Silence (1): in School

This the first of three posts on silence. Here, I try and tell something of the story of developing a culture of silence and mindfulness at Trinity, Lewisham. In the following two posts I will write about my use of silence in my own prayer and then speculate on how silence might be developed in a parish Sunday Eucharist. 

Most churchgoers if they have heard of Taizé at all will probably associate it with the short chants that appear in many hymn books and are often used in churches during communion or, occasionally, for a ‘Taizé style service’. I first went to Taizé as a seventeen year old and was deeply influenced by it. An influence that, if anything, has become stronger and deeper as I have got older. 

During my seven years as Head at Trinity, Lewisham I led groups of fifteen year olds to spend a week at the Taizé Community in France. Although the chants are popular with the young people who visit Taizé it is another element in the community’s worship that is mentioned every year by pupils as their favourite part of the experience: silence. 

The community worships together three times a day and in the centre of the worship, following the scripture reading is a substantial period of silence. This is no ‘pause’, the silence lasts over ten minutes, usually 12-15 minutes. The young people are right, the experience of sitting in ‘silence’ with several thousand people is a powerful one. 

After the first group from Trinity had been to Taizé we talked about what we had learnt that could be applied to school. The pupils asked if we could have more silence at school. Well, there aren’t many Heads who wouldn’t welcome pupils asking for silence. I decided that we would need to introduce this carefully, with teaching about what the silence was for and how to use it. I met with a number of ‘meditation teachers’ from Christian groups but didn’t really feel they were able to offer what we wanted in terms of time (600 children is a lot of people to teach) or approach. In the end it was a teacher from the Triratna Buddhist community, Srivati Skelton, who proved to be the right person. In the week in which we moved from a borrowed decant site into our new building we closed to pupils and a mindfulness session was provided each day for all staff. In the following six weeks every family (tutor) group received 8 sessions of mindfulness training. An introductory session was given to Governors and a daytime and evening session was offered to parents with an opportunity for questions to be asked.

The pupils who had travelled to Taizé (at the end of  Year 10, (their penultimate year at the school) introduced the concept of mindfulness in whole school worship so it had a very child-led feel to it. Every family group room already had a prayer corner and we added ‘meditation gongs’ to these and provided every room in the school with a large, three minute sand timer as well as having five and ten minute versions available.

At the beginning of the process we talked about what to call this practice … Mindfulness was very much in the air but I would have quite liked to use something more directly from the Christian tradition such as recollection, or watchfulness (as in the neptic teachings of the Philokalia). In the end mindfulness just seemed to work and some of the early-adopters on the staff had experience of mindfulness practice outside of school.

As a school we had also adopted restorative justice techniques as a key element in the school’s character and practices. From the start staff members who were most committed to and able to utilise these practices were also most committed to mindfulness. For some mindfulness became a significant part of RJ meetings, often using the sand timers as part of this. I remember one pupil telling a group of visiting Headteachers that “it doesn’t matter how bad an [RJ] meeting has got; just being silent for three minutes changes everything”. There is great skill involved on the part of the facilitators in choosing a moment for mindfulness though.

There was never any resistance from pupils, staff or parents to our mindfulness practice. Some parents specifically chose the school because of it as we became known for this practice. One of my regrets is that we didn’t do enough collection of feedback or analysis of feedback but running a school is pretty full-on and it would really have needed an external group to do that well.

My perception is that mindfulness became a helpful way in or bridge for families, staff and pupils who were not practicing Christians. The school had a very explicit Christian culture which fitted well with the Pentecostal background of many of the majority black families. The school is situated in a middle class, mainly white area of Lewisham but hadn’t drawn children from those families for some years. There was also a slightly arty, creative feel about the neighbourhood. Mindfulness certainly proved attractive to this constituency. Our greatest number of pupils recruited from the very local community occurred when our mindfulness practice was at its strongest and several families spoke to me directly about how helpful they found it. The practice of silence was also a helpful contrast to the Pentecostal worship which was for the majority of children their only experience of Christian worship other than school.

The mindfulness practice was most public in our whole school worship where a substantial period of silence is just part of the ritual of what we do in every act of worship. Initially at the start of worship and later nearer the end. Sitting in silence with 600 inner-city Lewisham pupils was a powerful part of our life together. Visitors almost always comments positively on it. Many visitors spoke about how calm the school felt generally and there may have been a connection with our mindfulness practice  but it would be impossible to prove it.

I don’t want to paint an unreal or idealised version of the mindfulness practice. It was strongest in the second to fourth years of my headship and waned after that. It was not possible to continue the external teaching partly for financial, partly for logistic/timetable reasons. With 20% of the pupil population new every year this meant that very quickly large numbers of pupils had not received the formal teaching. Similarly staff turnover meant that quite quickly many staff had not received the training. Pressure on exam achievement, particularly in the academic years ending in 2014 and 2015, our weakest cohorts also led to prioritising other factors over mindfulness. I should also stress that Mindfulness was far from being a panacea to behaviour issues. Pupils continued to misbehave, give new staff,  especially new teachers a hard time. Some permanent exclusions were necessary as much as I resisted doing this.

In some ways ‘silence’ is not a helpful word because there are always sounds. At Taizé the fidgeting, coughing and occasional mobile phone are part of the texture of the silence. But it is important also that we acknowledge that the brain is never silence. What is being taught in this practice is the ability to pay attention.  In school we often ask children to pay attention, or why they are not paying attention! We need to teach them this as much as we need to teach them anything else.

Despite the popularity of mindfulness, it is actually quite counter-cultural, especially in an urban setting like Lewisham. Noise is constant, the volume is high. Noise is not only auditory, the visual environment is noisy as well. At Trinity we deliberately tried to mimic the visual aesthetic at Taizé in the use of colours, but also in the use of a sense of space, not plastering every space with notices and displays: God is beauty, ‘Deus pulchritudinis‘ being our motto.

We taught the observation of breathing as the main practice of mindfulness, sometimes with an initial body scan, and very occasionally a development of compassion for others. The breath acts as an anchor for the mind’s attention to hold on to. We taught children to count their breathing too. A simple Google search will reveal the sort of techniques. Is it prayer? I suppose that depends on whether the person wants it to be prayer. For me, the mindfulness of breathing ties in closely with the sense of the Spirit as ruach. For some it would be the threshold of prayer, for others it would be the ‘spiritual but not religious’ practice. In any case it united the school in a shared experience.

How did the children respond? In the sense in which the whole school went along with the practice everyone was engaged at some level. Others would talk abut being bored. An interesting effect, particularly in smaller groups, was of pupils feeling sleepy during the practice, I wonder if this is particularly a case with teenagers many of whom don’t get enough sleep. Interestingly when asked if we should stop the practice no one wanted to. If I had my time again as Head I would try to employ a mindfulness Teaching Assistant to deliver training to staff and to each new year group. I still wonder if some better language than ‘mindfulness’ is possible for Christians but haven’t found it yet. I am very conscious that at Taizé there is never any training or teaching about what to do with the silence, but they have a community of 100 monks to hold it.

“Schools should educate by teaching selfless attention”, wrote W.H. Auden. Many schools are using mindfulness as one way of doing this; there is already a substantial body of research on the effect of this. For me, to pay attention is close to a definition of love, there may be nothing more important we can teach them.

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