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Steve Haberlin's picture
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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Too Many Minds: Are You Present When You Teach?

When you’re in the classroom, are you really there? When a student asks you a question, are you really listening? When collaborating with other teachers on lesson plans, are you truly present?

Of course, you say. I’m in the classroom; I’m with the student; I’m at the meeting. But what I am referring are your mental energies, your awareness, your attention. In this age of technological distraction, it’s so easy to get side-tracked, to lose focus.  And with so many demands on teachers these days, I wonder how teachers get anything done when actually teaching (they are an amazing breed, for sure).

There is a scene in the film, The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise as a jaded American soldier, who finds himself captively living with a samurai clan. After Cruise loses a practice sword-fighting session, the clan leader’s son approaches him and informs him that he has “too many minds.” Cruise realizes he’s distracted because he’s focused on too many things. He realizes he must empty his mind and be totally present in the moment to effectively face his opponent. Teachers are no different. We need ways to empty our minds, to be totally present with students when it’s time to teach. We need to block out distractions and skillfully focus on the challenges ahead of us, whether that be a struggling student, a perplexing curriculum, or an angry parent.  We must be able to respond calmly and swiftly.

Researchers have conducted studies with teachers on the use of mindfulness, a Buddhist-tradition practice that requires training the mind to intentionally pay attention in the present moment.  While findings were mixed at times, some teachers reported significant changes, including reduced stress levels and increased ability to remain calm and present-centered. Such results, at least in my opinion, suggest we should further study how mindfulness and other Eastern-traditions and methods might be worked into the daily lives of teachers.  I don’t think this blog would be complete without providing a practical component, a simple technique teachers can start practicing immediately. This is a link to Guided Mediation with famed Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh.  I have taught it successfully to pre-service teachers (about 100 during an orientation).

Try this technique, see if it works for you.  Consider how present you are in your current practice. Next time you’re about to teach, ask yourself, “Am I really here today?