Rethinking teaching – what does contemplative pedagogy mean for us as teachers?

During my session for the weekend I was keen to explore what contemplative pedagogy meant for us as teachers. I was very pleased with how the session was received. The majority of participants really welcomed the space to consider these issues more deeply than their working life usually allows. The reflective practice that we carried out midway through the session resulted in some interesting and challenging insights for some participants that I learnt a lot through listening to. I haven’t written up the second half of the session here as I hope to do this more formally. I have an audio recording of the first part, including the reflective exercise and I’m happy to email this to you if you’re interested so get in touch –

The text that follows is taken from my notes and it also outlines the reflective exercise.

I hope this is helpful.

Best wishes


Rethinking teaching – what does contemplative pedagogy mean for us as teachers?

I feel that if we are to invite our students to learn in more contemplative ways, to look more deeply inside themselves, this brings up a range of responsibilities for us a teacher: ‘There is no effective way to teach contemplative practises without practising them yourself. While many practices in this book are rather simple, they all require the awareness that comes with committed practice, including the experience of their varied consequences’ (Barbezat and Bush 2014: 68)

They give the particular example of telling students to follow the breath – a simple instruction but if you have not experienced how difficult that actually is, you won’t be able to appropriately respond when the students express the difficulties they were having with it. So we have to consider safety, knowing the ground to which we are taking our students. It also about more technical issues such as when and where contemplative practices are useful and appropriate.

However there is also something more fundamental going on in my eyes that I want to focus on today. If we are to introduce and reconnect students with their sense of meaning and values and to develop their sense of who they are. We need to be able to connect to this in our own lives and in particular in our teaching – why are we doing this? What are our intentions? We need to develop a relationship with a sense of who we are:

‘After three decades of trying to learn my craft, every class comes down to this: my students and I, face to face, engaged in an ancient and exacting exchange called education. The techniques I have mastered do not disappear, but neither do they suffice. Face to face with my students, only one resource is at my immediate command: my identity, my selfhood, my sense of this “I” who teaches—without which I have no sense of the “Thou” who learns. Here is a secret hidden in plain sight: good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher. In every class I teach, my ability to connect with my students, and to connect them with the subject, depends less on the methods I use than on the degree to which I know and trust my selfhood—and am willing to make it available and vulnerable in the service of learning.’ (Palmer n.d.:2)

It’s not about being a good person it’s about being a whole person and a having a sense of ourselves when we stand up in front of others. For me this has developed into a sense of being able to be fully present with difficulty in front of students. To not get lost in my hopes and fears for the session but to be there as I am. To be able to be OK in the silence that can emerge, to be open to different ideas and flexible in my programme of teaching and learning.

When I first started teaching I can remember not really being conscious between the time I walked in the room and the time I left – my object was to plough through my slides without ‘making a mistake’ (whatever that might mean!). I also think that my sense of myself was very much tied up in the reaction from students. If students responded well I was a good teacher, a sea of blank faces, I was a bad teacher. I’m not saying that we should ignore student responses while in class but if we can really get in touch with ourselves or what Parker Palmer calls our ‘inner teacher’ we have a sense of ourselves that is independent of (but still very aware of) student reaction and is more able to respond effectively to whatever the students might bring – even if you perceive it as ‘negative’.

Part of becoming more familiar with our inner lives is becoming more acquainted with the aspects of life that have meaning and value for us.  I had never really considered this in relation to teaching before going to the Contemplative Pedagogy Workshop at the Omega Institute in New York last year and the more I think about it the more it makes sense. By becoming more familiar with our inner lives we can develop a vision of our teaching, a deep awareness of our intentions that gives us a positive basis to work from and that can help to sustain us. This is not about magical idealistic thinking but deeply considering – what is it about my teaching that really matters?

