Mindful Leaders Foster Mindful Learners

Imagine your favorite song is playing. Its familiar rhythm draws you in, undulating in melodic waves. Have a listen, but now imagine that the pauses between notes are withdrawn, so the song is solely composed of notes strung together one after the other. Is the song still playing? Or is it just noise?

Sometimes I wonder if this is what is happening to us—to younger generations—to those of us whose hands were born with a proclivity to reach for the comfort of our screens and the safety of the virtual realities we seem to build during any moment of boredom or internal discomfort we experience. I wonder what happens to generations of children who have a conditioned tendency to fill the pauses between notes.

As Jews, we feel in our gut what is important to us and what we hope to impart to our children. We hear the songs of our ancestors and practice the traditions that will perpetuate our existence. And it is the sole cause of Jewish day schools to immerse children in a learning environment built for and around the values of this song. But with the impacts of social media and smartphones, the rising levels of anxiety and depression, and our plummeting attention spans, perhaps there is now a need to be taught how to notice, not just what to notice. Exploring possible antidotes to these challenges, some Jewish educators have taken to mindfulness, the formal practice of present-centered awareness.

The concept and practice of mindfulness has been proliferating as a movement in the West over the last few decades, emerging in classrooms, medical clinics, even business offices. But what really is mindfulness: a practice, a disposition, a state of mind? Oftentimes the word mindful is used ambiguously, as a synonym for considerate or kind, conscious or aware. What makes mindfulness distinct, though, is that it is a habit and trait that accrues in a person who sits in formal meditation practice regularly.

There are two distinct components of mindfulness practice: the discipline of closing our eyes into stillness and silence each day (meditation), and the way mindfulness naturally emerges in our daily lives as the outgrowth of our seated practice (our post-meditation practice). People who meditate generally agree to the presence of something barely capable of articulation, something in their daily lives slowly yet deeply changing simply because they sit in meditation each day.

Many scientific theories offer explanations for how and why meditation affects the brain and heart. Still, there is much to learn about the causal processes that lead to the impacts of meditation—the method to its magic. One common conception sees meditation as a technique to still the mind. I like to think about meditation in a different way: not as a way to stop our thoughts, but rather as a way to learn to sit with them in a particular way.

We close our eyes in meditation practice and set an intention—focusing on the breath, for example. Inevitably, we drift off from our place of focus, and then we become aware that we’ve drifted off. The work of meditation, to me, is not about not drifting. The work lies in changing the way we respond to the moment that we become aware we have drifted.

When we sit still, everything internally—thoughts, emotions, sensations—tries to shake us and move us away from our discipline. Precisely when we sit through this intrinsic chaos, when we take a deep breath and place our attention back upon our intention, we strengthen the muscle of mindfulness. This is a difficult practice, and sometimes even uncomfortable. But perhaps meditation is not about being comfortable, despite its association with relaxation; perhaps it is really about cultivating comfort within discomfort. This relational work—of creating relation with our breath and internal world—maps onto our external world. We sit not so we may perfectly focus on our intention; we sit so we may practice remembering when we forget, and returning when we drift. Imagine what happens to the cognition and consciousness of a child who learns to master this practice of calling intention to heart and mind.

Quite a few Jewish educators know this practice well and have integrated the teachings of mindfulness into Jewish day schools. Over the last few months, I have been speaking to these educators, inquiring about their practices and their perception of the value of school-based mindfulness.

Many have reported the positive impact that mindfulness has had on stress levels, emotional regulation, cognitive functioning and sense of overall well-being. Educators shared their personal practices as well as their school’s practices, what they’ve seen and felt, and what the process has looked like in integrating mindfulness into school curricula. Some schools have hired yoga and meditation teachers, some have had faculty engage in secular mindfulness trainings like Mindful Schools or Calm Classroom, and others have been part of Educating for a Jewish Spiritual Life, a mindfulness program for Jewish educators led by the Institute of Jewish Spirituality.

What was most affecting in these conversations were stories about the bidirectional nature of school-based mindfulness. Children learn from teachers, and then teachers learn from children—from the embodiment of mindful learning that emerges in changes in children’s behavior, their attention in class, academic outcomes, even in the ways in which they interact with peers, faculty and themselves. One educator told me about a preschooler who intervened in her own experience of anxiety by closing her eyes and independently doing “belly breathing” when she realized she needed to calm down. Another educator recounted how a middle schooler explained that he now knows what to do to reconnect when he realizes he is tuning out of tefillah. Others noticed that the initial resistance of hesitant teachers broke after seeing the way the culture of their classrooms began to shift.

Most striking of all was the feeling that heads of schools alluded to, in being able to “really see what’s going on in people’s lives and in our schools,” in having a consistent space and practice to step back and ask, “What Judaism are we really giving over to the kids?” This comment brought me back to my own day school upbringing. What I remember most are the ways of my teachers, the ways they showed up, the ways they responded to challenges—not so much what they said but how they said it.

Mindfulness training elevates the way we show up, with ourselves and with others. In the words of another head of school, “Mindfulness training has dramatically affected how I engage with kids who come into my office. Professionally and personally, it has helped me to become much more conscious in my actions and reactions.” Almost all the school leaders affirmed this same message: Educators are moved by the unexpected potency of intentional practices of stillness and silence, in themselves and in children.

But like all change, this growth is slow and calls for an investment of commitment, practice and patience. As one head of school shared, “This really is a long path. An early adopter helped me understand and accept that.” A counselor who directs a social-emotional learning program based in mindfulness spoke about the challenges that have arisen along this path:

I see tremendous value. In an ideal world, all teachers would be trained. So much of the success of these mindfulness initiatives, though, is dependent on the leadership’s presentation of them and the systems in place to support them in an ongoing way. Really, it is not enough for the leadership team to support it. Are we receiving adequate training? Is there time set aside in the schedule? For this to be absorbed in the school culture, it has to become part of the fabric of the school. This takes time and a ton of system support.

A few months ago, the Prizmah conference dared us to dream. I dream about what might happen if every school was provided—and ultimately, was able to provide—this support. I dream of every educator and learner being formally trained in mindfulness. With meditation, we would learn how to tune ourselves like the instruments we are; we would learn to cultivate the pause between notes so that we could once again hear, with a little more clarity, the profundity of the music that is played for us by our dedicated teachers, note by note, generation after generation.

Jenny Wechter
Deepening Talent
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning, School Policies and Procedures, Mental Health
Published: Summer 2019