Teachers trained on mind-body connection
Ecker Hill Middle School and Weilenmann School of Discovery in pilot program
When students are shouting out of turn and cannot keep their pockets on their seats, many teachers are tempted to yell, “Quiet down!” Instead, Randi Jo Taurel and Rebecca Brenner recommend ringing a bell softly.
This method, along with other techniques, is what Taurel and Brenner, local yoga and mindfulness instructors, call mindful teaching, and they are educating teachers about it at Ecker Hill Middle School and Weilenmann School of Discovery. This school year, 12 teachers and two counselors at Ecker Hill and six teachers at Weilenmann are participating in a 12-week online training program.
Taurel and Brenner have taught mindfulness in the Park City School District for several years, and they define it using professor of medicine emeritus Jon Kabat-Zinn’s words, “Awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”
The techniques learned through the online courses and weekly meetings with Taurel and Brenner are simple and quick, such as ringing a bell and waiting until every child raises their hand at the end of the ring, or doing a guided body scan to individually focus on separate parts of the body.
“It’s something where they can take a short time, find their breath and then begin with a more focused and present feeling,” Taurel said. “It’s for the teachers and the students. They can begin together.”
These moments are built around the idea of cultivating presence and awareness in the kids’ bodies and minds. Then, students are better able to access the learning center in their pre-frontal cortex, Brenner said.
“When we don’t learn that skill, we’ll just have an emotion and it spills out everywhere. Kids get in trouble and teachers react,” she said. “(Instead), let’s take a few mindful breaths, let’s find our mindful bodies and let’s work with that frustration in a skillful way.”
The program was made possible by a $20,000 grant given to Ecker Hill from the Park City Education Foundation (PCEF) and a $15,000 donation from Weilenmann. Last year, the foundation funded mindfulness workshops for teachers and counselors grades K-12 and for students at Ecker Hill due to the deaths of two students at Treasure Mountain Junior High School, said Jen Billow, associate director of the foundation. Now, the organization is focusing on training teachers, who can in turn train students.
“The hope, as we watch this and look at it, is that the teachers are trained and they can incorporate some of these practices in their classrooms,” she said. “That way we will be able to spread that mindfulness more quickly and also over a bigger audience.”
Ecker Hill was chosen as the pilot school because middle school is often a “tough time” for students, Billow said.
Taurel and Brenner ultimately hope to receive funding to train every teacher, counselor and staff member in the district over the next three to five years. Members of the Park City Board of Education and staff and faculty within the district have expressed interest in supporting the training.
“Everyone is excited and on-board,” Brenner said. “Everyone just says, ‘Yes, how can we support you?’”
The PCEF and the school district have been focusing on student wellness over the past year, and Billow said that is reflective of the community in general.
“For most of our 30 years, our foundation focus has been pretty academic, things that would advance academic achievements for students,” she said. But, the foundation is now learning that if students do not have their basic needs met or they are worried about things they can’t control, students cannot learn. “And we’re here to help students learn,” she said.
Taurel and Brenner will be collecting data throughout the program from teachers and students evaluating stress and anxiety levels before, during and after. Both believe the training will move beyond the classroom, though.
“For me, it’s for our community,” Brenner said. “It’s cultivating appreciation, education, understanding and the tools for well-being in our community.”
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The Park City Board of Education is on track to place a bond on the ballot this fall to improve district facilities. The top priorities would be to put ninth grade in the high school, eighth grade in the middle school and to augment preschool offerings by expanding elementary schools.