By Daun Yorke
One of the things I love the most about my job as a principal is getting into classrooms and observing teaching and learning happening. One thing I know for sure is that the quality of interactions between teacher and students has a direct impact on student engagement. It does not matter what subject students are learning or what concept is being covered, if a positive relationship has been built, this can help shift the learning in the right direction.
When a teacher stands at the classroom door at the start of a lesson and connects to individual students as they cross the threshold, it can make a difference in the learning that proceeds. Through words, gestures and identifying students by name, a teacher’s individual welcome can be transformational. By using gestures and voice modulation, the welcome can be understood as, “I care about you.” Students move from the outside corridor where they may have been nameless in a crowd, into a venue where they are recognized as individuals and community members. A level of accountability comes with this recognition too, (which may also help explain increased engagement).
The classroom is a sacred space for learning and every teacher brings rituals into that space. For some, the class may start with the recognition ritual and may lead directly into getting down to work. For others, the ritual may have additional moving parts. Recently on a quick trip through classrooms, I stopped to talk to several language teachers who had erected small shrines at the front of their classrooms that included bells or drums, employed to mark transitions in lessons or accompany Chinese poetry readings. The teachers reported that students, no matter what the age, looked forward to their turn to ring the bell or strike the drum at the transition time.
In a music classroom, I watched a boisterous group of middle school students, sitting with eyes closed, moving through breathing exercises and mindfulness routines. After the lesson, I talked to the teacher about this sudden transformation of energy from PHE (Physical and Health Education) to Music class that students were experiencing, and he talked about supporting (students) to leave that fast-paced kinesthetic energy outside. I was reminded of the Japanese Noren, a shoulder-height curtain with a vertical slit down the middle, hung in doorways to brush off dirt or bad air from shoulders as people pass from one room to the next. The mindfulness routine was a metaphorical Noren, brushing off a transition in the student’s day.
Walking into an MYP Language Acquisition classroom, I listened as the teacher took students through a body scan to close an impactful lesson with a major summative assessment task. She focused attention on parts of the body where students carried tension. The teacher wished for the students to release that stress (from their shoulders or jaws or other parts of their bodies where tension lived,) before moving out into the hallway and off to their next class. I was excited about what I witnessed and the conversations that I was having with teachers about the intentional work they were doing, fostering affective skills through modeling.
Years ago, when working as a Diploma Programme Coordinator at a selective school, I was concerned about student stress as seniors prepared for terminal examinations and competed for places in name-brand universities. The tension that I witnessed around exam time was palpable. My concern led me to research and my research led me to Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, MBSR. (Kabat-Zinn 32)
I found out that to help my students, I needed to work on myself first. Years later, I am still working on bringing internal calm, through focusing on the breath. I am delighted with the high level of awareness that I see in teachers that I work with. It seems that something that was revolutionary in schools, eight or nine years ago, is common practice with millennial teachers, native to a hyper-connected, digital world.
Not long ago, I received a Facebook message from a student who I had taught a decade ago in a place far away. The message came out of the blue and it went like this: “In my yoga class today, my instructor asked us to set an intention and send out gratitude to a teacher that impacted our lives. I immediately thought of you.”
The message touched my heart and reminded me of teachers who make a difference every day by welcoming students in from the corridor; those who make the nameless named. It reminded me, too, of the importance of rituals where bells ring, drums beat and students are given time to focus on their own heartbeats and their breath, moving in and out. The student went on to say: “It wasn’t the lessons you taught that I remember most but after all these years, I remember the way you recognized each one of us. Thank you, teacher.”
Kabat- Zinn, John. Full Catastrophe Living (Revised Edition): Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. Bantam Books, 2013
Xi’an Liangjiatan International School, China
IBEN Lead Educator, Asia Pacific Region
EdD Student, Northeastern University