Meet Chris Willard, Author, Psychologist, Educator, and Thought Leader

 

Interviewed by Aviva DeKornfeld

The movement is undergoing many changes. As I’ve watched the conversations about professionalization and certifications unfold, I’ve wondered if creating one unified body is an impossible task. And if so, I wonder if perhaps we can all at least agree on a few basic principles and standards. In general, I think it helps to build from points of agreement and overlap, and then perhaps get more complicated from there. With that in mind, I set my goals: protect the students, protect the practices, and protect the teachers.

note from susan

The recent launch of the International Mindfulness Teachers Association (full disclosure, I'm on the advisory board) has sparked both conversation and controversy over how best to certify teachers and professionalize the mindfulness field. In a guest post, Chris Willard offers seven ethical guidelines for teaching mindfulness to children and families. Chris talks with Aviva DeKornfeld about what moved him to write this piece below.

The ethical guidelines and Q & A together are a long read. Still, I encourage you to invest the time and carefully consider this argument for best standards from one of the field's thought leaders. 


What moved you to write a piece on professionalization and certification of mindfulness teachers?

The movement is undergoing many changes. As I’ve watched the conversations about professionalization and certifications unfold, I’ve wondered if creating one unified body is an impossible task. And if so, I wonder if perhaps we can all at least agree on a few basic principles and standards. In general, I think it helps to build from points of agreement and overlap, and then perhaps get more complicated from there. With that in mind, I set my goals: protect the students, protect the practices, and protect the teachers.

who should sort out these issues?


Ooof, that’s tricky. Whoever has the time and interest? But, seriously, I think we need diverse teachers with a range of specialties—therapists, pediatricians, teachers, parents, etc. We need newcomers, and people have who have been practicing this forever. And we need to include the voices of people who learned mindfulness when they were kids since they can tell us from their own experience about what worked and what didn't.

Everyone says the “mindfulness and kids” movement is young; but is it? People have been teaching mindfulness in schools for almost 20 years. Why aren't there established best practices yet?

I’m not sure, but with an increasing number of people getting involved, we have even bigger motivation to keep things safe and effective for everyone. I also think that with more competition, so to speak, we need clear-set guidelines for how we work with one another. Although it’s easy for competing organizations to get caught up in ego or money driven disagreements, there are also very legitimate concerns about philosophical differences in teaching, and about how to share resources and ideas in ways that are equitable.

Do you think the same set of guidelines should apply across the board–for parents, teachers, and clinicians?

I don’t. A teacher who wants to teach a few hot chocolate breaths to help their kids settle shouldn’t have to go through the same training program as someone who works with traumatized kids in the justice system.

However, we should also be cognizant of the fact that what we are teaching young kids is not really mindfulness. It’s what some people call pre-mindfulness. Is learning your ABC's in kindergarten writing? No, but it’s the basis of writing. Is learning the hot chocolate breath mindfulness? Not really, but it’s the foundation. It’s pre-mindfulness. That said, even if you are working with kids on pre-mindfulness, you should still have a basic level of training. Although teachers may have different levels of training, the important thing is that they all follow the same set of intentions and ethical agreements.

Talk about the role of collaboration in this work between teachers, clinicians, and parents.

I believe everyone should stick to their specialty. Clinicians should stick to clinical work, and teachers should keep to the classroom. If teachers are working with emotionally challenged kids, then they should partner with clinicians. And if clinicians come into schools, they should partner with educators.

We have a wide range of knowledge across our fields, which means there are a ton of opportunities for collaboration, and to learn from one another. I learned more about managing a group of kids from teachers than from any course I took in graduate school. The more collaboration the better! We don't need to try to do each other's jobs.

Parents should also be included in the mix. While I might be an expert on child development, they are the expert on their child. Ideally, we come together and share our unique perspectives to help do whatever is best for the child.

Do you think anything is lost in the standardization of teaching mindfulness?

Yes, I worry a lot could be lost. First, we need to reckon with the question of "who decides" what standards are. Beyond that, I’m afraid we could lose some potentially great teachers who might not be able to afford the training programs or fit the training into their hectic lives. I also think creativity can be lost if we aren't careful. It’s important that practice and teaching constantly evolve as our culture and needs develop. 

I'm reminded, too, that being certified in a field doesn't necessarily amount to being qualified. I know many people with many degrees who are mediocre (even bad) therapists, teachers, and mindfulness facilitators. I don't want "consumers" to think that just because someone has completed a certification course, they are qualified or good at their job.

To complicate this further, I also feel that a lot could be lost without standardizations. It cuts both ways. I don’t have any answers. I’m just trying to ask more questions.

You write, “In the spirit of the ethic of generosity, I would encourage my fellow teachers to be generous in the sharing of mindfulness and related practices you may have created or, more likely, adapted. This keeps the movement open to innovation and able to evolve and adapt, while keeping our egos at bay.” Talk about the relationship between mindfulness and ego.

Well, as a popular mindfulness teacher, it’s very to easy to think this is about the power of me rather than the power of the practice. We can easily feel like the number of teaching gigs we get is tied to our identity. That’s why it helps to always be a part-time mindfulness teacher. I also think it’s really useful for every mindfulness teacher to have a mindfulness teacher of their own, as well as a therapist, or a peer support group, to keep their egos in check. Collaboration really helps us break our egos down.

Finally, holding "our" practices lightly dissolves the boundary between "my mindfulness" materials and someone else's—between them and me. However, this is tricky to navigate. For example, I don’t mind if people use "my" adaptations, but I do mind if someone uses "my" practices and insinuates that they made them, and make money off that. I think that’s unkind, unfair and unethical. This conflict brings us to a larger issue of cultural ownership and cultural appropriation, although that may be a whole other interview. Basically, it’s important to acknowledge the source of inspiration for the practices we share. This keeps our own ego in check and honors other peoples' creative contributions.

You talk a lot about teachers exploiting their positions of power. What does that exploitation look like? How could a student detect it, and do you have advice for students beginning their practice/finding the right teacher?

I wish I had better advice for this.  Basically, trust your gut, which is an odd thing for someone grounded in science to suggest. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself that might be useful:

1.)   Do you feel understood and supported?

2.)   Does your teacher have the time for you? Many well-intentioned, caring teachers aren’t good at telling people they don’t have time or don’t have a certain skill set.

3.)   Does your teacher have what you’re looking for in both a personal and professional sense?

4.)   Are you paying more than average? Anything you learn from an expensive course you can probably also learn on YouTube or from a very inexpensive retreat.

5.)   Do you feel like your teacher’s ego is getting in the way of their teaching?

6.)   Is your teacher saying there’s only one way to do things? If so, they are likely not a great teacher. Similarly, steer clear if a teacher says anything and everything is mindfulness. Look for a middle path.

Find a teacher who has a practice of their own, and has a teacher or teaching community.

What do you hope for the mindfulness movement? Where do you hope to see it go?

I hope it goes far. I know it will. I also know we might not call it "mindfulness" in 20 years, but that may be okay. The challenge will be to maintain integrity while growing and to grow without watering down. I hope everyone finds what works best for them.