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The Beginner's Mind Revisited: The Importance of Ritual

Last fall, I wrote about the Beginner's Mind in relation to new teachers and their expectations. And it's no accident that one year later, as the school year renews, as teachers and students return to engage in another year of learning, as we embark upon the predictable and unpredictable moments in the cycle of the school, that the Beginner's Mind becomes part of the yearly ritual I return to.

The concept of the Beginner's Mind comes from the Zen Buddhist tradition and is known in Japanese as "Shoshin (初心)": an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when entering any task, familiar or unfamiliar. For educators, this can be an especially important mindset as we begin with new courses, grade levels, and groups of students, even ones we have known and taught before. The Beginner’s Mind allows us the opportunity to meet people again as they change, to allow for us to change as well. The Beginner’s Mind makes innovation possible, gives chances to those who may not have succeeded before, allows people to evolve as the world does—keeping education dynamic.

And while the Beginner’s Mind opens us up to possibility, the rituals of school keep us grounded in moments when the feelings of overwhelm, jitters, and opening day anxiety may get the best of us. Veteran teachers know all too well how important the first days/weeks of school rituals are. New teachers will eventually come to know these rituals with more ease as the years pass, and they, too, will develop their own routines to help students succeed.

We all can take comfort in the fact that first days of school are the ritualistic pivot point between one year and the next, and that whatever fears accompany those first moments with students, they quickly will fade into engaging activities, routines in the classroom, opportunities for learning and growth—moments where the safety nets of classroom culture allow students to thrive. (Nothing feels better than the well-oiled machine of a classroom whose systems are well under way.)

This past August, the CATDC completed its fifth year of Teaching Foundations—a program that invites teachers to examine their identities, school cultures, curricula and lessons, communication styles, and professional relationships in order to deepen their work in schools and classrooms. I look forward to it every year, as it reminds me what I love most about this profession: passionate, reflective practitioners eager to develop and refine their craft, all in the service of students.

This year was one of our biggest cohorts, and the Beginner’s Mind was ever present in our daily activities. On the first day of the program, we invited participants (regardless of years in the classroom) to start with a Beginner’s Mind so that the week allowed people to learn from fresh vantage points. And by the end of the program, we offered participants a range of activities and reflective questions that invited them to create their own rituals in their classrooms—from culturally responsive teaching practices to classroom management strategies to approaches to lesson design. Our hope is that participants will ask their students to enter school with Beginner’s Minds as well, and as the rituals of the year unfold, students will approach each new task feeling safe and challenged—the optimal balance for learning to occur.

My hope for you all as you begin your school years is that you will find a balance between beginning anew and re-grounding yourselves in what allows you to feel whole—the rituals that help you perform at your best. And may that combination between grounding routines and open-mindedness provide you with an entry point to a stellar year ahead.


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