Happy (& Zen) Teachers Change the World (2)

This article presents the concepts described in chapters 5 to 8 of the book Happy Teachers Change the World, written by the Buddhist monk and mindfulness specialist Thich Nhat Hanh (aka Thay), and Katherine Weare, an English professor of Education. If you would like to discover chapters 1 to 4, I invite you to read my previous article on this blog! :)

As in the previous article, I will present each chapter’s theme and give the main ideas and activities offered by Thai and his teachers at Plum Village. Each chapter brings ideas for us, as teachers, to improve our daily life, and for our students, so that they can learn to use mindful tools at school and at home.

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CHAPTER 5: THE BODY

It is very important to take the body into consideration when talking about mindfulness in general, but even more so in schools. As mentioned in the book, “students and teachers alike are asked to focus increasingly on the academic curriculum and on the mind, and the body gets forgotten”. You cannot just simply leave the needs of your body aside and focus only on your mind, even when you are at school, as “this distancing of ourselves from the physical reality of our existence can create sickness in the mind and body”. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary to find ways to include the physical body in the reality and routines of the school life!

“You cannot be a happy teacher if you do not know how to release the tension in your body” : as always, it all starts with the teacher! Before the students can find relaxation and peace within their body and minds, the teacher needs to be able to show them how it’s done, and to guide them.

A good teacher should know the art of relaxation.

Here is one of the easy mantras given by Thay to help relax the body: “Breathing in, I am aware of my body and the tension in my body. Breathing out, I release the tension in my body.” You can use this one for your own practice or with your students if they are not too young. With the youngest ones, you can have them relax on their back, and ask them to inhale and form a tight ball with their whole body (wrap your arms around your knees, press your forehead into your knees), and then on the exhale relax the whole body and lie flat on the floor. They could also tighten all of their body + face muscles on the inhale, and then relax everything on the exhale.

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An interesting activity to try in class is described on page 106 of the book: allowing free movement with music. As a primary school teacher, I know for sure that this kind of (very simple!) activities are a big success with young kids! They love to be given the chance to just move freely and organically a few times a day, even if for just a few minutes at a time! This serves well to release tensions in mind and body, and can be used whenever the kids need a well-deserved “brain break”!

Of course, this consideration of the body can be well served by applying the principles and movements of yoga in class! Moving the body in a mindful and conscious way throughout the school day can result in tremendous changes in the life of the students and teachers. One of the basic (and so important) principles taught by yoga is the connection between breath and movement. Learning how to incorporate the breath when moving can help becoming aware of the mind-body connection. That way, students learn that “we are all one unit, not a separate mind and body”.


CHAPTER 6: EATING

Working on mindful eating can be tricky to try in schools… With all the allergies and diet-restrictions, teachers are generally not allowed to bring any kind of food to the students, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable organizing activities around eating in my class. However, we can still try to find ways to teach the children how to eat mindfully, at snack or lunch time!

Before even trying to teach mindful eating to the children, it is a very interesting practice to implement in our own personal life. More often than not, our meal time is far from peaceful and relaxing! We eat fast and without paying attention. Grabbing a bite of sandwich in front of the computer screen while replying to emails, or binge eating bags of chips while binge watching our favorite TV Shows… we all do it, and it has become the new “normal” way of eating. But studies show that eating mindlessly, while focusing our attention on some other external distraction, confuses our brain and usually results in overeating and digestive issues. Now we need to learn how to eat again! Trying to bring our attention and gratitude to our food. Avoiding to talk or watch TV while eating. Focusing on the tastes, textures, smells, sensations of the foods we ingest. Thay explains that to eat a carrot mindfully, you have to realize that “the piece of carrot carries within itself the whole cosmos”. Think of everything that was necessary for this carrot to make its way to your mouth: the rain, the sunshine, the the farmer, the truck driver, etc.

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The piece of carrot carries within itself the whole cosmos

Starting with this, the goal is to make meal times pleasurable and enjoyable moments! As Thay says, “eating can be a deep meditation”. He adds that “Thanks to mindfulness and concentration, every minute of eating breakfast, lunch, or dinner, or even just a snack, can become a minute of joy and happiness”. Not so sure how to get started? You will find several easy exercises to practice with your food in the book (pages 112-129), like the “Tangerine Meditation” for instance. You can now also find more and more “meditative eating” groups and events, that can help with making new positive eating habits! (cf. the Dallas-based “Intention Table”).

Here is Thay’s advice on eating mindfully, that we can use in our daily life, and that we could even try to teach to our students when they are having their morning snack, for instance: “We eat for a while in silence […]. We consciously see, smell, chew, taste, and enjoy every morsel of our food. We notice when our mind starts to wander, smile kindly to ourselves, and then go back to eating with attention.”


