Speaking Their Language: The Power of Contemplative Practices in the University Classroom
Over the course of her 18 years in the University of Virginia’s Spanish department and particularly in her primary role of training graduate student teachers in the Ph.D. program, Emily Scida had seen plenty of stress among her student population. Yet while she found extensive research on the effects of incorporating mindfulness practices among the K-12 teacher population, very little attention had been paid to graduate students heading into faculty positions in higher education. After taking a couple of courses through the medical school’s Mindfulness Center at UVA a few years ago, Scida recalled, “I was really interested in seeing the impact that contemplative practices in the course might have, including the impact they might have on their teaching experience as well as their overall health and wellbeing.”
She intuited that these practices could affect teacher retention as well. “Over the years, I have become more and more concerned about my students’ levels of stress, and I know that this kind of stress can have a significant impact on the teacher training experience and on teacher performance and job satisfaction in a field where burnout is a very real threat.”
Scida decided to incorporate mindfulness practices into a pedagogy course that she offers in the first semester of the Ph.D. program. “In most cases, these students are teaching a foreign language course for the very first time,” Scida said, “so there is always a lot of stress and anxiety in relation to teaching for the very first time in this new context.”
The stress, Scida explained, often springs from the students’ entering a new world where they have three primary roles. “They are students in a grad program, they are scholars starting their scholarly work, and they are teachers in a foreign-language program. It is really difficult to balance those three roles and, at the same time, to balance their personal and work lives.” On top of these issues, she said, “there are also specific stressors related to the traditional graduate program, including preparing for comprehensive exams, preparing for the job market, publishing and presenting at conferences.”
Scida began by educating herself through a grant from the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE), which was putting together a faculty learning committee made up of faculty members interested in contemplative pedagogies and led by Dorothe Bach, CTE’s associate director, and John Alexander, associate director of UVA’s Sciences, Humanities and Arts Network of Technological Initiatives (SHANTI). The experience inspired Scida to begin a study with Jill N. Jones, a Ph.D. candidate in the Curry School of Education, called “Navigating Stress: Graduate Student Experiences with Contemplative Practices in a Foreign Language Teacher Education Course.”
Over the course of two semesters, the 21 students who participated in the study were offered a 10-minute contemplative practices session in class every other week in 2013 and every week in 2014. The students—who were invited but not required to participate in the sessions—were introduced to a variety of practices ranging from breath meditation to mindful movement and yoga, visualization practices, loving-kindness practice, music meditation, sound meditation, journaling, deep listening, mindful eating and more. In addition to joining in-class exercises, students were encouraged to explore a practice on their own just before teaching their classes.
Scida was pleasantly surprised at how open the students were to the processes and practices. “I had some initial hesitations about whether or not it would be well received or seen as something that is weird or unnecessary. What I found was that students generally appreciated the fact that a faculty member was taking the time to show concern and care for their overall wellbeing. I was so pleased with how well received it was and how much they appreciated it.”
The students reported that these practices were valuable team-building tools within the classroom. “It really brought them closer together as a community of peers and a community of support,” added Scida. “They reported a sense of connectedness that they would carry beyond the confines of this one course and into the rest of their graduate school experience.”
Part of the success with students, she said, came from intentionally exposing them to wide variety of practices. “I was really struck by how many students reported that they were practicing some of these things already, whether through their religious backgrounds or relaxation activities like journal writing. They were already part of their self-care repertoire.”
So along with gaining compassion for one another, students delved into the role of self-care in an academic setting that can be highly competitive and cause harsh self-criticism. “It really opened up our students to the idea that we need to take care of ourselves before we take care of others,” Scida said, “and it helped them to accept their own strengths and weaknesses as well as accepting those of others, particularly through the loving-kindness meditation we did in class.”
The success of the graduate school study inspired Scida to explore the issue of language-acquisition anxiety among undergraduate students, an area that has been heavily researched for decades. Yet while she was familiar with many studies around anxiety related to learning languages and the negative effects it can have on learning, Scida had seen very little research around integrating contemplative practices into this mix. “A couple of other teachers and I decided we would incorporate these practices into our classes once a week at the beginning of class time for 5 or 10 minutes as a way to help students transition into the classroom environment and focus on the subject matter.” The success of this effort inspired her to apply for—and receive—a grant from the Contemplative Sciences Center (CSC) for a larger study.
“We chose a variety of practices that we thought would be accessible and interesting to students and that they might possibly use outside of the classroom environment as well,” Scida said. One of the most successful of these was an exercise called “worrying,” in which students sit in a breath meditation and simply label emotions and thoughts as they occur. “So when you are sitting there in that setting and you experience worrying, you are encouraged to label it as such and let it go,” Scida said. “It was something that really resonated with the students—that ability to recognize emotions and record thoughts, label them and let them go.”
The results of the study, she said, included a surprise. “We found that the students in the contemplative groups got significantly higher grades on course exams. It was not something we were expecting to see and not necessarily the focus or our research, but what we found was that those students reported a more positive and supportive classroom environment. . . . It was possible that that the contemplative practices group felt more supported by their teacher and more comfortable and motivated and perhaps less anxious in the classroom environment, and that may have had an effect on their learning outcomes in the end.”
The support of the CSC has been instrumental to her efforts to incorporate contemplative practices into the classroom experience and beyond, Scida said. “It has been incredibly important to have the support of like-minded faculty members and practitioners who really understand the potential benefits of integrating contemplative pedagogies in our courses to support our students’ wellbeing and to improve learning outcomes. Just having the support of this community and being able to learn from other people’s practices and projects has been tremendously helpful in completing these projects.”
The two projects were recently published in journals in December 2017 ["Navigating Stress: Graduate Student experiences with contemplative practices in a foreign language teacher education Course," Journal of Contemplative Inquiry; The impact of contemplative practices on foreign language anxiety and learning, PRESSto.]