In front of me are two long tables, set up with low stools, notepads and pens. Behind me, a small whiteboard, laptop and a 4-page workshop plan. On the right, the room is open to the fresh air of the courtyard outside. And to my left there is a huge shrine filled with flowers, fruit, incense, candles and images and statues of the Buddha.
This is not my usual work. Instead of a classroom, boardroom or Zoom room, I’m in a tiny Buddhist temple in Cabramatta, Sydney. My brief is to prepare a small group of volunteers to deliver Buddhism lessons in local primary schools as part of the state-approved ‘special religious education’ program*.
I am not a Buddhist, and I am standing here in my socks (one of which has a hole in it) because you do not wear shoes in this space. I have never run a teacher training workshop quite like this before, so in the spirit of sharing transferable teaching experiences, here are some brief reflections and open questions from a weekend of learning, laughter and a little unexpected carpet burn incident, too.
1. Start with the breath; finish with a bow
Every lesson in the curriculum we’re working with starts with guided breathing meditation or chanting. The teachers tell me students of all ages love it, and it puts them in a calm, focussed frame of mind for the lesson. How they finish the session is also important; a simple ritual of a respectful bow to each individual as they leave the room.
How can we bring rituals into other lessons, tutorials and workshops? What kinds of opening and closing routines put our learners in the right frame of mind before, during and after, to get the most out of learning?
2. The answers are within you (use what learners know)
Our workshop participants have no formal teacher training, but must understand policy and processes for working with children, how to follow a lesson plan and basic techniques for learner engagement and classroom management. Instead of piling on information and rules, we start where they are, drawing out the life knowledge they have from raising children and other informal teaching experiences.
How can we build learners’ confidence and give them space to apply their own experience to new topics? How can we shape and structure their knowledge, and help each individual to contribute to shared learning outcomes?
3. Tiny tips add up to big picture learning
As we began our Day 2 Sunday session, participants shared what they remembered from Saturday, and what they wanted to learn more about. Their highlights showed that few of their ‘big moments’ came from my carefully prepared presentation slides. Instead, they recalled smaller, practical tips, like giving students time to think when they answer questions, or ideas for managing talkative and quieter students.
How can we find ways to capture, share and revise ‘little learnings’ and practices, then connect it back to the bigger picture for learners?
4. ‘Temple time’ and the flexible teaching plan
We started half an hour late, introductions went on too long, lunch ran over time and activities shuffled for unexpected diversions. But flexibility with the teaching plan was an important learning for our participants. In a half-hour school lesson, just getting through a successful meditation and a story can be achievement enough, and leaves the students with a positive experience rather than rushing through ‘content’.
How can we design flexibility into our teaching and workshop plans to allow for the benefits of diversion and questions? What does ‘enough’ look like in a session or program?
5. Even the devout get distracted
Set aside your assumptions; Buddhism may be the home of meditation and calm focus, but a teacher training workshop in a temple brings just as many distractions as any other setting! Tired participants, mobile phones, confusion over instructions and dealing with new information requires many of the same learner engagement techniques as we use in other learning contexts. Clear instructions, time limits and boundaries are all part of the planning process.
How can we keep focussed on the lesson and outcomes, but also allow for the joyfully messy, interactive and human process of learning?
6. Learning by doing leads to memorable moments (and carpet burn)
It’s hard to make time for ‘doing’ in a class or workshop, but practical activities create moments that learners absorb and remember. To demonstrate the challenges of clear instruction-giving, I asked a trainee to verbally guide me through a 15-step prostration (bowing) procedure that children really love. A familiar and apparently simple process turned into confusion, laughter and a carpet burn on my elbow, as I interpreted one instruction a bit too literally.
How can we turn learning into active ‘doing’ that helps learners to process key points and problem-solve difficulties as they practice?
7. All things change; keep up your efforts
Reflecting on this experience as a teacher/facilitator, I recall a story one participant told as she practiced delivering a lesson involving the ‘paranirvana’ story. As he sees his death approaching, the Buddha asks his followers three times if they have any more questions. When they don’t, his final words are expressed in two statements: ‘all things change’, and ‘keep up your efforts’.
Whether you’re Buddhist or not, I can’t think of any better way to think about the role and guidance a teacher can give to their learners. How can we stay present for questions, acknowledge the changing nature of the learning process and keep learners motivated to carry on their journey? Keep up your efforts, indeed.
*In every NSW state government school, time must be allowed by law for the religious education of children of any religious persuasion.