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Weekend read: 'Until this point I had made it my mission to never actually learn what mindfulness was'

One cynical hack's journey into the world of school mindfulness

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One cynical hack's journey into the world of school mindfulness

I am lying on a foam mat, eyes closed, gingerly massaging my inner thigh, wondering to myself how I’d got here: how on earth had I found myself doing yoga on the decidedly chilly floor of a dance studio in a secondary school in Staines?

To say I was out of my comfort zone would be an understatement. The first 15 minutes on the yoga mat had stretched muscles that I’d completely forgotten about (the second 15 minutes would see me discover tendons I had never even knew existed).

Before this chilly Tuesday morning in November, karmic stretching would have been very, very low down on the personal to-do list of this 39-year-old overweight hack – probably at about the same level as jumping on a flight to Turkey, smuggling myself across the border and taking up arms against Isis.

So what had let me to Magna Carta school and my morning of meditation? Not being fired is probably the best answer.

Four days earlier, the editor of this here organ – my boss, Ann Mroz – had sat down next to me and issued the following instruction: “Ed, you are the grumpiest man in this newsroom. I’ve decided to send you on some mindfulness training in a school to see if it changes you.”

(I have to admit that there was probably some truth in the description: a few years ago, one newsdesk intern had described me as “the grumpiest person” she had “ever met”.)

“Yes chief,” I said, secretly hoping that this was one of those ideas that would vanish as quickly as it had been imagined.

The good and the fad

Of course, the boss’s ideas never actually disappear – they invariably turn into real *things*.

As such I wasn’t surprised that within hours I had received an email from an enthusiastic Clare Erasmus, head of media and director of mental health and wellbeing at the Magna Carta school in Staines, who was setting me up with a morning’s mindfulness activities and pretty much promising that my life would never be the same again.

Ann’s idea had definitely now become a *thing* – and I wasn’t too happy about it.

I’ll be honest, I had, until this point in my life, kind of made it a personal mission to never actually learn what mindfulness was. I’ve been an education hack for a decade and pride myself on being able to smell a fad at a million paces. Everything I knew about mindfulness could be summed up in a short staccato sentence: Something to do with meditation, something to do with Sir Anthony Seldon and something to do with Goldie Hawn. That was about the size of it.

As such, it had found a home in my head – alongside character education, resilience and learning styles – in a dusty file labelled “educational bollocks”.

So it was safe to say that I had some catching up to do if I was going to fully embrace my inner karma in the unlikely setting of a Staines secondary school. Where to start? Where else? Wikipedia.

“Mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one's attention to experiences occurring in the present moment, which can be developed through the practice of meditation and other training.

“In Buddhist teachings, mindfulness is utilised to develop self-knowledge and wisdom that gradually lead to what is described as enlightenment or the complete freedom from suffering.”

So far, so many prejudices confirmed. Mindfulness wasn’t for me: I’d made my career – thrived, even – in the shouty, sweary, thoroughly un-enlightened world of newsrooms – and the associated pub culture that followed. This was my natural territory: this was where I felt at home.

And then it got worse. I started reading about Goldie Hawn’s contribution to the mindfulness cause.

Back to Wikipedia: “MindUP, a classroom-based program spearheaded by Ms Hawn’s Goldie Hawn Foundation, teaches students to self-regulate behaviour and mindfully engage in focused concentration required for academic success.”

You can imagine what went through my head when I discovered that the MindUp programme was the very scheme of work that had been adopted by the school I was about to visit.

Calm before the storm

It was with some surprise, therefore, that I found myself at 8:40 on a Tuesday morning sitting at the back of a Year 8 Magna Carta tutor group watching 30 teenagers pretty much self-settle to the hum of what I can only assume you would call a meditation bell. Almost all the students dipped their heads; almost all appeared to take a minute out of their frantic mornings. Only one child was wilfully disruptive.

Imagine my further surprise when a decent chunk of the class turned their attention without “banter” to their “mindfulness colouring-in”.

Looking for answers, I turned to the students themselves. Most thought the “mindfulness bell” was “alright”. Others were more enthusiastic, hinting at the busy-ness of their lives both in school and out, and that it seemed, in a round-about way, quite nice to get the day started with a spot of silence. None were embarrassed by the colouring-in.

One student remarked that the lesson that would follow – the first period – would probably get off to a better start than would have been the case if it hadn’t been proceeded by these moments of calm.

