I have been teaching and training in a variety of capacities since the early 1980s both in Ireland and in several countries overseas. I have worked at primary, secondary and third level and have designed and delivered a considerable number of courses in the Adult Education sector over the years. In the last few years, I have been specialising in teaching Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) not only to the general public but also to the Health, Business and Teacher Education sectors.

More recently, under the auspices of the KWETB I have run courses in Mindfulness and Wellbeing for the Irish Wheelchair Association, Newbridge Women’s Group and currently Newbridge Asylum Seekers and Rathangan Women Together. Working in the informal community education sector poses both challenges and opportunities that differ from many more formal education settings.

Educational Disadvantage

Very often, individual learners may have lost out on educational opportunities in the past or find that they are somewhat marginalised or in danger of being so in the wider community. While formal accreditation for learning of ‘hard skills’ might be important for some of them, with its emphasis on mastery of a body of knowlege and the acquisition of related cognitive skills, for many learners the needs are more personal and harder to identify.

Lack of confidence, low-self esteem, being disadvantaged in some way through disability, poverty, low levels of literacy or cultural exclusion, often makes it difficult for significant groups of participants to access appropriate social supports and to fully engage in constructive ways in the life of local communities and even at regional and national level.

The provision of Community Education supports seeks to address these issues in a way that recognises the whole person of the learner and acknowleges the wider social setting in which they find themselves. An appropriate needs assessment can identify where specific knowlege and skills is lacking, but more importantly, can also tackle the issue of the attitudes needed for successful learning and community participation. In addressing these key areas of community education: knowledge, attitudes and skills, the personal skill set of the tutor and their ethical commitment to the wellbeing of the learner becomes a key determinant in successful learning outcomes.

Experience of Teaching Mindfulness in the Community Education Sector

Let me speak personally and specifically about some of the courses I have been involved with as part of the KWETB Community Education service.

In teaching Mindfulness the most important aspect in the training setting is the skill component. Knowledge of what mindfulness is, where it has come from and how it relates to theories in both eastern and western psychology is extremely helpful but not crucial. Mindfulness, not unlike learning to play a musical instrument, is developed primarily through practice. So a significant component in a mindfulness class is giving people the experience of practicing a mindfulness meditation and offering guidance on how best it is to be done: pointers around correct posture, focusing on the breath, managing distractions and developing a consistent routine.

Some Obstacles to Learning

Even though practice is really what it is all about, attention also needs to be paid to the attitudinal base that underpins the practice. So learners are encouraged to be curious about their experience, to be patient and not strive too hard and to show kindness towards themselves as they struggle with staying focused and avoiding getting distracted.

Usually in the teaching situation, learners struggle with quite a bit of self-doubt (Am I doing this the right way? I can’t sit still etc.) and in moving away from a goal-orientated focus based on doing, to a more qualitative focus which emphasises being, or present moment experience. This more qualitative educational approach demands that the tutor be particularly aware of group dynamics and the emotional sensitivities of particular learners. Developing good rapport with learners leads to more successful outcomes and involves a lot of trust building, active listening and an appreciative attitude to each learner’s experience. The main drive of the tutor is to validate the perspective of the learner even if they don’t always share that perspective themselves.

On many of the courses I run outside of the context of Community Education, the participants are all new to each other and so my task is to facilitate the forming of a successful learning community where there is mutual respect and trust forged between the members. However, in my experience of community education, the groups may already be pre-existing and so there is already a set group dynamic with various power differentials among its members.

Winning the Confidence of the Group

The challenge then for me is to win the confidence of the group and show them that I respect them as they are. However, at times I also find myself in a situation where I need to change the existing group dynamic. In mindfulness teaching active listening is a core skill that I try to develop. It has been my experience that sometimes a group has estalished a pattern of poor listening involving frequent interrupting of each other or offering unasked for advice or minimising the importance of what someone has said.

The task for me then is often to gently challenge this type of interaction so that participants are relating to each other at a deeper, more respectful level. When this is achieved, participants are able to explore their own experience more honestly and gain greater insight into how they are reacting to life events

Managing the Time in the Face of Pre-Established Patterns

Pre-established groups sometimes develop rather loose habits around time keeping, so that it can be hard to start classes on time and tea-breaks can go on longer than necessary. Because the primary aim of the group may be one of mutual support, the agenda of the tutor to run a successful course may not take full precedence for the group. It requires quite a bit of skill to wean participants away from these habits so that the class starts on time and tea breaks are kept within a reasonable timeframe.

I try to start on time even if all of the participants have not arrived at the first couple of sessions. Once learners see that this is the routine they are more inclined to come early. I often start with a meditation and people like to be there from the beginning. There is usually fifteen minutes for the tea break but I usually call this a ten minute break knowing that it will be about fifteen minutes by the time everyone gets sitting down again and ready for learning. Another way to increase the likelihood of this happening is to be the first to get up and say something like: “Let’s begin again in another couple of minutes”. Sometimes I ring my meditation bell which acts as a gentle reminder to start returning to the class.

Some Possible Group Dynamics

Another challenge of working in this sector is dealing with participants who don’t fully appreciate the need to take responsibility for their own learning. This is not a question of laziness but rather one of learned passivity. It may also be linked to a sense of low self-esteem and treating the tutor as an expert who has all the answers. In the context of mindfulness, the key component of successful outcomes is the personal practice of participants done between each weekly class session. Once participants take responsibility for this, they start to feel the benefits of the mindfulness practice.

Lastly, another important consideration is working with groups who may be living in close proximity to one another and who don’t always share the same world view. There can be tensions simmering away in the learning group which can complicate small group work or even whole group discussion. Being sensitive to the group dynamics will determine whether participants will actively engage with the course content. Because the learners are adults who come to the learning situation with considerable life experience and skills, they can’t simply be cajoled to get along or threatened with sanctions. Extra attention may need to be paid to group process before any real learning can take place.

What Community Education Has to Offer

In summary, in my view formal education is often about delivering content with very specific end goals in sight the final product tends to take precedence over the quality of the learning process. This may be largely unintentional arising as it does, out of the pressure to achieve in formal examinations. In the non-formal Community Education sector, the acquisition of knowlege and skills is just as important, but there is often more scope to address more qualitative issues such as the nature of the learning process itself. Greater emphasis necessarily can be placed on empowering learners and building their confidence to achieve. Hence, the tutor’s role, while still responsible for providing high quality content, takes on a more facilitative aspect.

Through proactive interaction with other members of the group, learners develop a greater capacity to manage their own learning. The group process becomes the vehicle through which a significant amount of the learning takes place. Ultimately, learners gradually take more responsibility for their own learning as they recognise that they are part of a team. The educational process itself then becomes more rewarding and affirming for both the individual and the group. While the indiviual learner benefits from the acquisition of new knowledge and skills, the wider community also benefits through greater social cohesion and community involvement.

Dominic Cogan

KWETB Mindfulness and Wellbeing Tutor