Mindful Teaching: Being in the Thick of Things

by: Ed Brantmeier

Recently, I read some work of Parker Palmer where he asked the question, “Are you a human being or a human doing? In talking with a James Madison University colleague, Dave Pruett, he suggested that this theme was the heart of his recent graduation speech here. Dave suggested the challenge was being in the thick of things. After moments of reflection on how simple, yet great ideas often have different origins yet common insight (Think Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace), I began thinking about how the idea of human beings and human doings applied to my current work in the academy.

Simply put, mindful teaching is being in the moment in the classroom. Attentive to the needs of students and the moment, the mindful teacher actively listens to students and their stories. Those stories are braided with course concepts and content and real world challenges to promote relevant, deep learning. Mindful teaching involves active, compassionate listening to the lived curriculum, referred to as co-text by some, of co-learners in the classroom—students and the teacher. Being in the thick of things is not always easy.

Ideals of being in the thick of things meet the pace and scope of doing that takes place in courses. I will make a confession, I was a mindful teacher for part of my Teaching in a Diverse Society course for pre-service teachers on Tuesday, but I got lost in the content and forgot about the students and their stories in the moment. Having given this interactive lecture dozens of times, I have built in multiple moments to encourage the lived curriculum through group and individual reflection. The case study of meeting a Tibetan woman at an airport worked like a charm. Students were immersed in critical self-reflection and mutual engagement with a “critical friend” (More details— http://www.nsrfharmony.org/ ). Other moments, they reflected on their levels of cultural competency development based on cultural immersion experiences they have had. We were alive with learning.

Then, I lost them—the glazed eyes, yawns, seat shifting, loss of consciousness, a few text messages…. I had lost them in my preoccupation with coverage rather than learning in the moment. My light went out, and so did theirs. I sped ahead to deliver the content—various models of intercultural development and such. I should have paired them to discuss, should have stopped and did yoga again, maybe should have taken another break, or maybe a quiet free write on the question, “What are you learning right now?” Next week I will be more aware of my options to reinvigorate and re-engage learning.

Essence, not coverage. What do we really need to know about the content and their lives? Mindful teachers are human beings in the classroom—the learning is connected, deep, engaging. The fires of learning are stoked with care and the warming glow ignites the heart in education. So I leave you to think about Dave’s and Parker’s question, “Are we human doings or human beings?” Can we get better at being in the thick of things while teaching and doing this everyday work in the academy? I feel I can, we can—and this is quite heartening. In peace, Ed.

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