Happy (& Zen) Teachers Change the World (1)
In this article I would like to share with you a few thoughts and ideas from a book that I have read and re-read quite a few times lately, written by the monk Thich Nhat Hanh. I just love this book! It has been recommended to me during a mindfulness training in Dallas, and I certainly haven’t regretted buying it. It has become a sort of mindfulness bible, full of inspiration for both my personal practice and the practice with my students in the classroom. It is an amazing collection of words of wisdom and concrete activities gathered by Thich Nhat Hanh, teachers and monks in the Plum Village (a place of mindfulness retreats in France).
Happy (&Zen) Teachers make Happy (& Zen) Students.
One of the main ideas of this book, as suggested by its title, is that a happy & zen classroom starts with a happy & zen teacher. Kabat-Zing mentions this in a foreword of the book: “One of the major principles here is that mindfulness needs to be incorporated into the life of the teacher before he or she can effectively bring it into the classroom”. This idea is used as a guideline throughout the book, and in each chapter, the reader will find inspiration and techniques for the teacher first, followed by activities to implement in class. I couldn’t agree more with this approach, because I notice everyday how difficult it still is for teachers to start implementing mindfulness in their life. In schools, mindfulness still tends to be considered as a waste of time by some colleagues or administrators. Therefore, it is very important to help teachers grasp the concept of mindfulness, and to equip them with useful tools, before they can efficiently transfer their skills and mindset to their students. We all know that we “cannot pour from an empty cup”, and this books gives us tools to fill our cup, to help ourselves before we can help others… and more specifically, our students!
If the concept sounds good to you, and you are curious about learning more, then keep reading! I will provide a quick overview of each chapter, including the best pieces of advice for personal practice + for the class practice. Since there are many chapters and a lot of valuable information to share, I will focus on the first four chapters in this article, that cover the very basic: breathing, the bell, sitting, and walking. I will cover the rest of the topics in an separate article later!
These first four chapter cover all the basic skills to start a mindfulness practice: first for yourself, and then for your class and your students. It is full of practical advice and ideas that can be implemented right away in your daily life, both personal and professional. Even if you have never practiced before, it will provide you with simple tools to get started.
I cannot give you an exhaustive list, of course, but will try my best to give you a little sneak peak of the best!
Chapter 1: The breath
~ The breath is with us like a faithful friend, connecting us to our body and to the present moment ~
As a teacher, knowing how to use your breath is a very powerful tool that can help you manage your stress and to stay centered “in the middle of the busy, demanding and stressful challenges of teaching”. It does not have to be a complicated practice, and it sure does not mean that you have to sit in meditation for an hour each morning and each evening! With a busy and crazy schedule, you can just start by noticing your breath and slow it down whenever you feel stressed out. “You can find many ways to gently integrate mindful breathing into your daily routine, without needing to make major changes or adding extra time”. You can add mindful breathing to very casual actions in your day at work or at home. For instance, you could make it a habit to take three deep breaths before each new lesson, right before you start talking to the class. Or, you could “make it a habit to breathe mindfully in and out whenever you turn to the classroom board”. Using your commute time is also an efficient way to make time for mindful breathing. I once read somewhere to take deep inhales and exhales every time you are stopped at a red light. I need to say, I found this quite silly in the beginning, but I gave it a try, and after a few days the habit started to stick, until I eventually realized that I enjoyed these “mini mindful breaks” whenever stuck in traffic! We cannot avoid traffic anyway, right? So why not try to make it a mindful moment after all?!
For the class practice, the best tool given in this chapter is a very simple and efficient habit called “Take 5”.
Take 5 is really as easy as it sounds! It simply consists of taking five deep full breaths whenever feeling the need (stress, anger, etc.). Teachers can of course use it for themselves, during their sometimes chaotic school day, and can also teach this trick to their students, in order to help them manage their emotions and relax.
Whenever needed, ask your students to sit straight (but not stiff) at the desk, and to “Take 5”. The goal is to take five full breaths, and to make each inhale and each exhale as slow as possible. They can use their fingers to visualize the number of breaths they take (this will also keep them from looking around). You may need to give directions the first few times, but quickly the students will be able to do it on their own when you just mention “Take 5”.
The other trick that I like to use in class is the “Finger breathing”. It basically consists of following the shape of one hand with your index finger, inhaling and exhaling mindfully as the finger goes up and down.
Here is how it goes: open one hand with fingers spread wide, and hold it in front of you. With the index of your other hand, start following the shape of your hand. For each finger you trace: Inhale on the way up, exhale on the way down.
This is a fun way for young kids to visualize their “Take 5” breathing exercise, and it works best with pre-K to 3rd grade students.
Chapter 2: The bell of mindfulness
By far my favorite chapter! I love using the bell in class and this chapter is full of useful tips and games to do in class. I like how it presents the singing bowl as a very special and almost sacred object to integrate to the daily life of the classroom. It sure is in my classroom! We do not go one day without using it. If I ever forget, my students remind me and we always make time for a mindful moment with one of our singing bowls.