I made another connection which also seems related – in my Buddhist study group I had to give a presentation on emotion in the spiritual life. In reading for this something that is blatantly obvious (and yet had escaped by notice) was pointed out – as human beings the choices we make and the actions we take are rarely if ever based on reason alone (or at all!). When we do make significant changes in our life it is generally not through reason alone it is because there is the emotional force behind making that change. Very often this ‘emotional force’ comes from having a sense of what we are doing it FOR a sense of something bigger that we are contributing to.

Developing our sense of ‘vision’ (don’t panic I’m not going to make you write a vision statement or anything), coming into closer touch with what it is we are working towards and hoping to create through our teaching can help to provide the emotional underpinning for taking action – for improving, for striving to become better teachers. I think if we are asking our students to do this internal work and we may be doing so more or less explicitly, the least we can do is to try to teach from that place. To bring ourselves into our teaching more consciously.

My concern is that this broader vision gets lost in the institutional bureaucracy in which teaching is embedded which somehow constrains our sense of how our teaching impacts the world. I think that for health professionals and other vocations similar things happen – when we meet the ‘real world’ our vision and original intentions get lost or washed out by the harshness of everyday reality. So when at Omega we did some exercises to develop a sense of what we were really teaching for I found myself getting really excited – I knew I loved teaching but I had felt constrained and thinking in broader terms was liberating, inspiring and provided fuel for the emotional fire.  For the first time I realised that critical appraisal teaching was boring because I had lost my vision of teaching within it. It had become about getting a reluctant group of CPD student to pass. but when I thought about bringing this vision into ALL my teaching – not just the interesting stuff, I really felt the value of having a wider sense of the contribution I was making being there in front of that class. I felt motivated, connected, engaged.

Reflective exercise

15-20 minute exercise plus 15 minute feedback. Discuss first in pairs and then as a wider group. Participants can be seated in a relaxed but alert meditation posture or lying if this is more comfortable (although not recommended if they are tired).


Focus on breath, allowing ourselves to become stiller and more quiet. Allow whatever comes up to come up but don’t cling to it let it go and see what comes next. Being present to your experience (2-3 mins).

‘Drop in’ the following questions for reflection leaving allowing 3-4 mins each

1. Why do I teach?
2. What effect do I want my teaching to have on me?
3. What effect do I want my teaching to have on my students?
4. What effect do I want my teaching to have on the world?

Rest in that vision of what you want your teaching to contribute to (1-2 mins). Then guide participants back into their bodies, into the room and to slowly open their eyes and reconnect with the world around them.

After the exercise engage in ‘deep listening exercise’ with partner being present and open when listening to their experience.
Be aware when you drift off and go into your own mental commentary and come back to listening to what your partner is saying.

Do get in touch if you have any questions.


Barbezat, D. P., & Bush, M. (2013). Contemplative Practices in Higher Education: Powerful Methods to Transform Teaching and Learning (1 edition). Jossey-Bass.

Palmer, P. n.d. Heart of a teacher: identity and integrity in teaching

3 thoughts on “Rethinking teaching – what does contemplative pedagogy mean for us as teachers?

  1. Great post Caroline thanks for sharing and I would love to receive the audio file. Reading your comments and reflections made me think of Peter Felton et al’s book on Transformative Conversations and also of the art of Goethean conversation. Best wishes, Iddo


  2. I really enjoyed reading your post, too, Caroline. I also want to thank Iddo for sharing Felton’s book which I will try to obtain through the university library. I think while critical analysis and inquiry are important in courses, higher education has focused almost exclusively on this and other cognitive skills (eg. third person knowing) to the exclusion of first and second person knowing. I have asked myself the questions you have and realize I am teaching because I want to help students broaden their horizons not only intellectually but also in other important ways. I would like to help students tap into and strengthen what is most whole within themselves and bring this more fully into their learning. I have found the contemplative practices to be a wonderful way to help students with this. I just started incorporating mindfulness and other contemplative practices into two undergraduate hybrid and asynchronous online courses I teach and have had an overwhelmingly positive response from students. I plan to incorporate these practices into a third class this fall and am excited about this!


  3. Pingback: We can now include audio files :-) | Contemplative Pedagogy Network

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