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Sunday, October 14, 2018

Effective Mindfulness-Based Approaches, for Students and Teachers (interview)

Keith Horan is a qualified meditation teacher and former school teacher with an MSc in Mindfulness-Based Approaches from the Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice at Bangor University, Wales. He offers retreat days and 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) courses in Kinvara, County Galway, Ireland, and online guided meditations at

One of the key themes here at is self-care for educators and other helping professionals. In your opinion, what’s the connection between mindfulness and self-care, and why are they so important for teachers?

It is great to see the idea of self-care coming into the teaching profession.  Teachers are beginning to understand that caring for themselves is necessary if they are to care for their students.

So, the importance of self-care is becoming an accepted idea.  The challenge for teachers though is to turn this idea into a practice.  Can teachers remember to practice self-care when they need it most?  Or, as I often see, does self-care fall down the list of priorities once the pressure comes on?  

When student’s final exams are coming up, or there is a whole school inspection, what could help teachers remember to look after themselves also?

This is where Mindfulness can be useful.  One aspect of Mindfulness literally means “to remember” or “to recollect” from the Pali term Sati.  A regular mindfulness practice can give us the capacity to stay aware of the events around us and of our own inner experience, even when things are busy or overwhelming. 

Simply becoming aware that we are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, and really acknowledging that, can open up the possibility for us to choose self-care.  Without this awareness of how we are really feeling, there is the tendency for teachers to try to overcome stress and overwhelm by simply working harder and faster.  And teachers typically work hard and fast already!

I find it interesting that you’re a meditation teacher and your wife is a yoga teacher.  What parallels have you found between your work?

The two practices of Yoga and Mindfulness have so much in common in that they both seem to have the development of awareness at their core. 

I began my practice by learning to meditate within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition back in 1999.  Amanda began this practice shortly after and continued with it for a few years.  During a meditation retreat she happened to take a morning Yoga class and found that this suited her even better, and this led towards her training to become a Yoga teacher.

Today we practice both Meditation and Yoga. I find that I spend more time in sitting meditation than in asana practice, while it’s the other way around for Amanda.  On a personal level, I’m very lucky to have a partner who is interested in these types of practices. There’s times when I struggle to practice consistently and seeing Amanda getting up early to do some Yoga practice is a great reminder.

Recently we have started to co-teach for retreat days at our Studio in Galway, and people seem to find that the two practices naturally complement each other.  The attitude that we bring towards the people we work with is also similar. We're trying to meet people where they are, supporting them as they develop a regular practice and building a community around what we do so that it can be more sustainable and enjoyable.

Why did you decide to pursue advanced study in mindfulness, and how did you benefit from the MSc program?

I had been teaching mindfulness to adults in the evenings for a number of years.  However, in my main role as a Secondary School teacher, I found that I was limited in the opportunities that I was getting to teach meditation to students.  I knew that it could be so helpful to them, once it was approached in the right way.  My school has a Catholic ethos and I’m not sure that Tibetan Buddhist training was the most skillful qualification to have! 

The influence of Secular Mindfulness was beginning to grow at that time.  With its Secular approach, research base, and more formal training pathway, it looked like this was something that could be integrated into the school curriculum more easily.

While the motivation to take my first Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class was to be able to teach students in school better, it ended up having a profound impact on me personally.  I found that the approach used was more immediately applicable to the everyday challenges in my life.

This led to my undertaking a three-year MSc program in Mindfulness-Based Approaches in Bangor in North Wales.  Having the support and encouragement of my school, and my Principal in particular, was critical in making this happen.

The MSc program allowed me to connect with fantastic teachers and mentors, as well as inspiring peers.  A good number of my colleagues on the course were also working in education, so over the three years we got to share the successes and challenges of trying to bring Mindfulness practice to young people and to school teachers.

The MSc was primarily a training in how to deliver the MBSR program.  We explored the research around mindfulness and explored how the practice can help people from a psychological perspective.  A lot of the time went into videoing our mindfulness teaching, as well as teaching in front of the group and getting feedback.  A favorite topic of mine was on understanding group dynamics, and I find that it’s a subject that I keep coming back to with each new group that I facilitate. 

Having the MSc does help in conveying that a certain level of training has been completed.  More importantly it gave me the confidence to step further into the role of being a mindfulness teacher.

Your thesis is focused on "The Implementation of Mindfulness-based Approaches in Irish Secondary Schools." Based on your research, do you have any advice for teachers and principals in other parts of the world about the most effective ways to implement mindfulness programs?

For the research, ten participants who deliver Mindfulness-based Approaches (MBA’s) in Secondary schools (students aged approximately 12 to 18 years) were interviewed. Their main recommendations included:

Locate MBA’s within Curriculum.  MBAs work best when they are located within the school curriculum, instead of being an extra “one-off” topic.  The most suitable subject was considered to be the Social and Emotional Learning subject area (SEL in the US, PSHE in most of the UK, SPHE in Ireland).  Repeated practice is needed for mindfulness to have an impact on student wellbeing, so it is important that time is made for full MBA’s to be delivered.

Whole Staff Education is important.  Mindfulness was often found to be poorly understood by staff.  It is therefore important to educate staff on the benefits of MBAs for their students, which can also potentially benefit the staff themselves.

In-School Facilitators are Ideal.  In-school facilitators are more effective than external facilitators.  Having a member or members of staff involved in delivering the program makes it easier to have continuity for students and also helps generate whole school support for MBA’s.

Personal Practice and Training Needed.  A number of participants in the study encountered teachers who did not have a personal mindfulness practice being asked to deliver MBA’s by their school Principals.  It is critical that MBA’s are taught by facilitators with a personal practice.  Otherwise it can come across as disingenuous to students.  In addition, substantial training should be provided for these facilitators, with an MBSR program being a good starting point.

[Update 8/18/19: Keith expands on these tips in a guest post on Successfully Implementing a Mindfulness Program at Your School]

What does ‘mindful teaching’ mean to you?

Teachers can have a huge impact on so many young people.  I always knew that on some level as a teacher.  But now, my eldest son has started Secondary school and hearing how he and his friends speak about their teachers really brings it home!

To me a mindful teacher is present with the topic being taught and with the students.  Even though the teacher may be examining a topic that he or she has taught countless times, it’s the first time for the student.  Connecting with the student’s experience can bring that sense of “beginners mind” to the teacher also.

Mindful teaching involves simple things.  A sense of curiosity and playfulness.  An interest in the students as they are in each class, as opposed to how they usually are, or how you expect them to be. 

Mindfulness practice brings awareness of our own inner experience.  It allows us to know when we are stressed or tired or grumpy, so we don’t take that out on the students.  And for the times when we do, the humility to apologize and stay connected with them.

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

When I am in the middle of teaching MBSR, I tend to sync my practice to the sequence of practices in the course.  I find this helps me to connect more easily with the experience of the course participants.  I am teaching MBSR at the moment, so this week my practice mainly involves doing a Body Scan Meditation, while next week I will move more towards a Mindful Movement practice.

Otherwise I tend to move between Sitting Meditation, Mindful Walking and Yoga, some mornings combining a few practices.  The combination that I am usually drawn to begins with some gentle yoga, and then once I feel that the body is more awake and open, I settle into a Sitting Meditation. 

Morning is the best time for me to practice, so getting to bed early the night before is really important.  Then I can get up early and have a nice practice before I wake the kids and move into the day.


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