work for you, with your class, in that lesson with the chilli or the “Beditation”, etc. If you’re not sure, have a good think. Don’t be afraid to ask a trusted colleague for help and advice, or ask Liz. She is really good at making helpful suggestions, and she is much nicer than I am. She may even be able to show you recordings of how other teachers manage the sessions.

C) Blinding them with Science (meta-cognition, amygdalas etc) :>

• One more thought. Most weeks, I’m very lucky to get to talk to a variety of different Oxford Dons and Professors, and do you know, almost none of them know the meaning of words like “meta-cognition” or “rumination”? So don’t be too disappointed if your Year Sevens don’t know either! Asking them to guess or read your mind about these arcane matters may puzzle or frustrate them as much as it irritates the dons. It might be better if you read the manual, understand it as best you can, and then actually teach them yourself.

You may need to dumb it down a bit so you can explain it in terms your students will understand, and seem relevant to their experience of life. Much better to risk imperfect accuracy than the boredom of irrelevance or utter incomprehension.

Remember that what you are doing is really hard; any kind of teaching is tough enough, but classroom mindfulness is something else! What you are doing is already very courageous and visionary. One of my old mentors used to say: “I can’t tidy up the whole world, but at least I can tidy up my own corner of it”. Teachers already help tidy up their corners of the world, but your mindfulness teaching is also aiming to make the world a better place too. The hearts and minds of the young are the building blocks of what the world will become, and nurturing those hearts and minds with clarity and kindness is what your work, and mindfulness, is all about.

May things go well for you, and for your fortunate students,


Chris O’Neill

No declaration of interests.