The Mindful Teacher
reviewed by Cynthia Carver & Sara Trotter — March 08, 2017
If you talk to a classroom teacher today, you are likely to hear that job demands seem to grow by the hour. Increasingly rigorous curriculum standards, additional high-stakes standardized tests, and new teacher evaluation policies have created an unprecedented level of scrutiny of classrooms. Based on recent Gallup poll results, 46% of teachers' report feeling high levels of daily stress, a percentage that rivals nurses and physicians (Turner, 2016). For some, professional relief comes in the form of hunkering down, closing the classroom door, and going rogue. Others are opting to exit the profession altogether. In The Mindful Teacher, authors Dennis Shirley and Elizabeth MacDonald offer an alternative for career-minded educators who wish to remain in the classroom. As they explain, their Mindful Teacher seminars have become a tool for helping educators both inside and outside of the U.S. manage high levels of stress, make sense of increasing job demands, and find renewed joy in teaching.
Recently updated and expanded, The Mindful Teacher is a collaboration between Shirley, a professor of education at Boston College, and MacDonald, an elementary teacher and instructional coach in Boston Public Schools. By alternating the authors voices, The Mindful Teacher details their six-year-long effort to lead Boston teachers through inquiry-based seminars where mindfulness serves as a core practice. Drawing on their experience of working with teachers in Boston and beyond, the authors suggest that a quiet revolution (p. 1) is spreading among educators who are looking for deeper meaning in their work and want schools to become places of learning and joy (p. 1) once again. For these educators, the combination of teacher inquiry and contemplative practice serves as a strategy for managing the stress of teaching under oppressive educational policies.
In Introduction: The Quiet Revolution, Shirley and MacDonald establish the foundation for their Mindful Teacher seminars by explaining the difference between mindful teaching and alienated teaching. They explain that alienated teaching describes instructional processes in which teachers neglect teaching practices that they believe are best suited for their pupils and instead comply with externally imposed mandates out of a sense of deference to authority (p. 20). These instructional processes include unfair testing practices, scripted curricular programs, and educational mandates that ignore childrens socioemotional needs. When teachers are faced with doing what they know is not in their students best interest, they are engaging in what Shirley and MacDonald refer to as alienated teaching.
In contrast, a mindful teaching approach helps educators hone in on the needs of their students by combining the calming effects of contemplative practice with the process of teacher inquiry. MacDonald adds that, one of the major problems of educational change occurs when teachers are asked to shift from one instructional approach to another with inadequate support (p. 17). Mindful teaching counters this tendency by encouraging teachers to interrupt their harried lifestyles (p. 5) so they might attend to aspects of their classroom instruction and pupils learning that are ordinarily overlooked (p. 5). Chapter One, The Great Divide, further develops the contrast between alienated and mindful teaching from the introduction. The authors use the next three chapters to introduce readers to their Mindful Teacher seminars.
In Chapter Two, Growing into Mindful Teaching, readers learn about the development and conceptual underpinnings of the Mindful Teacher project. With the support of grant funding that pays participants a small stipend, Shirley and MacDonald recruit Boston area teachers who want to get past the perpetual merry-go-round of fads and innovations to explore a deeper side of education (p. 28). Informed by the scholarship on inquiry-oriented professional learning communities (e.g., Schön, 1987; Stoll & Louis, 2007) and the practice of mindfulness from both psychological and spiritual traditions (e.g., Hanh, 1988, 1992; Langer, 1989, 1997), the authors design a series of seminars to help teachers develop their instructional skills. Their efforts also help these educators respond to a constantly changing policy environment.
Chapter Three, Practicing Mindfully, provides an overview of the seminar structure. Led by Shirley and MacDonald, these sessions take place on Saturdays in an atmosphere of relaxed informality (p. 40). Each seminar lasts for an entire day and consists of eight components. The day begins with time for teachers to express pressing concerns related to teaching in their district. This is followed by a group discussion on a topic of interest selected by participants, then they collectively examine scholarly research. The seminar subsequently transitions to a period of formal meditation and provides time for small groups to address emergent problems of practice. The session concludes with a period of debriefing and the introduction of a follow-up mindfulness assignment. The authors explain that the overarching purpose of this structure is to position teaching as a complex practice that is wrought with dilemmas and is developed over time through deliberate reflection. The chapter closes with concrete examples of the types of questions raised by teachers in the seminar. For example, what should I do when my beliefs conflict with new mandates? What adjustments do I need to make to develop the stamina to stay in teaching over the long term? The chapter also includes six vignettes describing the inquiry work of teachers during these sessions. For readers struggling to visualize the structure and focus of the seminars, this chapter is especially helpful.
Chapter Four, The Seven Synergies of Mindful Teaching, further develops the theory of mindful teaching by introducing what the authors describe as the seven synergies and the triple tensions (p. 82) of mindful teaching. The seven synergies (e.g., open-mindedness, caring, stopping, professional expertise, authentic alignment, integration, and collective responsibility) explain the principles of mindful teaching that emerge from the seminar project. Of these seven synergies, Shirley and MacDonald claim open-mindedness as the most important. While we do not disagree with their view, we find ourselves most drawn to the synergy of stopping or allowing oneself to slow down and take stock. Through stopping, teachers are better able to see the inherent complexity of a problem before taking action. In sum, these seven synergies represent ways of thinking and being that support teaching professionals in managing the stress of teaching. In case this sounds too easy, the chapter concludes with a short discussion of three tensions (e.g., individual versus collective, contemplation versus action, and ethics versus power) that complicate the practice of mindful teaching.
The final chapters of the book discuss the theory of mindful teaching in relation to issues of teacher leadership, instructional technology, and whole-school reform. For readers who are familiar with the first printing of the book, these final chapters are new to this edition. In Chapter Five, Mindful Teacher Leadership, Shirley and MacDonald explain how mindful teaching supports teacher leadership and how this type of leadership is needed to spread the concept of mindful teaching more widely. In Chapter Six, The Mindful Teacher and Technology, the seven synergies are used as a compass to examine the advantages and challenges of technology for teaching and schools. In Chapter Seven, Changing Whole Schools Mindfully, the authors conclude with examples of principals who have adopted the principles of mindful teaching to counter the tendency toward alienated teaching and to foster whole school reform. By concluding on this note, Shirley and MacDonald position the work of mindful teaching as not only individually helpful, but organizationally transformative.
For educators who are drawn to the books title, we offer one final note. This is not a volume on the importance or value of mindfulness for educators, nor is it a text that will guide teachers in bringing mindfulness strategies to the classroom. Rather, Shirley and MacDonalds The Mindful Teacher describes an approach to inquiry-based professional learning that places contemplative practices at its core. In doing so, teachers can better focus on developing strategies to work through the steady stream of expectations that threaten to strip their classrooms of joy and meaning. While Mindful Teacher seminars may not appeal to all educators, they offer an attractive option for teachers who seek hope and encouragement during these challenging times.
Hanh, T. N. (1988). The heart of understanding. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.
Hanh, T. N. (1992). The diamond that cuts through illusion. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.
Langer, E. J. (1989). Mindfulness. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Langer, E. J. (1997). The power of mindful learning. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Schön, D. A. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner: Toward a new design for teaching and learning in the professions. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Stoll, L., & Louis, K. S. (2007). Professional learning communities: Divergence, depth, and dilemmas. Berkshire, UK: Open University Press.
Turner, C. (2016, December 30). Teachers are stressed, and that should stress us all. [Radio broadcast episode]. National Public Radio Morning Edition. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/12/30/505432203/teachers-are-stressed-and-that-should-stress-us-all