Twenty years ago, “mindfulness” was nearly absent from conversations in the education world. Fast forward to 2020, and we’ve witnessed an incredible surge of interest in integrating mindfulness from teachers, administrators, policymakers and researchers. What accounts for this interest?
We suspect one key reason is that under the stress of expanding classrooms and standardized assessments, the teacher-student relationship has suffered. Sharing mindfulness helps reclaim the emotional poignancy of learning, which is, in the end an exchange between two people. The following excerpt from our book about teaching mindfulness to adolescents focuses on the power of self-disclosure by both teacher and student as they build and navigate an authentic relationship that facilitates deep learning.
Teaching mindfulness to adolescents is an art. It calls us to draw on all of our skills and faculties: our intelligence and creativity, our humanity, compassion, and humor. As educators, one of our primary tasks is to hone our interpersonal skills so that we can develop quality relationships of trust and mutual respect with the young folks we serve, with the purpose of fostering the growth of such relationships between and among students themselves.
Such relationships are deeply nourishing for us human beings and especially so for teens and adolescents who often lack the unconditional acceptance, love, and affection for which they long. The more solid our rapport, the more risks the kids will take and the deeper they can go in their practice and their healing.
There are myriad ways to build such relationships, from how we show up in the room to how we co-create a group with students, from creatively integrating art or music to playing games or dancing. Within this wide field of options, finding your own authentic voice and way of connecting is perhaps the most essential.
Young people have an incredibly sensitive internal meter for authenticity. As one high school teacher and mindfulness instructor noted in a conversation: “Teens can smell bullshit from anywhere.” If you’re putting on a front, trying to get their approval, or allowing your unresolved adolescent issues to take over, they’ll pick up on it and lose interest. They’ll either resist directly or avoid contact indirectly.
Bring your authentic self to the room. If you’re being real, they’ll recognize that and most likely be drawn to it. One of the most salient developmental features of this age is the process of psychological differentiation and identity formation. Peer pressure, social anxiety, and insecurity are daily visitors. In a consumerist society, where happiness and self-worth are equated with material success, in a world of disembodied, disconnected, stressed-out adults, young people are hungry for authenticity.
Given all of this, being at home in yourself is one of the most powerful things you can offer to teens. When you are authentic, it gives them permission to be themselves.
Develop your own language for teaching mindfulness that reflects your life experience and is appropriate to the context within which you teach. Incorporate what works from different sources (e.g., curricula, teachers, multimedia sources) while maintaining an uncompromising commitment to being yourself.
Powerful teaching is the result of finding and refining our own unique voice and style. While you’re teaching, pay attention to moments where you feel natural, moments where your physical posture and self-expression are in sync in such a way that you feel completely yourself. Take special note of those moments, letting the feeling of naturalness sink in. Use the wholehearted awareness of mindfulness practice to imprint that feeling in your consciousness so it becomes a reference point for your teaching.
Authenticity is the language, the currency for working with adolescents. In this context, your ability to be real and vulnerable with others is a strength. Many educators find it helpful to share some of their own story early in the process of getting to know a class, often during the first session. Dave Smith, meditation teacher and educator, will give kids a 5-minute biography. “I tell them a little about my life. ‘When I was your age, I had such-and-such trauma. I hated the world, hated my life, my parents…’ They’re like, ‘Me, too.’ If you’ve been through something real, you can use that to build trust.”
By sharing openly, the facilitator models strength through vulnerability, opens the door to a genuine relationship, and invites the kids to a deeper level of honesty. Self-disclosing can have a ripple effect. When done well, sharing your personal experience can build trust and safety and create an environment in which others are willing to take risks.
There are many creative ways to invite students to express themselves authentically. When we’ve done our job well, created the proper conditions of safety and trust and given teens permission to be real, they have the capacity to take enormous emotional risks. Many educators (ourselves included) feel regularly inspired by their raw authenticity, their willingness to share openly and unabashedly. Morris Ervin recounts the transformation of one very quiet student, a young man whose brother had been killed by the police. He rarely said a word in high school. At the talent show at the end of Morris’ three month mentoring program, he was dancing and reciting poetry on stage, in front of the whole school.
Creating the conditions for this kind of open sharing requires a level of vulnerability that a lot of adults don’t feel comfortable with in general, let alone with teens and adolescents. It requires walking a fine line between sharing openly and maintaining appropriate boundaries. The danger of sharing too much is that we take center stage, make the relationship about our own needs, or collapse the differentiation of roles into becoming friends. On the other hand, if we don’t share any of our vulnerability and hold the role too rigidly or opaquely, we limit the possibilities for learning and connection.
While powerful, self-disclosure must be done consciously and intention- ally, with an awareness of how it will serve. Different levels of self-disclosure are appropriate for different environments. Educators, mental health professionals, and mentors are trained to disclose personal life experiences carefully, with the primary aim always to serve the students rather than our own interests. We don’t self-disclose because we want to get something off our chest or to seek attention from adolescents.
Strategic disclosure builds connection and models a fluid, dynamic relationship to power. By sharing personally, we can demonstrate that we’re not holding too tightly to the authority of our role. (At the same time, this can be overused as a way of disavowing the power we do hold—and need to hold to—in our role.) If you feel drawn to disclose something personal, check your intention. Are you doing it because it will benefit the youth? Or are you doing this to get approval, be liked, or mask fear? As soon as the intention shifts to serving our own ends rather than the youth, disclosing may be counterproductive.
This post was adapted from the forthcoming book Teaching Mindfulness to Empower Adolescents by Matthew Brensilver, JoAnna Hardy, and Oren Jay Sofer (W. W. Norton, March 2020).
Matthew Brensilver, PhD, teaches meditation at Spirit Rock Meditation Center and UCLA. JoAnna Hardy teaches meditation to young people, offers retreats nationally, and works to build multicultural community with a focus on social and racial justice. Oren Jay Sofer, a meditation teacher, author, and communication trainer, leads retreats and workshops nationally.