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4 Ways to Discover Your Zen (and Foster SEL) in the Classroom

by Sarah Hodge |
The Great Buddha of Kamakura (photo: Sarah B. Hodge)

As 2023 draws to a close, it is the perfect time to reflect on professional development (PD) goals and lessons learned. One area of PD that I explored this year was social-emotional learning (SEL). SEL includes five core social and emotional competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Although SEL frequently comes up in a K–12 context, it also applies equally to adult multilingual learners. Depending on the age and educational background of your students, it may be their first time encountering SEL competencies in the classroom.

I recently spent five years teaching English to adults near Kamakura, Japan. As the seat of the first shogunate, Kamakura became an important center of Zen teaching. In addition to attending zazen, seated meditation sessions, I assisted with the international Zen conference Zen 2.0. I’ve found the following elements of Zen to be a very useful tool in my personal as well as professional life to bring a much needed sense of balance and to address SEL competencies in the classroom.

1. Live in the Moment (SEL Competency: Self-Awareness)

Sometimes while teaching, our minds are not fully in the present, but instead anticipating the next activity, transition, or thinking back to an earlier interaction with a student or colleague. Or we start to rush through a grammar point or lesson, becoming fixated on an upcoming test or deadline. In order to be aware of and make the most of student interactions, you have to be able to be to be “in the moment” with your students. Being in the moment allows us to let go of our internal script and actively listen to what our students are saying. By being fully present, we are better able to recognize and regulate our own emotions, create a positive learning environment, and communicate more effectively.

2. Embrace Mindfulness (SEL Competency: Self-Awareness)

Mindfulness is the practice of being fully aware of our thoughts and feelings without judgement or reacting negatively to them. Research has shown mindfulness training to be helpful to teachers (and students) by improving their emotional well-being and allowing them to better regulate their feelings and actions. In one study, mindfulness instruction helped boost students’ attention skills, as well as develop coping mechanisms for stress.

Mindfulness exercises can take several forms, including guided meditation, deep breathing, journaling, or simply giving students time for quiet reflection during the day. For students who are nervous test takers, I introduce the concept of guided breathing exercises and free apps like Calm and Amaru.

Additional Resources

3. Foster an Attitude of Gratitude (SEL Competency: Social Awareness)

At the end of every week, I ask my students to summarize something they’ve learned and something they are grateful for. I include my “gratitude jar” as an example; every week, I write down one thing I’m grateful for on a slip of paper and place it into a large jar. At the end of the year, I take out each slip and read them one by one. I include this exercise in my teacher training courses. You can also have students keep a gratitude journal, in which they write down things they are grateful for in English.

Additional Resource

Article: Gratitude-Based ESL Teaching (American TESOL Institute)

4. Trust the Process (SEL Competency: Self-Management)

One of the core concepts of Zen is focusing on the process — Zen monks have rituals for everything, from eating to cleaning to meditation. In the classroom, trusting the process means that students will learn what they are ready to learn. Steps like scaffolding and having students set their own goals (I have mine write down goals at the beginning of each week, and then do a self-evaluation each Friday) can help them to focus on the larger picture, as well as to establish a daily study routine. The Japanese concept of “kaizen” (continuous improvement) is based on the notion that small, incremental changes can lead to big results — in the same way, we can help our students to develop lasting skills that will ultimately improve their English.

Additional Resources

About the author

Sarah Hodge

Sarah Hodge is a supervisory ESL instructor at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) English Language Center in San Antonio, Texas, USA. Since earning her MA TESOL in 2006, she has taught English as a foreign language, English for specific purposes, and English for academic purposes to thousands of international military officers, enlisted personnel, and civilians at DLI's resident campus as well as internationally. She has also developed curriculum, has conducted onboarding and teacher training, and was part of the Peer Coaching Initiative Working Group. A SMART Gold Ambassador and Lumio Certified Trainer, Sarah is passionate about integrating educational technology into the language classroom. Her research interests include bilingualism and language processing disorders.

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