Nobody really enjoys waiting. Whether it’s the frustration that comes from being stuck in traffic or the boredom of listening to the clock tick as you wait for the staff meeting to begin, waiting is always an uncomfortable feeling.
But for many teachers – being the multi-tasking extraordinaires that we are – a delay in action can be more than just frustrating; it can be mentally and emotionally distressing.
After all, if you’re a person who has an enormity of things to get done in a day, then waiting time is wasted time. It’s "dead" time.
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And yet, if we completely erased this experience of "dead time", where would we be?
Why are we waiting?
Alas, I can answer this one myself. Thinking back to the "super teacher" phase of my career, when work was all that mattered and every moment of my life was a busy one, I felt exhausted, ineffective and utterly miserable.
Somewhere amidst the drive for productivity, I had unwittingly developed a fear of stillness, silence and, more than anything, my own thoughts.
I was constantly in motion, but I certainly wasn’t productive. I was too empty for that.
The thing is, while we might not always like these moments of pause, we absolutely need them. Just as we need water, food, sleep and air, our minds need time to be empty.
It’s how we recharge so that we can perform well at work. It’s how we learn to accept and manage our own thoughts and feelings. It’s how we find peace and happiness in ordinary day-to-day life.
And, of course, it’s how we develop patience – that award-winning virtue that stops us from driving into people at roundabouts, eating a chocolate bar 10 minutes before dinner or losing our tempers’ when briefing is late to start again. Isn’t this what emotional resilience is all about?
If we use waiting time to recharge, then that time is anything but "dead".
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So how do we get to a point where we can recognise this? How do we swap those feelings of frustration, boredom and irritation for acceptance and serenity?
For me, the answer was mindfulness: a means of deliberately focusing your attention and grounding yourself in the present moment.
Changing schools, moving to an environment that discouraged the worst of my workaholic tendencies, rather than enabling them, also helped. It was thanks to this move that I had the time and mental capacity to get to grips with mindfulness and to discover that seemingly uncomfortable experiences, such as waiting, could be reframed as opportunities for brain rest. In this world, moments of stillness, silence and non-purposeful activity are to be cherished. Being "unbusy" must be as highly valued as being busy.
How to make the most of waiting
The next time you find yourself waiting – for the dentist; a meeting; the end of an advert break – follow these steps to try the method for yourself.
Resist the urge to automatically pick up your phone and start checking emails or watching funny pet videos.
Notice any feelings or emotions you are experiencing (boredom, frustration, an urge to pick up your phone) and get curious instead. Ask yourself: where in my body do I feel this emotion? How would I describe the sensations that accompany this feeling — are they sharp or soft, constant or intermittent, pulsing or aching? Stick with these sensations, observing them with acceptance. If this is too uncomfortable, jump to step three.
Take your attention to your breath, or perhaps to the sounds in the room, or to the feel of your feet on the floor — whatever works for you — and just focus on this one thing. If thoughts barge in, notice and accept that your attention has drifted, and then take it back to where you were before.
Jo Steer is a teacher and experienced leader of special educational needs and disability interventions, as well as wellbeing strategies