With her warm and welcoming smile, Rebecca Kneedler exudes a joy and friendliness that may be disconcerting at first to those more accustomed to the abrupt practicality of many academics at the University of Virginia. She began her journey into contemplative practices a few years ago with her collaboration with Maria Tussi Kluge in the planning of a series of 2010 sessions with Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Virginia. Through this experience and her further readings on the subject, Dr. Kneedler begin to find explicit ways to integrate these approaches into the teacher training course she teaches in the Curry School of Education. “My early years as a researcher in Special Education drew me to techniques that empowered the student to regulate her or his attention, such as self monitoring, as opposed to techniques that are imposed on students externally. So I was extremely receptive to the power of mindfulness and other self-regulation practices that we could teach children in the K12 classrooms. More directly, I became committed to bringing these approaches to our university students who are preparing to be teachers. We have extremely smart, mostly female young women who want to do really good things in public education and to make a difference in children’s lives. However, we don’t give them the personal tools to understand and take care of themselves first and, as a result, we know that many new teachers personalize students’ failures and burn out from the stress of this profession.”
“We began to offer yoga and mindfulness sessions to Curry students and faculty on a volunteer basis in 2010, and the response has been terrific. In addition, I have added a greater emphasis on mindfulness practice in my online course on Characteristics of Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders. We are seeing in public schools that these approaches are really working with children – and especially with children who come from troubled backgrounds of poverty and chaos. We tell them to pay attention, to sit still, to be ready to learn – but we don’t help them cultivate the tools to do those things. I teach a variety of approaches that include behavioral techniques such as reinforcement, but I also promote the techniques of contemplation to create a classroom of peace, safety, and learning. “ Dr. Kneedler provides video presentations with such scholars as Mark Greenberg and uses online discussion boards to explore students’ reactions to the videos and readings.
In order to expand contemplative approaches in teacher preparation at Curry, Dr. Kneedler worked with her colleagues to recruit a leader in the field – Dr. Patricia Jennings who will be joining Curry in 2014. “The addition of Tish Jennings will bring a sustained, integral emphasis on mindfulness practices to our teacher preparation program. Now all Curry students in the Elementary and Special Education programs will have the benefit of Dr. Jennings’ expertise in their courses and clinical work. Our students are high achievers; they are used to doing very well in school. But when they go into the classroom, they will encounter students who don’t do well, and what concerns me most is they will begin to judge themselves as inadequate teachers and the stress of this environment may cause them to be reactive and less reflective. When I was a classroom teacher, I was never really present because I couldn’t stop thinking about what I was supposed to do next and was I doing it correctly.”
Those outside the Curry School also notice the caliber of Dr. Kneedler’s work as well; the Z Society – part of the unique tradition of secret societies at the University of Virginia – recently honored her with their 2013 Distinguished Faculty Award for her positive impact on the faculty and students during her 25 years as a Curry administrator. Even in receiving this award, however, Dr.Kneedler remains characteristically humble, explaining that when she went to pick up her award box, “I expected there to be one hundred boxes for all the deserving faculty. I couldn’t believe the award was only for me.”