Catharine Hannay is the creator and editor of MindfulTeachers.org, which focuses on mindfulness, compassion, social-emotional learning, and teacher self-care. Catharine taught ESOL for twenty years, including eighteen months in Osaka, Japan, and a dozen years at Georgetown University’s Center for Language Education and Development in Washington, DC.
Catherine is unique in that she is selfless in her approach to helping teachers and students. Instead of promoting herself and her organization, she promotes the work of others who she feels are dedicated to keeping education focused on the well-being of the human beings that teach and learn in classrooms all over the world each day.
Her website is a tremendous resource for anyone who is interested in deepening their understanding of mindfulness in education; but more than that it’s a testament to keeping teaching a path with heart. Catharine’s an inspirational educator dedicated to doing the right thing for the right reasons. Enough said.
I’m truly excited and honored to have Catharine as my first guest for a series of interviews that I’ll be doing over the next year.
Pete: What got you interested in mindfulness in education, and why did you decide to start your website?
Catharine: I’ve always loved learning, and I’ve always loved teaching, but I haven’t always loved school, either as a student or a teacher. Instead of an enjoyable exchange of information and ideas, it can feel like we’re caught on a fast-moving treadmill trying to catch flaming torches.
Mindfulness provides a way to pause in the midst of the craziness, an alternative to running and juggling faster and faster while feeling like we can never catch up. I’ve found it tremendously helpful and wanted to share what I learned with fellow teachers.
Developing MindfulTeachers.org has been an amazing experience. I’ve been contacted by readers not only from the U.S. and Canada, but also from England, Ireland, Scotland, Australia, South Africa, Romania, and Zambia. I’ve discovered that teachers and students all over the world face similar challenges, and the same basic mindfulness practices can benefit people of any age and any culture.
Pete: Teachers are facing many challenges: higher standards, growing workloads, a never ending stream of mandates, new technology, changing demographics, and increased resource scarcity, to name a few. What advice would you give to a teacher who is becoming discouraged, or is just plain stressed out and tired?
Catharine: 1. Don’t throw good time after bad.
If you participate in a frustrating hour-long meeting, then vent about it for half an hour with one of your colleagues, then stew about it for half an hour on your commute home, then vent to your spouse about it for an hour over dinner, then spend the rest of the evening stewing about it again… You’ve just turned a frustrating hour-long experience into a frustrating 5- or 6-hour experience. You probably can’t avoid the meeting, but you can choose not to let it ruin the rest of your day.
2. Take a lunch break.
I know too many teachers who work straight through the lunch period without eating anything, and are ready to fall over by 3 pm. Even on the craziest days, you can find five minutes to eat half a sandwich at lunch time, then another five minutes to eat the rest of your sandwich after school. This is also a good way to fit in a quick mindfulness practice; while eating, just eat. Taking a few minutes to clear your head will help you better focus on whatever comes next.
3. Unplug completely.
No work. No texts. No phone calls. No internet or TV.
At least half an hour a day, and at least half a day a week. Even (especially) at the busiest times of the year.
4. Practice compassion, toward others and toward yourself.
Everyone’s under a tremendous amount of pressure; be as kind as possible toward your students and your colleagues, and don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t always live up to your ideals.
In a Huffington Post essay, Peter Greene points to the biggest challenge of teaching: “There is never enough time. There are never enough resources. There is never enough you… You have to make some hard, conscious decisions. What is it that I know I should be doing that I am not going to do?”
Of course you should always do your best, but your best is never going to be perfect. Don’t blame yourself for factors you can’t control.
Pete: Teachers do so much of their work in isolation. Some are so busy that they eat lunch in their rooms and rarely see their colleagues. How do you feel about teachers banding together to break through this isolation and support each other?
Catharine: Well, following up on the last question, kudos for eating lunch. And don’t feel bad about occasionally needing some time alone. After spending the whole day in a room full of students, you may be required to participate in faculty meetings, professional development sessions, field trips, coaching, or parent-teacher conferences. It can be exhausting to be “on” all the time, and having a bit of solitude in the middle of the day can help you recharge.
That said, there are enormous benefits to making connections with colleagues. At Georgetown, I participated in a “language teaching circle.” The Arabic professors helped me understand the linguistic and cultural background of my Saudi and Emirati students. I learned about great new activities from professors of Chinese, Italian, and Catalan. And observing a discussion among some of the French instructors made me rethink how I teach American culture: especially in a country with so many immigrants, when we talk about what “we” do in “our” country, who’s included in “we”?
It doesn’t need to be anything formal. Is there someone you could have lunch with once a week, or even once a month? Could you chat for a few minutes after your last class of the day? You never know where this could lead: it’s how I got to know some of my closest friends, not to mention my husband!
Of course, not everyone’s going to become your best buddy (or spouse), but these types of informal exchanges are a great way to let off steam, brainstorm how to deal with challenges, and learn about new materials and activities.
Don’t be afraid to take the initiative, and don’t be offended if someone turns you down—everyone else is extremely busy, too. Just try again with someone else. There are probably several people at your school who would welcome a chance to chat and share ideas.
Pete: In your experience, what role does the ‘self’ of the teacher play in the success of their students, and how is this connected to mindfulness?
Catharine: To a certain extent, bringing our ‘selves’ into the classroom is a matter of becoming more conscious of something that happens automatically. We all have preferences and interests and a unique take on the world, and that can’t help but seep into our teaching.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we just let it all hang out. There’s a lot of personal information that isn’t appropriate to share with our students, and we have concerns they can’t necessarily relate to, especially if they’re much younger than we are. It’s important to make choices about how open to be, based on what’s most beneficial to a particular group of students.
Mindfulness helps us stay calm and present to whatever is happening right now, rather than getting caught up in projections about what might or should be happening. This enables us to bring our best selves into the classroom, which can only benefit our students.
Pete: What professional development programs or other resources do you know of that focus on cultivating the ‘self’ of the teacher?
Catharine: The Garrison Institute has a database of U.S. and Canadian K-12 Contemplative Education Programs for students and teachers:
There are also some great books on contemplative teaching and bringing our authentic selves into the classroom. In addition to your book A Path with Heart, I’d recommend Teaching: The Sacred Art by Rev. Jane E. Vennard, and The Courage to Teach by Dr. Parker J. Palmer.
I have reviews of these books at www.mindfulteachers.org/p/recommended-books.html. Your readers might also be interested in the mindfulness activities for students and teachers (http://www.mindfulteachers.org/p/free-resources-and-lesson-plans.html), as well as the resources on teacher self-care (http://www.mindfulteachers.org/p/mindful-but-busy-teachers.html).
It’s important for teachers to remember that taking care of ourselves isn’t self-indulgent. It’s a conscious strategy to become calmer and more energetic so we can better meet the needs of our students.