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Mindful Practices can Strengthen Connections In the Classroom

I’ve recently become interested in mindfulness and have been trying to practice every day. This is not always easy for me; in the middle of a hectic day, it isn’t my first impulse to pause to observe my thoughts and feelings or notice my breath. And yet, in just over a month of daily practice, I have observed that my mind is noticeably less busy and my body noticeably more calm. Though I think the pursuit of mindfulness is the journey of a lifetime rather than a few weeks, several ideas have already taken root with me. It struck me that while these ideas have great value in building presence, awareness, and compassion, they also have wisdom to impart for connection-building in the classroom.


Small Moments, Frequently

One of the most helpful bits of guidance I have gotten from my training is that mindfulness does not require a far-flung silent meditation retreat (though I see the Eat-Pray-Love appeal of, say, Fiji); mindfulness grows equally well from very small moments that happen many times over days, weeks, and months. I have a print in my home office that resonates: “Time stands still best in moments that look suspiciously like ordinary life.”[1] Jon Kabat-Zinn, a leader of the mindfulness movement, said it like this: “…the real meditation retreat is not at some Buddhist center or some meditation center, the real meditation retreat is life on this planet for the time that we are actually here to experience it.”


When we build relationships with students, the same principle holds. With students and relationships, it is about creating the small moments of genuine connection that accumulate over time. It’s about being as present as possible in the classroom — and away from our to-do lists, responsibilities, and random thoughts — so that we recognize those moments when they happen.


Bringing our Authentic Self

Taking time each day to pause and become aware of the Self that exists apart from our endless thinking, planning, evaluating, and judging is a powerful exercise. What do I truly value, what do I want to prioritize, what energy do I want to bring to the world?


One of my favorite classroom ideas on this topic came from a session led by ELainia Ross-Jones at the 2023 Progressive Education Conference at City Neighbors High School. She encouraged educators to think about their “top five” and share them with their students. A teacher’s top five might consist of passions, interests, and identities. Who am I? Where do I come from? What do I care about? Know your own top five, she said, and show up every day as your authentic self.  


We can also ask our students to put together their top five and really pay attention when they share them. When a student shares something about themselves and we take it in and connect with them about it later, it can strengthen that student’s feeling of being truly seen and known. Small moments build connection and trust, and when those small moments happen frequently, they deepen.


Extending Compassion

Many people who begin learning about and practicing mindfulness are quite familiar with the inner critic, and for many of us, the person who most needs our compassion is ourselves. Being curious about our thoughts and feelings without judgment or recrimination may not silence our inner critic entirely, but it helps to make the inner critic just one of the points of view to consider.


Recognizing and reducing the power of our own inner critic can help us help our students — many of whom come with their own formidable inner voices that tell them they aren’t smart or capable, that they may as well not even try, or that if they do, their work will probably be bad. Mindfulness can help us see — and we, in turn, can help our students see — that we do not have to be perfect. Mary Oliver expresses it this way in her poem, Wild Geese: we “do not have to be good” in order to have a “place in the family of things.”


Direction matters more than speed

Mindfulness is not a state of being that happens overnight. Since beginning my practice, I have had good days and bad. Sometimes I sit down to practice and instead of building awareness and insight, I find myself composing a grocery list. It’s okay. I’m at least aware of what’s happening when it happens, and that alone is a step in the right direction. Building connections with students can also feel like it happens in fits and starts. Some days relationships feel natural and easy; other days we can all feel totally out of sync. Building mindfulness can help us tune into those moments exactly as they are, without recrimination or judgment. It can help us recognize that sometimes students come to class and instead of paying attention to the (brilliantly insightful content), they are distracted by their own version of a grocery list. Mindfulness helps us accept the ever-changing nature of things. Tomorrow will be different. Direction matters more than speed.


If you are interested in mindfulness, the Healthy Minds app is a wonderful (and free) resource.

[1] Quotation credit: Brian Andreas


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