One minute that changes school (and more)

Teacher with pupils in circle
@Getty Images

Breathe in and count to three. Notice how your breath flows in, then out. Count to five as you exhale. Little mindfulness exercises like this are supposed to help students – and teachers – relieve some of the pressure. The thing is, hands-on experience in German schools shows that when people feel happy, they are better able to learn and teach.

One student overslept and is still drenched in sweat because he had to run for the school bus today. Another received a message from the cute boy in her parallel class just before the lesson started and now can’t think about anything else. A third is really nervous because there’s an important test next period. The teacher, who has the curriculum going around her head and is focused on delivering content, makes an immediate start and quickly gets frustrated. “You need to concentrate better,” she says. “Were you even listening to me?” “Why haven’t you got your exercise books out yet?” – Scenes like this occur in German classrooms on a daily basis. The lockdowns and school closures due to the pandemic, it seems, have heightened the pressure on schools even further – and along with that the students’ fear of failure.

Looking at needs

But more and more teachers are trying to concentrate on people’s needs in school. For example they start the lesson with a moment of silence – this encourages children and young people to focus on their breathing, directs them to ask themselves how they are feeling and what they need right now, and gives them the opportunity to find motivational words so they can generate their own support from within. “Mindfulness in the classroom” is the theme that’s been occupying schools in English-speaking countries for some time now, and which first arrived in Germany around ten years ago.

Herzbeschirmt to get through the school day

For instance Dr Selma Polat-Menke – a German and Religious Studies teacher at a Gymnasium in Lüneburg – starts each lesson at her school with this kind of motivation, and also provides a mindfulness club for students with an interest. “On one hand it’s about metacognitive self-awareness: what’s going on in my body right now? What mood am I in? What thoughts am I having? But on the other hand it’s also about how as a young person I deal with my poor attention span, for example, or the cycle of repetitive thoughts in which I’m trapped,” she explains. She compares the thoughts with things like clouds, which are allowed to come and go away again. And she encourages the young people to speak to themselves as they would to a best friend, to take good care of themselves and cheer themselves up.

Furthermore Selma Polat-Menke, who has a PhD in Mysticism and studied the meditation technique known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) as well as completing a course in Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC), is involved in the Herzbeschirmt programme, which she developed herself with the involvement of primary schoolchildren, trainee teachers, senior members of their field and other influencers – and she is also responsible for training these people.

“Learning mindfully” as a school subject

Teacher Alexandra Andersen has introduced a special subject for this work at her Gymnasium in Würzburg, which replaces the previous “Meta-learning”. She had the idea whilst working in a student-teacher liaison role, which started ten years ago: “At the time there were lots of difficulties for our students. There was talk of bullying, some of the issues that affected the contact between children and young people involved school-related problems – pressure to perform and fear of teachers. Students came to me with their problems and that initiated dialogue with parents, colleagues and the leadership team, which I couldn’t cope with,” remembers the religion teacher from Bavaria, who in that role was already well versed with spirituality, contemplation and calmness. That inspired her to look at these topics from a new angle – first by learning about non-violent communication, then becoming involved in Tibetan yoga, and finally becoming qualified in MBSR.

Today Alexandra Andersen gives her students and her colleagues a mindfulness toolkit they can use in difficult situations. All fifth-grade children (aged 11) at the school now have compulsory tuition in the new subject “Mindful learning” for six months. Every week an exercise is introduced, which the students then practise daily under the supervision of a member of staff trained by Alexandra Andersen. In the second half of fifth grade and the following year there is provision for continued learning as an option for anyone interested.

Mindfulness as a core subject? Of course not everyone at the school in Würzburg is quite so enthusiastic. “For many colleagues I’m still the ‘woman with the singing bowl’, and of course there are people who say ‘I haven’t noticed that my class has become more attentive’,” admits Alexandra Andersen. Nevertheless over the past four years she has managed to convince around a quarter of the staff at her school to take part in her training and lead mindfulness exercises in the fifth and sixth grades. There are also regularly students who don’t wish to take part in her exercises and prefer to use the time for things like looking out of the window, she says.

However, one of these young people who refused to sit in a circle with the others for half a year later spoke to her out of the blue to tell her about an important football match where the mindfulness exercise helped to calm their nerves. “Maybe some of them can’t relate to it in class yet. But maybe at some point there will come a time when the seed takes root,” says the teacher.

Better school, better world?

But those are the exceptions, agrees Selma Polat-Menke. Generally the children take advantage of the mindfulness exercises. They report that the meditations help them to become calmer, that they feel ready for class afterwards. The parents are usually enthusiastic too. And there are also plenty of colleagues who profit just as much from the input. “If the teachers themselves become more mindful and bring this mental state into class with them, they will also be more in touch with how they feel and what they need. Maybe they sometimes just need to take a deep breath and spend a moment looking at the blossom on a tree outside the window, buoying them up so they’re ready to give their full attention to the class again,” explains Selma Polat-Menke.

The positive effects of mindfulness in the classroom have now been scientifically proven. For Selma Polat-Menke that’s just the start though: “If I treat myself with kindness, I can also treat others with kindness. That’s effective in the classroom, staffroom, headship team. Imagine if every conference began with a minute of silence!” Like her, Alexandra Andersen – who incidentally also offers training for staff – is even convinced that much more depends on this work, in fact everything: “It has an effect on how the students behave towards each other, it has an impact on everybody’s health, it changes the school, society and – drastic though it may seem – ultimately the whole world. You see, if we live mindfully there’s a chance that following generations will still be able to live on this planet. And if not, then it won’t happen.”

Author: Janna Degener-Storr

Translation by: Jo Beckett



Alexandra Andersen: Achtsamkeit im Unterricht - Konzentration, Entspannung und Wahrnehmung trainieren: Buch mit Kopiervorlagen und Audio-Material. 2020.