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Steve Haberlin is an assistant professor of education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. He holds a Ph.D. with a specialization in elementary education from the University of South Florida. His...
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Putting the Soul into Educational Supervision: A Mindfulness-Based Framework for Preparing K-12 teachers

Educational supervision-that is, the field responsible for preparing teachers for the classroom—is way behind the curve when it comes to embracing contemplative, holistic approaches to instruction.

Ironically, teachers, students, and the schools where supervisors work, have embraced the contemplative movement. For example, the mindfulness revolution has entered schools at an impressive rate. Yoga-based programs are in at least 1,000 U.S. schools. A mindfulness-based classroom tool I created with one of my students called Chair Qigong has received a strong response from educators across the country. Educators are turning to these practices as coping mechanism for society’s increasing stress, anxiety, and distraction.

Let’s explore why this even matters.

If you’re not familiar with the term, instructional or educational supervision involves the preparing of teachers (in the classroom) or teacher candidates (those in teacher preparation programs in colleges and universities). A supervisor could be a principal coaching and observing a teacher at her school, a university-based faculty member working with a teacher candidate doing an internship, or a mentor teacher working with colleagues.    

Ultimately, the supervisor’s purpose is to help the teacher or candidate become effective in their craft, which should result in positive student learning outcomes.

Traditionally, supervisors have relied on a Westernized, scientifically grounded view to do their job. For example, a supervisor collects evidence during a classroom observation, draws conclusions, and presents that as feedback to the teacher. Of course, that’s a simplified version and there are many ways, styles, and models on how to do that.

What I am proposing is that we broaden that view by taking a page from the contemplative movement occurring in society and education. For a complete argument on this topic, you can read my academic paper published in the most recent issue of the Journal of Educational Supervision (note: if the paper does not appear there, please revisit page in a week or two).

Mindfulness research, for instance, has demonstrated promising benefits, everything from increased cognitive functioning, to lower stress levels, to increased immune systems. Studies using brain imaging is actually finding that mindfulness meditation produces structural changes in the brain itself—actual physical changes to our noggin--by increasing the gray matter tissue responsible for information processing, memory, and focus.

If that’s the case, why are we not exploring how educational supervisors might integrate mindfulness-based practices into the fabric of preparing teachers? It is that question and my own research that has led me to coin the term, mindfulness-based supervision. This represents a new paradigm, a new view of supervision that honors presence, awareness, and the inner world (the soul, if you will) of teacher preparation as much as the external dimensions, such as instructional approaches, teaching methods, etc.

One of the greatest benefits that I think mindfulness-based supervision can bring to the field is the idea of “minding the gap” or creating a holding space for supervisors. Practicing mindfulness methods, such as breath meditation, can help supervisors become more aware of their habitual mind patterns and how they react in certain situations. This awareness, this sense of recognition, creates a freedom to make new choices and respond in more focused, positive ways.

What would this look like in the classroom? Say a university-based supervisor is observing a fledging teacher candidate conduct a lesson with a group of elementary students. The lesson is beginning to crash-and-burn as the candidate struggles to enact all the ideas and information learned during coursework. Normally, the supervisor might to begin to tense up, running a mind-script that sounds something like: why isn’t she applying anything she learned. This is an embarrassment to the university. Maybe this person doesn’t have what it takes to become a teacher.

However, minding the gap, the supervisor takes a few breaths, feels the sensation arising, spots the old script emerging, then creates some space between his reactions and what is happening during the observation. Rather than write a scathing observation report or evaluation, the supervisor takes time to reflect on the observation, considers the conditions and why the candidate might have struggled, speaks with the candidate’s mentor teacher, and more intentionally selects his wording to use when giving feedback to the candidate.

This space produces new thoughts and actions and results in a enhanced type of interaction between supervisor and candidate, a more wholesome one that focuses on coaching, positive support, and compassion. The supervisor does not ignore or excuse the candidate’s inability to teach effectively but is more mindful and intentional about how to respond, and thus, how to empower the candidate.

As a new paradigm, there is much work and research to be done on mindfulness-based supervision. But I do believe it presents many possibilities for how we prepare the next generation of teachers for the classroom.

With Care and Compassion,

Steve