Welcome to THE ZEN TEACHER PROFILE. Here, experienced teachers respond to questions that explore their use of Zen-inspired techniques and concepts in their day-to-day classroom experience.

If you would like to participate in THE ZEN TEACHER PROFILE, please feel free to let me know by using the contact form on the website, which can be found here, or emailing me at teachingzen@gmail.com.  I offer you twenty-two questions and you choose the ones (limit 5) you’d like to answer.

What role does non-judgment play in your classroom experience?

As an art and media teacher one of my main goals is to get students to be expressive, think creatively, and move out of their comfort zones to take innovative risks. Creating a positive, non-judgmental, safe space is essential in building the trust with students in order to make that happen.  I talk to students early on in the school year about my philosophy, the benefit of a growth mindset, and what’s necessary to build the kind of environment that promotes creativity, but make it clear that it’s a partnership and we need to work together.  Modeling a supportive and non-judgmental attitude goes a long way, but I always find it really helpful to share some personal experiences about the repercussions judgments can have.  There’s no question a driving force in my choice of being an educator, and further the success I’ve had as a person, stems directly from a small handful of teachers who had a pronounced affect on me at an early age.  When we realize the power a great teacher has in simple acts of support, we conversely understand the damage that can come from feeling judged and ignored in school.  I think non-judgement and compassion go hand in hand as an educator and I’ve worked at being open, caring, honest, and non-judgmental even on the toughest of days.    

What does your “Radical Self-Care” look like?

The whole concept of self-care is something that I’ve come to understand late in my teaching career.  The idea of taking care of myself so often fell below other priorities in my early years as a teacher and I paid a toll physically and emotionally.  I’ve learned that burning myself out benefits no one and making self-care a priority is essential to be sustainable as a creative artist and as an effective, giving educator.  My radical self-care is always evolving but it began with learning to say no to things, which took some time.  There are a few practices that are really helpful and the foremost is definitely spending some time outside education doing what I love–Art.  I spend some time making art daily whether it’s drawing or writing or taking pictures, but it greatly improves my outlook and adds balance into my life.  Meditation and deep breathing techniques are also a big part of my self-care and they’ve had a tremendous impact on my outlook, especially as I’ve brought some elements of them into my classroom.  I also make regular exercise and healthier eating  (notably adding and maintaining more greens and raw foods into my diet) a big part of my self-care.  I’m thankful that my district has chosen to make social-emotional learning a priority and, through sharing with colleagues, I’ve learned to be more attentive to self-care needs.  My self-care is a work in progress, but I make it a practice to check-in with myself regularly and create healthy boundaries which in turn makes me a happier person and a better teacher.

How do you attempt to “Be In The Moment” as you teach?

Being authentic and in the moment as a teacher is tremendously powerful in the classroom.  Students’ reactions, attention levels, and engagement improve dramatically when students feel teaching is genuine and the lesson isn’t canned.  My secret to being in the moment in class is learning to let go.  There’s nothing wrong with having a plan, but rigidly holding onto a plan is a problem–especially when it isn’t engaging.  As a teacher I’ve learned that planning can sometimes be limiting and that no methodology or lesson plan works for everyone.  I make an effort to be real with students, leave unstructured time in class to improvise, and to stay open and receptive to whatever comes our way in the classroom.  Talking to students with compassion is a great start along this path as well as working on lessons alongside students.  When you participate with students, it sends a message.  Being open and going with the flow facilitates being in the moment which in turn allows some magical teachable moments to happen.

Tim Needles is an artist, writer, performer, and educator from Port Jefferson, NY.  He has been teaching art and media at Smithtown School District in NY for 17 years as well as working as an Adobe Education Leader, an educational consultant for The Japan Society, and as an adjunct college professor.  His work has been featured on NPR as well as in The New York Times, the Columbus Museum of Art, SVA Gallery, the Talks With Teachers podcast, and LitReactor.  He is also the recipient of the 2016 National Art Education Association’s ArtEdTech Outstanding Art Teaching Award and the Robert Rauschenberg Power of Art Award at the National Gallery of Art.  He is active on social media guest hosting education chats and sharing his thoughts on arts and education- you can find him at TimNeedlesArt on Facebook or @timneedles on Twitter and Instagram.