|photo courtesy Bobbi Allan|
Since 2012 Bobbi has taught “Mindfulness for Classrooms” to teachers and students at all levels. She also leads 6-week “Mindfulness for Teacher Wellbeing” classes, based on the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program, and “Happy Smart & Calm” classes for Year 11 & 12 students. Bobbi also leads Mindfulness in Nature and Sense of Place activities for adults and children.
You sometimes use animal puppets in your classes. How do they help explain the different parts of the brain?
We use beautiful soft puppets - a puppy, an elephant and an owl - to tell students this story:
Deep in the base of our brain there’s a small part called the Amygdala. Our amygdala is like a guard puppy that keeps us safe from real dangers. If a branch falls from a tree it helps us run out of danger; if we see a snake it helps us stay still until the snake goes away; it can even help us defend ourselves if someone is attacking us. But it’s still a puppy so it’s still learning what is a real danger and what isn’t. It sometimes barks to warn us about things that aren’t really dangerous, like worries or silly thoughts, or it barks simply because we get too excited or too tired.
When our guard puppy barks loudly about things that really aren’t dangerous, it’s hard for the other parts of the brain to work – especially the hippocampus. Our hippocampus is like our memory elephant. It has great big listening ears to hear and help us remember - everything – from the names of our friends and family to how to brush our teeth. At school it helps you remember your lessons and how to spell elephant! But our memory elephant is a bit of an ‘emo’ elephant. It gets emotional and confused when the guard puppy barks for no good reason, and it shuts down its big listening ears and even trembles! And then it FORGETS!
Luckily we have another big part of our brain, our pre-frontal cortex, or PFC. The PFC is like the Wise Owl in our brains. It helps us think well, focus on what’s important, solve our maths problems, make friends, understand the book we’re reading…..so many useful things. The Wise Owl is also the part of the brain that can calm down the Guard Puppy’s barking. Wise Owl has a lot of important jobs.
We can help wake up Wise Owl with our Mindful Breathing. When we take two or three Mindful breaths ….. all the way in, all the way out….and again….... Wise Owl opens her big eyes. She sees that Guard Puppy is not barking about anything really dangerous. She spreads her beautiful soft wings and strokes the Guard Puppy so it calms down and stops barking. Wise Owl strokes the Memory Elephant so it can calm down too, open up its listening ears and remember everything it has learned.
Now Wise Owl and our whole brain is fully awake, calm, ready to focus and learn again. Wise Owl is also ready to help you play well with your friends when play time comes.
You mention on the Mindfulness in Education website, “Because children respond well when we relay our own experiences, you can share with the students if, how, and when you are using mindfulness in your life. If you share a recent story of when you... used mindfulness to help you deal with an emotion, they can hear how it is applied.”
Some teachers are concerned about sharing too much personal information with their students. Do you have any guidelines on what types of experiences are appropriate or inappropriate to discuss?
I wouldn’t recommend sharing an ‘overcome with emotion’ experience – unless it’s something the children can relate to, like being very sad about the death of a pet.
Teachers’ personal experiences that can be shared are the general ones that would be common to most adults and children. For example, being a bit scared, or startled, when there was a big clap of thunder overhead, or worrying about being late, or being embarrassed when you dropped and broke someone’s special object.
If the teacher shares how mindfulness helped him/her in situations like these, this is helpful to the children.
In addition to teaching mindfulness workshops, you lead meditation retreats. What are the benefits and challenges of participating in a retreat as opposed to practicing mindfulness as part of our daily lives?
In some ways I think it is more challenging to practice mindfulness in our daily lives than in a retreat setting. There are so many pulls back to our old habits of mind and action, to ‘automatic pilot’ and ‘business-as-usual’ in daily life.
Doing retreats is an opportunity to ‘rest, reflect, and re-set’ at a deeper level. It is also a quiet space where the complex movements of the body-mind that impact us on a daily level can be noticed in all their subtle and not-so-subtle manifestations. In the silence we can get to know and befriend more aspects of ourselves, and the ways cause and effect play out in the relationship between our inner and outer worlds. All of the above can be challenging, especially for people who are not used to silence.
Having said that, the retreats I lead are not entirely silent. There are times for some discussion and sharing, and on-going integration of the inner mindfulness journey, in relationship with others.
Mindfulness teaching is becoming increasingly common around the world. For example, in a recent interview, Ann Caulfield and Derval Dunford mentioned that there’s a great deal of support for mindfulness programs in Irish primary schools. Is that also true in Australia?
Australia is a much bigger country than Ireland, so it’s hard to know that for sure. What I can say is that I am getting frequent enquiries from teachers all around Australia who want to introduce mindfulness in their classrooms. Unfortunately there are not many people in Australia who can offer them training about how to do that.
We mostly work with teachers and schools in the Northern Rivers Area of NSW, and the interest in and support for mindfulness programs is growing in this area. We are about to start a three-year program in one local primary school, and will be offering training to many more primary teachers next year, which will be followed up by in-classroom lessons.
What does “mindful teaching” mean to you?
Bringing the ‘caring awareness’ of mindful presence to one’s own mind-body experience as well as one’s outer environment and the students and other teachers in it.
Essentially it’s no different for teachers than for anyone else. It’s just that teachers have a highly complex job in which their attention is pulled in many competing directions at once, as they keep lesson plans, time-tables, reporting requirements, and much much more in their heads, while attending to the intellectual, social and emotional needs of the 35 or more young individuals in their classroom.
Of necessity, teachers are generally superb ‘multi-taskers’, but that is not always conducive to their mental and emotional wellbeing and their physical health. The lightning-fast attention switches of ‘multi-tasking’ often mean there is no space for inner awareness and inner enquiry and reflection.
When teachers learn to master the art of mindfulness, they can still do all of the above, but the necessary attention switching is more conscious, spacious and purposeful. There is a more caring and intentional inner awareness as well a more caring and intentional awareness of the complex interplay of relationships between themselves and their students. This leads to increased calmness, clearer thinking and decision making and more compassion for self and others.
Teachers cannot expect their students to practice mindfulness unless they are practicing and modelling it themselves. This doesn’t mean teachers have to become ‘mindfulness experts’ before they can introduce it to their students. Mindfulness is a great skill for teachers to learn alongside of the students, provided the teacher is honest that that is what they are doing.
Mindfulness deepens over years of practice, and one’s awareness becomes increasingly more subtle and fine-tuned. The learning never stops.
What do you do in your own personal mindfulness practice, and how does it help you with your work?
I have been practicing mindfulness for 40 years. I will always find mindful breathing and body-mind awareness the greatest supports in my life.
Bringing a gentle caring awareness to emotions and thoughts is also a regular practice, and I usually send Loving Kindness to people when I think of them.
Moments of silence are very precious to me, as is spending time in nature, or listening as I am now, to the sounds of the lorikeets (birds) preparing to bed down for the evening.
I find I am easily able to focus on the task at hand – without losing awareness of my body-mind or my environment.
Shakti Burke and I tailor our programs to the needs of each school we go to, which means we have to think openly, widely and creatively. We also need to be patient, flexible and responsive when we encounter challenges and difficulties….as anyone who works in school settings does. Mindfulness helps with all of this, as it does with creating increasingly skillful ways to initiate small but significant changes in people and schools.
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Best Practices in Teaching Mindfulness to Children (interview)
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