Now Is the Time for Contemplative Teaching

Written by
Donelle Dreese

Feb 1, 2021

Feb 1, 2021 • by Donelle Dreese

A pandemic era is a difficult time for educators who have no interest in teaching in an online environment. My intention is not to persuade instructors to embrace teaching online. It is not for everyone. Still, I offer one approach to online education that can help us connect more deeply to our students. A contemplative pedagogy is a holistic—mind, body, spirit—teaching practice that encourages students to engage with course material in a way that nurtures and supports their internal well‐being.

Contemplative teaching can involve a wide variety of different activities from meditation to mindfulness techniques, but at its best, this approach enables students to cultivate a deep personal awareness that helps them form more beneficial relationships with themselves and others as they develop resiliency in an increasingly uncertain world.

No one ever entered into the teaching profession thinking that teaching in a classroom would become a serious health hazard. Although the pandemic still has a grip on higher education, faculty can creatively adapt and use the online platform to connect with students in rewarding and productive ways that may be a little surprising.

Contemplative Pedagogy

All teachers occasionally encounter a theory, idea, or methodology that changes the way we envision ourselves as educators and influences how we interact with our students and colleagues.

For me, it was contemplative pedagogy. It is not new. However, bringing the contemplative to an online learning environment is new. A contemplative online learning environment is introspective, compassionate, attentive, meaningful, flexible and self‐reflective. It foregrounds inclusive course content that focuses on spiritual and psychological well‐being, social justice, and environmental sustainability.

To begin, I cultivated a mindful relationship with technology. Simply put, it means being aware of my own state of consciousness while interacting with students online. It means knowing when it is time to close the laptop and walk away if I am feeling frustrated or fatigued. Students are similarly frustrated. Now more than ever, students are seeking guidance, inspiration, understanding, and stability as the world experiences one crisis after another. As instructors, it is our job to arrive to class online being fully present so we can give our best selves to our students.

At first glance, it may seem like contemplative pedagogy is antithetical to online teaching. But consider this: Asynchronous online education provides students with the opportunity to choose their preferred space, time, pace and conditions to do their work without the social anxieties and scheduling pressures associated with the traditional classroom. The flexibility of online learning was attractive to students before the pandemic. And now students who attend class remotely can have some sense of satisfaction knowing that they are protecting their own health and the health of others.

Distance Doesn't Mean Distant

Though “distance” education might be physically distant, it does not have to be emotionally and psychologically distant. Relationships with students can be nurtured through writing and video conferencing. These might require more effort, but they are worth it.

One of the most basic and effective tools to engage students and create a contemplative environment online is discussion assignments. Students in my classes write weekly, relatively long and polished reactions to prompts and literary readings. These assignments require analysis and introspection before the students engage in a discussion with their classmates.

Assigning thought‐provoking prompts requires students to be curious and to respond with an open heart and open mind. Every semester, I am surprised at how vulnerable many of my students are willing to be in online discussions. Their vulnerability allows them to connect with one another through writing.

In “Cultivating the Contemplative Mind in Cyberspace: Fields Notes from Pedagogical Experiments in Fully Online Classes” published in JOCI: Journal of Contemplative Inquiry, Jane Compson writes that “the relative anonymity of the fully online modality helps to facilitate their [the students] willingness to express their feelings.” She contends that “students may be positively disposed toward online discussions because they have more time to think about and articulate their ideas than in face‐to‐face discussions.” I can attest to this. Some of the students' most thoughtful ideas came in response to course readings in the weekly online discussion forums, in which students have time and space to write sensitive and inspiring posts describing their perspectives. Although face‐to‐face discussions might be more organic and energetic, online written discussions offer depth and introspection. Hybrid classes can offer the best of both worlds.

Several years ago, I made an important discovery: I get to know students better as writers in an asynchronous online learning environment.

As a literature and writing professor, this revelation made complete sense. Nearly every activity my students do involves writing. They write emails, papers, projects, workshop feedback and discussion posts. In addition, building a sense of community and belonging online is possible through writing. Having grown up in the virtual age, students can already be comfortable communicating and sharing their experiences in writing. Even if the online dialogue is asynchronous, it lends itself to authenticity, depth and equal participation from all students.

Creativity, Knowledge and Connection

Creativity and play are important restorative and engaging parts of contemplative practice. Students in my fully online and hybrid classes complete a variety of different creative projects. They write digital poetry, craft e‐chapbooks, create book trailers, make poetry films, write environmental essays, and develop blogs that provide spiritual and mental health resources. They also create book‐review blogs and informative websites about underrepresented authors. Career‐minded seniors can build entrepreneurial websites to offer editing/proofreading services to future clients.

It is important to provide ample opportunities for students to dive into their creative projects in an online learning environment and then share those projects with the rest of the class for feedback and encouragement.

In addition to contemplative content and assignments, short meditations and opportunities for deep listening can take place on video‐learning platforms for synchronous classes. Taking the first five minutes of class for some sort of centering exercise or activity encourages students to mentally arrive in the virtual space and be more present. Reading a short poem or a passage from a text that inspires thought and reflection can work well to start the class with a little more collective calm. These few minutes can help establish a community of listeners and learners ready to experience the time together.

My goal is to stimulate knowledge and connection and to teach from a place of hope, personal empowerment and fulfillment. There is nothing better than receiving feedback at the end of the semester from a student who tells me that they experienced a healing moment in one of my classes. Most faculty have received this kind of feedback from students and have felt its rewards.

The good news is that these transformative moments are just as possible online as they are face‐to‐face. What is most important about exploring contemplative methods in online classes is that students understand that I want them to not just succeed in class, but to thrive and create a healthier, more inclusive world.

Dr. Donelle Dreese is a poet, novelist, essayist, and Professor of English at Northern Kentucky University, where she teaches Multicultural and Environmental Literatures, American Women Poets, and writing courses. She's on Twitter, @donelledreese, and her site is