After years of working at independent schools in the U.S. and international schools around the globe, I had the sinking feeling that I was falling into a trap. This trap is described by Jon Kabat-Zinn as “falling into becoming more of a human doing than a human being.”
In the college prep environment, my colleagues and I were forgetting who was “doing the doing,” and why.
So when I moved to the Middle East to teach, I decided to find ways out of the trap. We could drop all the “doing” in my classes for just five minutes.
Every class, every day, just five minutes.
I told my students that we would start our classes by sitting in silence while attending to our breathing. I explained that we were practicing mindfulness. The idea was so foreign to my students, a multicultural mix from many nations, that most were incredulous.
The Student Response
“Sir, you made this mindfulness stuff up!” Mohamed, a student from Egypt, claimed after the first session. Some students thought that five minutes of just breathing was weird, and that their new teacher was a bit eccentric. But we kept at it daily and worked through the giggles and awkwardness. I explained that the International Baccalaureate, our sponsoring organization, was recommending mindfulness as one way to engage in “self-management.”
Eighty-eight of my students participated in “just five minutes.”
- 87% of them reported that mindfulness practice helped them feel calmer.
- 78% reported that it helped them to be more focused in class.
They described their experience during mindfulness practice as “peaceful,” “relaxed,” “calm,” “focused,” “concentrated,” and a “good way to relieve tension.”
The Faculty Gets Curious
At the end of my first year, I presented the practice to our faculty, hoping to spark interest in future initiatives. The next term I was asked to start the first faculty meeting with a guided mindfulness meditation. Then some teachers invited me to lead mindfulness practices in their classroom throughout the year. One student on the basketball team incorporated mindfulness to help his team during their championship. I even received an email from a graduate telling me that the practice of mindfulness had helped him during university exams.
The Practice Takes Root
The next year, I was invited to give this TEDx talk on how mindfulness helped me stay curious and open to the many experiences of living in my new surroundings. Teaching my students to move beyond their judgments had strengthened my own practice. Those five minutes at the beginning of every class planted a seed that was growing, effortlessly, into a flourishing plant, here in the deserts of Saudi Arabia.
Juan-Diego Estrada is a high school counselor at an international school in Saudi Arabia and has worked at schools in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Qatar, Spain, and the U.S. Specializing in adolescents, his doctoral research was on teens’ choice of heroes and admired adults. He completed the Practicum in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction at UMass in 2008, and has completed both the Mindful Schools Mindful Educator Essentials and Difficult Emotions courses. Reach him here.
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