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Barefoot and breathing: 7 lessons from a Buddhist teacher training workshop

In front of me are two long tables, set up with low stools, notepads and pens. Behind me is a small portable whiteboard, laptop and workshop materials, including a detailed 4-page plan for this weekend. To my right the room is open to the fresh air of the courtyard outside. And to my left, the wall is completely taken up with a huge shrine filled with flowers, piles of 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, south-west of Sydney. I’m here 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 workshop in socks, and I have never run a workshop quite like this before. In the spirit of sharing transferable teaching experiences, here are some brief reflections and ‘how can we…’ 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 Buddhism 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 we finish the session is also important; some teachers close with a simple ritual of a respectful bow to each individual as they leave the room.

Q: How can we bring rituals into other lessons, tutorials and workshops? What kinds of opening and closing routines put our learners and participants 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) 🧠

The participants in our workshop have no formal teaching training, but need to 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.

Q: 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 Sunday session, I asked participants to reflect on what they remembered from the previous day, and what they wanted to learn more about. As they shared their highlights, I realised very few of their ‘big moments’ came from my carefully prepared presentation slides. Instead, they recalled the smaller, practical tips we discussed, like giving children time to think when they answer questions or ideas for managing talkative and quieter students.

Q: How can we find ways to capture, share and revise the ‘little learnings’ and practical advice, 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 took longer than planned, lunch ran over time and activities shuffled to allow for unexpected diversions. But flexibility with the teaching plan is one of the most practical takeaways for our participants to learn. In a half-hour Buddhism lesson, just getting through a successful meditation and a quick story can be achievement enough, leaving the students with a positive experience rather than a rushed run-through of ‘content’.

Q: 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 calls for many of the same learner engagement techniques as we use in more formal learning. Clear instructions, time limits and boundaries are all part of the planning process.

Q: 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 can be hard to make time for ‘doing’ in a class or workshop, but practical activities can 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 pretty sore carpet burn on my elbow, as I failed to interpret ‘slide your arms forward’ correctly (you had to be there…)!

Q: How can we turn learning into active ‘doing’ processes that help 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 keep returning to a story one of the participants told as she practiced delivering a lesson involving the ‘paranirvana’ story about the death of the Buddha. 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 keep ourselves 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.

With sincere thanks to the Abbess Bhikkhuni Thich An Thien, and to the welcoming members of Viên Giác Temple.

Photo by Jose Luis Sanchez Pereyra on Unsplash

*For context: In every NSW state government school, time must be allowed by law for the religious education of children of any religious persuasion: https://education.nsw.gov.au/teaching-and-learning/curriculum/learning-across-the-curriculum/religion-and-ethics