Being a Mindful Teacher

Dr. Pearl Ratunil

Chair, Academy for Teaching Excellence

Harper College



How can Mindfulness create a classroom that inspires

and supports both the students and  the teacher?



What is  Mindfulness? 


A Tale of Three Scientists

(Left to Right)

Dr. Richie Davison, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, University of Massachusetts Medical School, creator of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) – a blend of meditation and yoga for secular settings

Dr. Amisha Jha, University of Miami, Florida


How it Helps Teachers

It helps the Instructor establish his/her own mood of calmness, clarity and openness.

Mindfulness is just one in a set of Contemplative Practices

contemplative tree


An fMRI study with college students (Creswell, Way, Eisenberger, and Lieberman, 2007) found that those higher in MAAS-measured dispositionalbrain map of amygdalamindfulness showed less reactivity to emotionally threatening visual stimuli, as indexed by lower amygdala activation, as well as stronger prefrontal cortical (PFC) activation, suggestive of better executive control.  More mindful students also showed a stronger inhibitory association between PFC and amygdala, suggesting better regulation of emotional reactions.  Other recent research has shown that induced mindful states can produce a quicker recovery from negative mood states, in comparison to other, common regulatory strategies like distraction and rumination (Broderick, 2005)

–  “Toward the Integration of Meditation into Higher Education: A Review of Research Evidence” published Contemplative Mind in Society (2008), republished under same title in Teachers’ College Record 113. 3 (2011) : 493-528

Benefits of Meditation for Attention

  • improves attentional performance
  • increased efficiency of networks recruited during the attention and impulse control
  • meditation may change brain morphology and function, particularly in areas related to attention and response selection

[Source:  “Meditation training increases brain efficiency in an attention task,”  Neuroimage 59 (2012): 745-9]

Short video summary of the neuroscience of mindfulness and the brain.

The Instructor’s State:  In a moment of stress, notice your state first before you act.


The role of empathy, compassion and Deep Listening 

“Listening brings people closer; not listening creates fragmentation” – Contemplative Practices in Higher Education, p. 145


Exercises to Cultivate Listening in Instructor and Student

  1.  Ambient Sound  (For student and Instructor)
  • Try to sit stable and still, like a mountain. Be relaxed and alert. Close your eyes.
  • Listen to the sounds as they occur.  Do not imagine, name, or analyze the sounds.  As names arise, release them, and return to listening
  • Just listen with wide-open awareness.
  • Notice how the sounds arise and fall away

2.  Listening to a Partner  (Classroom Application)

Everyone finds a partner.  One person speaks; the other listens.  The listener listens as carefully as possible, letting go of interpretations, judgments, and reactions, as well as irrelevant thoughts, memories, plans.  When the speaker finishes, the listener repeats as closely as possible what the speaker said, until the speaker feels truly heard.


Take a few minutes to describe a challenge or obstacle that you experienced in your own educational or career path.

  1. Instruction to both partners:  One partner will spend 3-5 minutes speaking about [some aspect of course content].
  2. Instruction to listener:  Listen without judgment.  Listen in silence.  Give your full attention to the speaker.  Don’t ask questions.  You may acknowledge with facial expressions or by nodding your head.  Do not coach or lead.  Let the speaker use his/her own words.  If the speaker runs out of things to say, give the speaker silence to reflect or stop.
  3. Instruction to the listener:  Now repeat the story the speaker just told.  Don’t worry about memorizing — paraphrase.  Have the speaker correct you or ask for clarification or correction.
  4. To the speaker:  Give the listener feedback.  Did you feel heard?
  5. Now, switch roles using a different prompt or course content.

[Adapted from Barzebat and Bush,  Contemplative Practices in Higher Education (2014)

Listening Exercise Outcomes

  • Students become responsible for the “re- telling the story”
  • Students develop attention, memory, listening
  • Students encounter the course content through another medium beside lecture, textbook, digital media.

Deep Listening and Conflict:  The Instructor’s Experience

“When we attune with others we allow our own internal state to shift, to come to resonate with the inner world of another. This resonance is at the heart of the important sense of “feeling felt” that emerges in close relationships. Children need attunement to feel secure and to develop well, and throughout our lives we need attunement to feel close and connected.”

Daniel Siegel, Mindsight (2010)

Daniel Siegel, a neurobiologist, points to the benefit of “feeling felt” by children in the early stages of development, but this also applies to a student  in the classroom who has experienced a “compassionate” instructor.  Using the research by Tania Singer (2004) on empathy vs. compassion, Siegel argues that there is distinct difference between empathy which leads to burn-out and compassion which imagines a plan for carrying out a solution.  From the neuroscience perspective, empathy use the same neural network that experiences physical pain (inferior parietal/ventral premotor cortices), while compassion uses a completely different work that create positive of love and affilition (precuneus, posterior cingulate cortex) .

[sources: Neuroimage  (Feb 2011); Mindsight (201); Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences (April 2009).]


Blackboard can be used to do short surveys of the contemplative practices employed. Sample questions:

  • What is your opinion about the short focusing periods we have been doing at the beginning of our class meetings?
  • How do you feel during those two minute breaks?
  • Would you want them longer, shorter, or completely gone?

Administered as an add-on to a quiz in Blackboard

– Jon Brammer, Three Rivers Community College, CT

Results of Assessment

“I had 23 students respond-everyone in the section- and the responses were generally very good. 21/23 liked the brief “chill time” periods, but they were mixed in terms of wanting them longer. I would guess there were 6-7 who wanted the time increased to five minutes or more. No student thought they should be shorter than the two minutes.

Of the two folks who didn’t see any benefit, one thought it was a waste of time and the other was completely neutral.”  – via email from J. Brammer


  • Mindfulness in education does not treat the student as object, but cultivates the qualities desired in the student in the instructor, too.  Our own ability to be present, awareness, compassionate is important to cultivating those same qualities in students
  • The positive outcomes of mindfulness (greater attention, focus, compassion, positive feelings) are cultivated through the frequent and regular application of mindfulness and contemplative practices
  • Contemplative practices is more than just mindfulness and includes journaling, walking, storytelling and other practices that cultivate the brain’s abilities to focus, to attend, and be compassionate.



Continuing to breathe in and out, use either these traditional phrases or ones you choose yourself. Say or think them several times.

May I be free from inner and outer harm and danger. May I be safe and protected.

May I be free of mental suffering or distress.

May I be happy.

May I be free of physical pain and suffering.

May I be healthy and strong.

May I be able to live in this world happily, peacefully, joyfully, with ease.

Full instructions at


Helpful Articles and Websites

Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education

“Mindfulness in Higher Education”

“Seven Ways Mindfulness Can Help Teachers”

“Mindfulness in the Classroom”

Learning Mindfulness with Phone Apps


Insight Meditation Timer:




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