CHAPTER 7: TAKING CARE OF OUR EMOTIONS

This is a very important one to work on in schools! And trying to start as young as possible should be a priority. A lot of serious issues in schools, like bullying, are the result of uncontrolled emotions, and if children get help early on to learn and manage their emotions, a lot of trouble can be spared for a lot of people. As teachers, we can help our students to better understand, accept and manage their emotions. “We help them to prepare themselves for when strong emotions come”. For instance, “if a child has a crisis in class, you can help him or her practice deep belly breathing, and one day, they will be able to practice by themselves”. This chapter gives a lot of easy tools that we can transmit to the children in order to equip them for life.

The book provides us with five steps to implement in order to process a strong emotion. First, it is important to remember that the goal is not to suppress or deny a negative emotion, but rather to learn to recognize it (1), and accept it (2) for what it is. “It is okay to have anger; in fact, as a human being it is completely normal. […] We should not try to suppress or cover up the painful feeling […], it’s not our enemy.” Instead of fighting the negative emotion, we should try to embrace it (3) with mindfulness, “like a mother embracing her crying baby”. The next step is to look deeply into the emotion or feeling (4), to try and find its roots, and how we have nourished it. And finally, the last step is to ‘get the insight that we are more than just an emotion” (5). We need to understand that the emotion is “impermanent and ever-changing”, and that we should not identify to it.

The practice of deep breathing is a powerful tool to manage strong emotions. It can help to calm down when they happen, but also to prevent them when practiced regularly. We can teach our students to use the breath to better manage their feelings and emotions on a daily basis!

This chapter provides several meditations that can be practiced with the students, like the pebble mediation or the “tree in a storm” meditation.


CHAPTER 8: BEING TOGETHER

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School life is all about being together! About learning to live, work and thrive among peers. As Thay says, “the teacher can transform his class into a real family where there is communication and love”. Therefore, this chapter is focusing on explaining how non-judgmental communication is key with students, and gives tools to implement in class in order to create a nurturing and safe environment for students to evolve in.

It is true that the students are all members of a big family, each different and with specific needs. Most teachers understand that, and try to create an atmosphere of trust and loving kindness in their class. They understand “how vital having a sense of connection is to our experience of education, and they aspire to develop caring and authentic relationships themselves and between their students”. For the students to be able to learn properly, they need to feel understood, supported and appreciated. “Feeling safe and cared for, and feeling a sense of connection with your classmates, friendship group, school or university, and family are the prerequisites for being ready to teach, ready to learn, and really to enjoy your school day”.

To achieve this sense of trust, friendship and connection in the class, the most important activity recommended by Thay is sharing in a circle.

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The circle time gives a chance to everyone to “share and be listened to”.  During circle times, the students can mention their worries, difficult situations or problems to the rest of the class. The peers and teachers listen with the heart, without judging or interrupting. This helps the children to feel “seen, heard, understood, valued, and that [they] belong”.

Here is a short version of the method that Thay recommends for organizing and leading the circle time:

1) Find a “talking piece” (“such as a feather, shell, stick, or stone”) to pass around and to indicate whose turn it is to speak. This helps respect each other’s time of speech.

2) Prepare the room and the group: choose to sit on chairs or on the floor, in a circle, so that “everyone is comfortable and can see one another”.

3) Explain the “basic process of sharing”, which means that everyone is going to “listen mindfully, without judging or reacting, and with an open heart”.

4) Loving Speech: the speaker will speak “mindfully, from the heart, direct from their personal experience, without blaming or judging, just describing”. It is important to mention that everything being said during circle time is confidential and should not be repeated outside of the circle. This helps foster a sense of trust and creates a safe place for the students to talk and open up.

5) Invite three sounds of the bell to begin (if you have a bell and feel comfortable with the practice).

6) Group sharing: the teacher can introduce a topic or let the students start one.

7) When everyone has had a chance to speak, invite the bell three times to close the circle time. Remind the students once again that everything shared in the circle stays in the circle.


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I hope these ideas can inspire and help you as much as they have inspired and helped me for my class practices. I picked these because they served me and are among the easiest to put in practice, but there are plenty more in the book if you are interested to go deeper!

The rest of the book, chapters 9 to 11, offer ideas to go even further and to “bring it all together”. You might be interested in reading them once you have started implementing the simple activities explained in the previous chapters and would like to deepen your approach.

If you have any comments or questions, I would be happy to discuss these topics with you, just send me a message!

Have Fun & Be Zen!


Celine