Modeling Mindfulness and Connecting with Students

By Tim Needles, Art Teacher

When I began teaching twenty years ago I, like many educators, entered the classroom with some false presumptions. As a new teacher I played the part of what I imagined a teacher was without being totally aware of it. I thought back to the best teachers I had in school and tried to emulate their positive qualities but I was also following the conventions of teaching without really considering what was best for the students. As I developed as an educator I learned to shed that pretense and to question the role of being a teacher itself over time and I evolved. I found connecting and communicating with students to be a powerful tool and I let go of elements that I found didn’t really aid students enough such as homework and excessive testing. I replaced these elements with optional challenges and choice-based projects and found that as a result, students were more motivated.

A few years ago I began frequently hearing a new educational buzzword, social emotional learning, and I began exploring it. My school adopted a social and emotional learning program and I took part in a few additional programs as my interest was growing and found this again reshaped my perspective as a teacher. There were elements in each of the different SEL books and programs in which I was involved with that added to my understanding. I began adopting and reshaping them to fit my students and classes. I found this process exciting and life-altering because it was happening later in my career and I had the confidence and experience to take greater risks. It reshaped my mindset.

There were some surprising and unexpected outcomes that developed as a result of this process and one of the biggest was the effect incorporating SEL in my teaching had on me personally. I found myself becoming more mindful of my own needs and I began taking better care of myself. I realized that one of the most effective ways to share SEL with students was by modeling it, and it illuminated that some of what I was asking of students I wasn’t really doing myself. I find that students, especially at the high school level, respond to authenticity so I decided to share my struggles with my personal mindfulness process along with my successes.

I also made it a point to share my journey and some of the most beneficial and successful techniques with other educators which also has brought about positive side effects. The enthusiasm other educators shared in my workshops motivated me to incorporate more SEL elements into class and into my own life and the workshops connected me with many great educators I might not have known otherwise.

I found that the process of learning about and implementing SEL allowed me to shed the presumptions about teaching that I wasn’t aware I was still holding onto. Letting go of that leftover baggage allowed me to succeed in connecting and helping students in a deeper, more dynamic, and meaningful way. I learned to always be mindful of students emotional needs as much as their academics.

Tim Needles is an artist and educator from Smithtown, NY. He has been teaching art and media at Smithtown School District in NY for 20 years as well as working as an Adobe Education Leader, a Morphi educator, a PBS Digital Innovator, an educational consultant for The Japan Society, and as an adjunct college professor. He is also the recipient of the ISTE Creativity Award from the Art and Technology PLN, the National Art Educators Association 2016 AET Outstanding Teaching Award and The Lab School’s Robert Rauschenberg Power of Art Award at The National Gallery of Art. His work has been featured on NPR as well as in The New York Times, The Columbus Museum of Art, and the Norman Rockwell Museum.

Follow the conversation #WhyITeach

To be reminded why your work is so very important and for more stories and advice, visit our collection of teacher perspectives at The Art of Teaching.

You can view the McGraw-Hill Education Privacy Policy here: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not reflect the values or positioning of McGraw-Hill Education or its sales.