Thich Nhat Hahn explain the power of the bell by saying that it “helps us to go back to ourselves and produce the energy of peace and joy”. It is a beautiful tool to reset, reconnect and create a magical moment of mindfulness, at home or at school. You can start by practicing alone first, getting used to the sound and how to call the bell. Then, bring the magic to your classroom! During the school day, whenever you feel that “the atmosphere of the class is not peaceful enough - if there is anger, restlessness, or difficulty breathing- we can invite the bell to sound, so that the whole classroom can relax, breathe, and restore peace and happiness”.
“The bell is an ambassador of peace and happiness in our home or classroom.”
To learn more about this subject, and find a few ideas for activities using the bowl, you can read my article “5 easy ways to use a singing bowl in your classroom”.
Chapter 3: Sitting
If you are a teacher, you know how a simple word like “sitting” can sound like a huge challenge in the classroom! Right? You probably know just how bad students tend to sit these days… if they sit at all! Kids sometimes adopt postures that are terrible for their spine and make it hard for them to write or work properly. Thich Nhat Hanh and Katherine Weare are fully aware of this issue and mention in the book that “we need to remember that younger students usually cannot sit still for long, and that not every student will enjoy the practice every time”. However, it is possible to practice sitting and to slowly bring children to enjoy it. Like Sister Tai Nghiem from Plum Village explains, “even if they don’t like it at first, it’s okay. With time they learn to enjoy it.”
“A sitting practice can bring great stability to the mind and the body. It gives us the opportunity to become more fully aware of what is happening inside and around us in the present moment.” It can greatly benefit the children in the class to sometimes just stop all activities, all fidgeting, all movement, and to just practice sitting and doing nothing at all. It helps them to bring their attention to the present moment and to reconnect with their breath and body. It is particularly beneficial to practice mindful sitting right before a test, even for just a minute or two. It will place the students in the right mindset for work and concentration.
In my class, we practice sitting with the concept of the “present body”. We learned to notice how our bodies tend to be relaxed and “lazy” bodies in class, comparable to cooked spaghettis: all soft and folded on top of the desk, without proper support of the spine. Then, we practiced with the notion of “present” bodies, comparable to uncooked spaghettis: straight, supported, and not just lying there on the table. With that comparison in mind, we worked on finding a good compromise between too soft and too stiff, bringing our bodies into a self-supported sited position, not using the table as support (but maybe the back of the chair), and by placing our hands on our legs or knees (uncrossing the legs).
After a few weeks of practice, all I have to mention is “present body”, and the students automatically correct their posture and know how to be ready for a moment of mindfulness in the class!
Chapter 4 : Walking
« Moving practices, such as walking, can sometimes be more appropriate than sitting or lying down when our mind and body are busy or agitated ». This is particularly true with young students! As teachers, or parents, we all notice how difficult it seems to be for kids to sit still sometimes. They have an incredible amount of energy, and depending on the moment of the day, it can be a real challenge for them to just sit and remain silent for an extended period of time, as mentioned above. When the students seem too agitated, trying to practice mindful sitting can be pointless and counterintuitive. In that case, mindful walking can sometimes be a very good alternative!
Let’s show the students that walking can be a mindful exercise, not only a way to get from point A to point B! As a French girl, I think I have something in common with Thich Nhat Hahn: we both believe that “it is a joy to walk for the sake of walking”! :) I like to walk everyday, as much as possible, preferably outside and in nature. It can be so pleasant to spend a moment walking and appreciating each step, just like you are “kissing the Earth”, as Thich Nhat Hahn says. He adds, though, that this does not necessarily mean that we have to walk at a super slow pace, or in a “solemn or artificial way”. It just means walking at a gentle and natural pace, with the body relaxed and at ease.
Whenever I notice that my class is agitated, I offer a “walking meditation”: we all stand up, and start walking around the class. At first, the walking pace is the normal one. Then, I ring the bell, and the children slow their pace down a notch. I ring the bell several times, until they are all walking very, very slow, almost like in slow-motion (They love to do that!). You can stop the exercise there, or ring the bell several times again, and the children will accelerate their walking pace until they reach their normal pace again. Then, everybody sits down and resumes work. This exercise offers a good “brain break” and allows energy to flow!
If your curiosity got sparked by these concepts and suggestions, you can find way more details in the book, and you probably won’t regret buying it… Just like mine, it may as well become your mindfulness bible to use for your personal practice and for your class! (I am not sponsored, I swear! ;) Mindfulness is fun to implement in the class, and it sure does not have to be complicated. We can all become Happy (& Zen) Teachers, one step at a time! :)
Have fun and be Zen! :)
PS: I’ll be writing about the following chapter soon! Also, don’t hesitate to send me any question, comment or suggestion! ;)