Claire Kelly is the Director of Curricula and Training at the Mindfulness in Schools Project and in this blog she gives some clarity on what Mindfulness is and is not.
I have just got off a phone call with an exhausted head teacher.
The call had been billed as a discussion about how we might work together to improve the health and wellbeing of his staff. However, when I suggested we find a way to part-fund access to an introductory training course in mindfulness for his whole staff body, the head teacher went silent. Then, barely able to disguise his disdain, he announced that his role was to help ‘change the system’, and not to encourage his staff to, ‘roll over and surrender to whatever the system demanded they do’. ‘I’m sorry, we’re just not interested’, he said.
I should say at the outset that 25 years of teaching, 18 of which involving both academic and pastoral senior leadership roles, has left me with a shared sense of dismay at what teachers are now expected to manage in terms of workload, range of responsibilities, and the pervasive culture of punitive assessment and appraisal. Indeed, on reflection, it was just that ‘hamster in a wheel’ experience that ‘drove’ me to mindfulness in the first place.
10 years after the initial explosion of interest in mindfulness in educational contexts, it is interesting to note the continuing confusion over exactly what mindfulness is and, perhaps more importantly, what it isn’t.
Let’s start with what it isn’t. One of the greatest additions, in my view, to the recent collection of Ladybird books for adults is the edition on Mindfulness. In it we are introduced to ‘Sophie’, who is ‘concentrating on her breath. It smells of Frazzles’. I love this book, not least because it’s an important reminder of the need to keep a sense of humour about what can sometimes be viewed as an overly earnest, navel-gazing past-time. But also because it accurately captures the prevailing misconceptions about what mindfulness involves.
Let’s just be clear: Mindfulness is not fluffy/ fraudulent and ‘new age’/ a mind-emptying exercise/ a breathing technique/ a ‘bit like yoga, but sitting down’/ ‘Buddhism by the back door’/ colouring-in/ the same thing as therapy/ something everybody should be doing/ giving rise to a generation of schools teachers with distant smiles, and a sense of smug self-discovery as they float through their days on a cloud of loveliness.
These misguided interpretations are the result of lazy/sensationalist reporting in the media, and a growing number of ‘McMindfulness’ practitioners (quick fix, untrained ‘specialists’) promising everything from enduring spiritual peace to improved sex lives. To be honest, it’s like the Wild West out there at the moment!
However, when taught well by someone who has been properly trained, it can have a real impact on physical and mental health. It’s been recognised by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), and certainly has the potential to improve occupational wellbeing, performance, and reduce the financial cost and human misery resulting from days of stress-related sickness, as well as poor teacher retention. More importantly, it provides you with mental clarity.
My hair had begun to fall out by the handful due to the impact of 70-hour weeks and an immune system shot by threats of legal action by parents. However, as I took part in my first 8-week mindfulness course, I observed the perpetual worrying, ruminating and constant vigilance for ‘worst case scenarios’ calming down, and in its place was a sense of more time and space for proper reflection, and even creativity in my teaching and planning. I was ‘showing up’ for my colleagues, and able to respond (rather than react) to a challenge. I could step back and ask myself ‘Am I OK with this?’ If not, I had the mental, physical and emotional strength to take action, making it clear when I thought unreasonable demands were being made of myself or my colleagues. I was able to be more present for the students and staff for whom I had responsibility. I began to not just listen but really hear what they were saying. There was no ‘rolling over’, giving in or up.
I’m still working on that head teacher!
Huddl and the Mindfulness in Schools Project have plans to bring a course for parents to the Suffolk area – more details to follow but do email firstname.lastname@example.org to express an early interest.
Claire Kelly, Director of Curricula and Training, Mindfulness in Schools Project