Bernard Saliba is a Scholarly Teaching Fellow in the Faculty of Health. He’s been involved in designing and developing subjects for the Bachelor of Health Science since it first started in 2016, including Introduction to Public Health, Communication and Technology, Health Promotion and Advocacy and Global Human Rights and Health Equity, all of which he also currently coordinates and teaches. But his teaching work doesn’t just involve making sure students understand the content in his subject, he also approaches his work with a passion for instilling mindfulness in his student cohorts.
What is mindfulness?
“Mindfulness means something different for everybody” says Bernard. “A lot of people think that when you say mindfulness you’re referring to meditation, or something spiritual or religious. For me, it’s not that at all. For me it is simply where the word comes from – being mindful, being still. I find that with me, and with most people who stress (which seems to be everybody these days) people tend to either be living with their thoughts about the past, or their anxieties about the future and the unknown, I think what mindfulness does is it reminds us to be still, to be in the present because that’s really all that we have. So mindfulness is taking some time to be alone with your thoughts. The misconception is that it is a complete abandonment of thought, when actually it is being still and being mindful of the thoughts that are passing by, and feelings that are arising in your body, anywhere from your stomach, to your chest, your shoulders or neck. Some mindfulness is guided, which is what I do in the classroom, while some people do it without a guide; they just sit still and they breathe. Breathing is also a big part of it too, just focusing on the breath and counting each breath as it passes is a good way to maximise the outcomes of mindfulness.”
It’s this combination of physical and mental attentiveness that Bernard has been trying to impart to his students, which came both from his own personal practice of mindfulness and the practices he found while teaching as a casual academic.
“A number of years ago I lived in Hanoi, Vietnam, which is where I was initially introduced to mindfulness. Hanoi is a very chaotic city – with traffic and motorbikes and people and vendors everywhere, people beeping their horns and noise and all sorts of external influences on the mind, so it was quite a stressful place to be living in. I also had a pretty challenging job, working with the Vietnamese army. One day, my neighbour and friend introduced me to mindfulness – she said ‘you should download this app and use it just ten minutes every day – you have that ten minutes, you just don’t think you do, but you do so take that time’. That’s where it all started for me personally. I never thought to implement it into my classrooms until I started teaching at UTS. I had a casual academic job before this position, working in the Faculty of Health with the wonderful Dr Tamara Power who was coordinating a core Nursing subject called Communication and Diversity.
One of the things that she implemented in that subject was mindfulness sessions recorded specifically for each week along with some visuals. At the beginning of every tutorial, we would run these recordings for about ten minutes. The student feedback was great. It fit well with Nursing students because clinical placements and simulation exams can be very stressful, and so these sessions really helped them relax. So when I started teaching my, non-clinical, Health Science subjects I thought ‘let’s face it, all students have stress’, so I still wanted to give the students that same opportunity.”
From here it was simply a matter of pitching the idea to his supervisor and after getting approval, obtaining some funding to purchase a package of mindfulness exercises. Bernard now has a routine approach to ensuring that at the start of each class, a mindfulness session is carried out.
“I should probably point out that I make it optional for the students – during the first lesson of Session, I give them a brief outline of the benefits, backed up by science of why mindfulness is actually beneficial for university students. I show them the numerous studies undertaken from all over the world to prove this, and that’s it. From then on I just let them decide if they want to take part or not.”
What a typical session looks like
Students are able to make their decision to opt in or out at any time. A typical mindfulness session involves switching out the lights, projecting some relaxing visuals on the screen (easily found on YouTube), and then playing the recorded mindfulness guide, which usually goes for about ten minutes. Other students know not to come in during the session because of a sign Bernard posts on the door.
To get the most out of it, Bernard encourages his students to stay alert enough to follow the instructions of the recording. “I tell the students they can choose to sit on the floor, or in their chairs. I discourage them from lying down or putting their heads on their desks so they don’t fall asleep. After the ten minutes are done I advise them to just sit still with the feeling for a little bit, and to reflect, I slowly turn some of the lights back on, I open the door and invite the rest of the students back in, turn the rest of the lights on and begin the class.”
To get the most out of the sessions, it’s important that electronic devices are out of sight.
“I tell them to put their phones away, even to take them off vibrate for those ten minutes, to not have them on their bodies, to dim the light on their screens if they’re using laptops or iPads or even just close the laptop for ten minutes. For me it’s not enough to just be mindful, but also to disconnect from these devices that we’re all so addicted to and constantly using, myself included. I know that some of the students are dying to check their Instagram notifications or whatever, a lot of them feel that if they get a text then they have to instantly respond, and so in a way I also want to remind them that it’s okay to put these devices away for ten minutes every now and again.”
What students think
The exercises have become increasingly popular with students in these subjects, going from around 50% participation to as high as 85%. Bernard has also gotten a lot of positive comments about the mindfulness sessions in his Student Feedback Surveys. Below are some of these.
“Mindfulness was helpful and made me focus more during the lectures.”
“I found them helpful as it aided me in calming down my anxiety.”
“The mindfulness session is wonderful. I find it really useful because I always feel more relaxed and focused after the session. Especially when we have the quizzes, being mindful before the test helped to concentrate more and get better marks.”
“It really helped me have a break and forget about assignments or stresses. It’s also helped me adopt a few minutes daily to remember to breathe and just take a step back.”
The success has been encouraging for Bernard to continue the sessions in his subjects. “I’m a big advocate for practicing mindfulness and I think especially when the students are already stressed about not only their assessments, group work and deadlines, but also their personal lives, their social circles and expectations of what it means to be a young person, especially these days on social media where your image is so important; I can’t imagine how much more stress that must add to an already stressful life of a university student. So to just disconnect – I mean, I see most of them only once a week – and to just do that once a week for ten minutes, it’s my gift to them, and from the responses in the student feedback surveys, I can see that they really appreciate it.”
Check back next week for tips and advice on how to start implementing mindfulness practice in your own classroom.
Feature image by Freepik.