At the end of the tutor period, there was another ding of the bell, another short burst of quiet contemplation, and then the normal hustle-and-bustle resumed; the kids were on their way to first period. Buddhist monks, these were not, but by the same measure, they were well-behaved teenagers going about their daily business who didn’t think it odd to sit still – or even colour in – in the name of zen.

To be clear, Magna Carta school is notable, at first glance, only for its ordinariness. Below the national average for free school meals (FSM); rated "good", but not "outstanding", by Ofsted; housed in remarkably unremarkable post-war buildings… This is most certainly no Wellington College, nor is it a “comprehensive” catering for the liberal metropolitan elite of Hampstead – or a shiny new academy in inner-city Hackney.

As with much of the English education system, this is an unassuming, good school catering for normal kids and their normal parents.  

The rule of (Goldie's) law

On to the first lesson with Ms Erasmus: a media studies lesson for Year 9. All very normal, apart from the meditation bell making another appearance at the start, and at the end.

While the class got on with their animation assessment, I had a chat with the school’s understated head of PSHE and RE, Rob Banthorpe, who happened to be passing by (nice bit of karmic coincidence) – it’s his department who delivers Goldie’s curriculum in PSHE lessons.

He explained to me that mindfulness had originally arrived at Magna Carta aimed not at the kids at all – but at the teachers. Recognising that workload and teacher stress levels were rocketing, the school’s leadership and Ms Erasmus had introduced mindfulness to the staffroom to help teachers, well, chill out. It was only after the success of this programme – many of the staffroom grumblers had been converted – that the decision was taken to roll out the programme to the student body.

But the pressing question remains – does it work? And is it worthwhile?

“When I was at school it was a simpler time,” my new friend, Mr Banthorpe, observed. “There was less pressure, especially from the internet and from social media. Mindfulness is a good way of helping our students deal with this pressure.”

And with that, I was whisked away to my first ever session of yoga – more specifically, Cathy Jones’s intervention yoga class.

So this was how I found myself jacket-less, tie-less, sock-less and shoe-less, surrounded by (not exclusively) teenage girls who had been recommended the class to deal with stress. I’ve been sent on a lot of “jobs” for a lot of newspapers in my time. This was one of the weirdest.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t hate it as much as I expected. The calm was nice. The fact that I couldn’t check my phone for nearly an hour was relaxing – although I did spend a large chunk of the 60 minutes meditating on how this session would go down on Twitter.

The exercise was good – exercise (unless it brings on a coronary) is always good – and the peace and quiet was terrific. I very much liked Ms Jones – who spends most of her time as a “normal” English teacher – and she led her class, who had a wide range of yoga experiences, expertly. I fully expected to have pulled several muscles by the end of the session. None were found.

Time to chill

But this wasn’t really about me. It was about the kids. There is a mental health crisis in our schools driven on by social media pressures that show no signs of abating.

Did my classmates think the yoga made a difference? Apart from one – who was asked as she sped out of the studio if she’d be back and replied “Sorry, not for me” – the answer seemed to be a resounding yes.

“It really helps me deal with my stress,” said one 14-year-old. “I’m a stressy person and doing yoga helps me deal with it.”

Pretty much all my classmates were in the room because they were had issues with “stress” – either because of school life, home-life, or both. All – apart from the early escapee – thought that the yoga and mindfulness helps them cope – and most seemed enthused by the idea of continuing with yoga as the continued with their studies.

Do they worry about what their counterparts think about it? Not one bit, it would seem.

And then they were off, absorbed into the very normal buzz of a very normal lunch break at a very normal secondary, in a very normal part of England.

As I jumped on the train to London an hour later, it was the comments from the grounded head of PSHE that kept playing through my head. This is a generation of kids who are effectively guinea pigs in a global digital experiment. Never before has a generation been totally submerged in the digital and social media worlds from the very moment of birth. The results of this experiment on the individual and collective global psyche are yet to be understood. As such, it seems to me that giving the kids a few minutes out of every day for silent contemplation is probably the least we could do. Call it mindfulness, if you like. It’s just a label, I reckon.

And what about me? Have I found my inner zen? Truth be told, within a few minutes of arriving back in the Tes newsroom that afternoon, I was angrily swearing at my computer. Huge thanks to Claire, Cathy, Rob and the rest of the mindfulness gang at the Magna Carta school for doing their best to develop my karma – however, I fear that might be a lost cause. 

But I did get a timely reminder that taking a few minutes out of every day just to chill is a good thing, and for that I am very grateful.

Ed Dorrell is the head of content at Tes

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