Mindfulness for School Teachers: Lessons from Rita, aged 87
'Do not underestimate the impact your words can have when talking to parents about their precious children. It is sacred ground and the words can fall deep.' Writes Liz Lord, MYRIAD Schools Liaison at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre.
I’d like you to listen to the following clip from an 87-year-old woman called Rita. It describes a meeting in 1970 she and her husband Vincent had with a primary school teacher who at the time was teaching her son, Mark, aged 10. This clip was recorded in October 2016.
Let me give you some more context. As Rita got older and her memory started to fade she told this story over and over again. She could recount the meeting so vividly, it was always the same and with the same feelings, emotions and disbelief.
Not only had that teacher not listened carefully to what Rita and Vincent had been interested in but he had also tried to chart the future of her son at 10 years old. “He will never become a teacher, get that idea out of his head!”
Perhaps he had had a busy day, tired and exhausted, pressured by targets and giving a realistic appraisal as he saw it. That certainly sounds familiar in the current climate for the teaching profession. How many of us have felt this way when just about to start a parent’s meeting, especially when dealing with sensitive issues?
Do not underestimate the impact your words can have when talking to parents about their precious children. It is sacred ground and the words can fall deep. One teacher said to me recently that they are told what things to cover in their parent meetings and the importance of being realistic about achievements. Of course this is important but it is the approach that is taken that can make all the difference. Whatever the content of the meeting, it should always be balanced with the need to be sensitive and empathic.
Interestingly Mark went on to become a young and inspirational head teacher, he was invited to Westminster with other heads to share their good practice in helping pupils to flourish. The story took on a more poignant twist as he sadly died of cancer at the early age of 47. The story, for Rita, then became a testimony of how he had started from humble beginnings in his own school life as a pupil to the lofty heights of becoming a head teacher. She remembered the words of that primary teacher for nearly 50 years as if she were still sat in the room with him.
This example can be used to remind all teachers of the importance of their own ability to be fully aware and present to the situations in front of them, either with pupils, staff or parents. Our beloved profession is being driven by targets and assessments but we all know that it is not these things that make the difference to pupils. Think back to the qualities of a teacher who really inspired you? It is a question I often pose when speaking to teachers. What were their qualities and how did they connect with you in such a special way? It is no surprise to know that kindness, passion, enthusiasm, positivity, humour and care are often used to describe these inspirational teachers.
There is a wonderful TEDex talk by another Rita, Rita Pierson, who has been a teacher and school leader for almost 40 years. She talks so eloquently about connection and how this is essential in any relationship that fosters learning and respect. She spoke of each pupil having a champion, someone who looks out for them and helps them to be their very best.
I agree that all pupils need a champion but I also think that all teachers need a champion. Someone from within the profession who can remind them of the importance of connection, care, kindness, and laughter in the midst of a busy school life when these qualities are often pushed aside and not judged to be important or more interestingly, not judged at all!
Someone who can help them to foster their original intentions to become school teachers, to make a difference and to bring out the very best in pupils. To delight in drawing out their gifts and talents, helping to shape a better world for the generations to come. These are noble intentions for a profession trying to navigate changing times.
Mindfulness fosters all these qualities, it is an approach and a set of skills that can help and support school staff in dealing with the complexities of school life. That fine balance of the many interpersonal relationships going on together with the practicalities of the curriculum and the paperwork.
Research in the area of ‘mindfulness in schools’ is showing promise and potential. How many times have teachers written those very words about pupils? The fruits of a teacher’s labour may never be seen but the seeds nevertheless are planted and the great teachers are the ones who do this with passion, care and enthusiasm. The skills and approach that mindfulness offers helps teachers be more fully ‘present’ in the classroom, not preoccupied with other things but available to their pupils with a greater sense of awareness. We may never fully know what impact this may have on pupils but what greater gift can we give our pupils than to be fully present with them in the classroom?
And what greater gift can we give our parents and carers? To nurture their children’s abilities and talents, to help them to be the very best they can be, delight in their achievements and communicate sensitive information with kindness and care. This is the real work of a teacher and it is work from the heart.
When you next approach parents or carers, take a moment to stop and pause, give a thought to my lovely mother, Rita, who almost 50 years on remembered every word as if she were still in the room. Take care with your words.
These things matter deeply in our profession.
Adapted from a talk written for Early Career Teachers’ Professional Development Conference June 2017 Department of Education, Oxford.
(In memory of my mum and brother, Rita and Mark Condron)