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Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Importance of Mindful Teachers (interview)

photo courtesy Nikolaj & Didde Flor Rotne
Nikolaj and Didde Flor Rotne are the founders of Denmark’s Educational Mindfulness Program. Nikolaj has an MA in Educational Psychology, and Didde has worked as a classroom teacher and a meditation teacher. They are the authors of Everybody Present: Mindfulness in Education.

Some communities in the U.S. resist classroom-based mindfulness programs because of concerns about religious teachings in public schools. Is that also true in Denmark? How do you respond to those concerns?

It is true that mindfulness originally evolved from a religious setting and we find mindfulness approaches in both the Christian and Buddhist traditions. Personally we think it is wonderful that great spiritual teachers like David Steindl-Rast, Thomas Keating, and Thich Nhat Hanh can inspire our educational system. However, with all the research on mindfulness that has been made and the great development within this field, we can teach mindfulness in a totally secular setting without having to refer to religious contexts. And this is also what is taking place within the Danish educational setting.

Another concern about school-based mindfulness practice is that it will take away valuable instructional time. Why is it so important to emphasize mindfulness in educational settings?

Much scientific research has been made in recent years with regard to mindfulness. When we practice mindfulness on a daily basis, it promotes well-being, compassionate actions and greater performance.

Many people would agree that we can’t afford not to use mindfulness in education as it prevents unnecessary stress, poor academic performance, bullying, and maybe even school shootings. The benefits are great for pupils, teachers, parents and society.  

That said, we find that it is primarily the principals, the teachers and other school leaders that first and foremost must practice mindfulness. Teachers and principals are the most influential people in the educational life of the pupils, and it is their task to create a fruitful and safe learning environment. We also know that pupils are more likely to do what we as adults DO rather than what we SAY. We need teachers who practice mindfulness in order to become strong role models, teaching and inspiring with a strong spine and a soft heart - people that the pupils can look up to.


Nikolaj, you mention in Everybody Present that "the mindfulness teacher is not a therapist" and there's a danger of mindfulness practice becoming "retraumatizing." What do you mean by this, and how can teachers avoid unintentionally harming their students?

Mindfulness practice is based on exposure, where we welcome whatever is in our awareness with a friendly attitude without reacting to it or hiding from it. However, if a person has hidden traumas, practicing mindfulness can make the person too vulnerable. Due to the openness and exposure one gains from the mindfulness practice, the person can be confronted by the traumatic experience once again. Therefore it is important that mindfulness practice always be voluntarily and be taught by a person who has a deep personal experience with mindfulness.

What does "mindful teaching" mean to you?

To us, Mindful Teaching is expressed through a Mindful Teacher who has the following 3 core competencies: authenticity, authority and love.

Authenticity means being honest about the experiences you have. It also implies having existential and psychological insight about yourself and your social and emotional intelligence. As a teacher you consistently seek to be aware of your strengths, weaknesses, and passions, as well as how best to motivate the students and help others. You practice mindfulness on a daily basis and let your mindfulness practice guide your path as a teacher.

Authority means that you teach from the basis of your own experiences. You know your subject area and you consistently seek to deepen your understanding of mindfulness and how to create a good learning environment.

Love includes the ability to seek to bring positivity and love in relationships with others. The teacher attempts to see the best in others and seeks to uplift and inspire. Mindful Teachers are people who manage the balance between the happiness of others and their own happiness: They make positive and compassionate contributions to the world, and at the same time build their own abundance, insight and inner sanctuary.

The Mindful Teacher is characterized by being the change she wants to see in the world.

From our viewpoint mindfulness is a great practice to create what Dr. Philip Zimbardo calls “heroic actions,” because mindfulness takes us behind the veil of our defense mechanisms, so we can feel true empathy and connection with others. Mindfulness not only has the power to create compassion, it also gives us the power to stand up and respond wisely to, for example, ignorance, bullying, or violence.

What do you do in your own personal mindfulness practice, and how does it help you in your work?

We both had some strong experiences of interbeing around 2000 when we attended our first retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village, France.

Mindfulness practice can help us to change our experience of being in a state of lack and longing, to being in a state of abundance that can make others happy too. When we’re mindful, we identify less with our thoughts and feelings. Our experience is that when we attempt to be fully present in the moment, we have a sense of belonging and of feeling at home in the world - a deep feeling of interbeing.

In our personal mindfulness practice we use, among others, the exercises from our new e-workbook. It consists of a 21-day mindfulness program for teachers called Inner Peace and Contagious Happiness for Education’s Superstars.

We are also very inspired by the teachings of Professor and Zen teacher David R. Loy, whom we are fortunate to have as our mentor. David’s contributions on Buddhism and modernity are of immense importance as he helps to form a strong path of Engaged Buddhism. To us, it is crucial to bring the fruits of the practice into transforming individuals, relationships, families, society and the way we teach and lead. This is what we endeavor to contribute through our Mindfulness Mentor Program (MMP), our books and our teachings.


related posts:

Everybody Present (recommended book)

Losing Control, Gaining Authority (guest post)

Teaching For-Credit Mindfulness Classes (interview)

Teaching Mindfulness to At-Risk Youth (interview)

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