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  • Writer's picturePaula Azevedo, PhD

Teaching with a Beginner’s Mind

We’ve walked into a unique school year, and of course with uncertainty and constant change in our instructional plans, the first few weeks of school have been both exciting and challenging. As I reflect on the challenges that are in front of us as educators, school leaders and parents, I am reminded of Zen Master Suzuki’s influential book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. In this book he talks about this concept of being in the world with a beginner’s mind, in other words with an open and curious mind, as if you are seeing and interacting in the world for the first time. In today’s post I’d like to explore how we can approach teaching with a beginner’s mind.

What does it mean to have a beginner’s mind?

Well, have you ever taken a walk outside with a toddler? If so, then you’ve witnessed the beginner’s mind. Every step the child takes they stop to look and investigate something that is new and interesting. The toddler conducts this investigation with such innocence and genuine curiosity and compassion of this new discovery. Now, for many adults, especially if you’re in a rush to get somewhere, this beginner’s mind of a toddler can be quite annoying, but if you really listen to the young child’s questions and statements you can begin to see the world from their perspective and even appreciate and be surprised by how profound their questions and discoveries really are.

You see, a beginner’s mind frees you from your own expectations, the “shoulds” and “have to be’s”, our biases, and even past experiences. Which is why I’m inviting all of us to view this school year as an opportunity to reevaluate our assumptions about learning, to reinvent our teaching practices, and reimagine our work as educators with a beginner’s mind.

How do you practice a beginner’s mind in your teaching?

Be the observer of your own practice

First, consider something that you’ve always done or believe to be true in your teaching. Maybe it’s you always start with a warm up, or you always end with an exit ticket or you believe that students take better notes when you give them guided notes. Whatever the belief or practice is, try it one day and observe what students do, what you do, and what questions arise as you are observing this practice in action. You might notice something that you never did before, you might question the practice, or consider an alternative method, or maybe you see and learn nothing new and that’s okay too. The point isn’t to question everything you do, but to see what is occurring in your practice with a fresh perspective. I suggest you start with something very small in your practice and see where it goes.

Be a beginner alongside your students

Suggestion number two is to be a beginner alongside your students. So, often our students view us as adults and educators as experts in everything we teach, but why not take the beginner’s mind approach on certain topics? In other words, approach a topic that you’ve taught for years with questions. What is it about the topic that is interesting? What questions would you have if you knew nothing about the subject? Why is this subject even relevant? In addition, in class as students ask questions about the day’s topic you can become excited about their curiosity, but not answer their questions. Instead allow the students to discover the answer themselves by further investigating. And you can encourage them with this investigation with excitement and additional questions.

Meditate with a beginner's mind

Finally, you can cultivate a beginner’s mind in your mindfulness and meditation practices. Mindfulness reminds us to return to the present moment, to sense the body, fully feel what is present in this moment, and to respond rather than react to a situation. And to do this with a beginner’s mind in your meditation practice can be refreshing. To guide you in practicing a beginner’s mind in your meditation practice I recorded a guided meditation that may help you with returning back to the present moment and cultivate a beginner’s mind.

Get your free Beginner’s Mind Guided Meditation:

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