For the last two years, many educators like myself have existed in an intermediary space between the physical and the virtual — teaching to screens, posting assignments online, and never actually sharing a physical space with our students. However, as we begin to return to the buildings and classrooms that have so long characterized education, it is important to reflect upon how we, as teachers, will meet and engage our students once again. Rather than reverting to past modes of content delivery, it is worth reimagining these spaces more expansively for the cognitive, emotional, and physical potential they hold. However, to go forward it is worth considering a practice from the past.
As an educator for 20 years, meditation has proved to be an unexpected tool for bending and morphing these learning spaces, as well as my own perception of teaching and learning, into something more. It wasn’t until a decade ago, when a student asked me to participate in a mindfulness experiment for a science class that I began to bring the contemplative part of myself more fully into my professional life. What started out as a student’s simple experiment, grew into a meditation club, grew into schoolwide requests for guided meditations, and eventually grew into an integral part of the whole community. Through hundreds of meditations with students, I have seen many of the traditional benefits noted in research, like improved focus, help with behavior, and even the calming of anxious nerves. However, what I never expected were the ways in which meditation would change how I eventually saw myself as a teacher, and even more significantly, how I came to see and connect with my students.
Below are just a few of the ways in which meditation unexpectedly changed my teaching. It:
1. Expanded how I saw teaching and learning. Our measure of knowledge can be overly narrow. Rather than engaging the whole being, we tend to focus on a very limited aspect of the self and an even narrower portion of the mind. Meditation has the capacity to reframe what happens in the classroom and even expand it.
I was always amazed at the depth and reflective capacity of some of my most difficult students. While they may struggle with the curriculum, their ability to engage in deep inner work was often inspiring to me as their teacher. I not only came to see them in a new light, but also began to see my own work as their teacher in a new way. Rather than filling their minds with more content and knowledge, my role became about bringing forth their talents, passions, and gifts as people.
2. Deepened student learning. One day I took a group of students into a very deep meditation on their historic research topics and when they emerged, a student sitting opposite me in the circle shared that he had only seen the front of a palace. He could not go in the palace, did not know who it belonged to, nor was he able to get any of his other questions answered. I encouraged him to go home that night and see if he could find another castle that looked like the one he saw in his meditation. To my surprise, he returned the next morning to share with me an image that matched his drawing from the meditation perfectly. It turned out that the castle belonged to a figure closely connected to his research topic and the result was an unexpected twist in his work. Afterwards, I had never seen a student more committed and curious about their work. I began to integrate meditations into all of my research assignments and the impact was visible in the richness of the final products and papers they produced.
3. Helped me see myself and my classes in a new light. As I mentioned earlier, meditation not only allowed me to see students in a new light, but also allowed them to see me in a new light. After a meditation, I always ask students to share out and reflect on their experience. In these reflections, it is common for students to become very vulnerable and open about the challenges they are going through. The imagery of a guided meditation often provides a language to express feelings and emotions in a manner that is safe and affirming. I have found this true for my own inner feelings, as well as those of my students, as I was able to share with them my own challenges and doubts.
4. Spread through the whole community. It did not take long for a simple science experiment on the benefits of meditation to grow into a weekly club and then a significant part of the entire school community. Within a year of actively meditating with students, I found myself asked to lead meditations at school assemblies, faculty meetings, workshops for parents, and even on field trips. For me, the most exciting and unexpected outcome was the opportunity to develop my own hybrid course titled Beyond Mindfulness that was then offered to not only students in my school, but also to students in a network of 12 other districts.
5. Democratized the classroom and nurtured a greater sense of community. The classroom and the school building can often feel very hierarchical. I have found meditation to be incredibly democratizing. To see students sitting in circles alongside secretaries, administrators, and alumni completely changes the learning space. It has the ability to re-humanize the individuals in the building and consequently re-humanize learning. Through meditation, we are able to connect with students in ways that are far deeper than traditional classroom spaces. I have learned to take the simple technique of removing the desks and sitting in a circle of chairs into all my classes, not just those that are meditating.
6. Checked my ego. I really believe a morning meditation practice allowed me to not only clear my mind, but also disempower my ego so that I could be present for all my students. As a teacher, especially a new one, or in a new school, it is easy to get caught up in the “shoulds” and “coulds.” There can often be a performance of teaching that plays out amongst faculty members and a performance of rigor. The consequence can be a less than ideal student experience. Meditation helped me check a lot of that insecurity and learn to engage students more fully as people, trust my instincts, and go with what I know was right.
7. Slowed the class down. Teachers are asked to make countless decisions in the course of a single period, many of which have to occur within nanoseconds of another action. I have found that my capacity for expanding the spaces between action and reaction grew with my meditation practice. When you are no longer reacting to the events in the classroom, but intentionally playing a role in creating them, it nurtures a more positive, inclusive, and safe classroom environment.
Illustration by Brittany R. Jacobs