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Mindful Online Teaching and Learning: A Conversation with Tiffany Guske

By Melissa Venable / March 2019

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At last year’s Distance Teaching and Learning Conference in Madison, Wisconsin, Tiffany Guske, a coach, speaker, and expert in personal growth techniques, provided an unexpected introduction at the first general session. She led an excited and restless ballroom of nearly 800 attendees in a mindfulness exercise. The group began by taking three slow full deep breaths, then writing down a specific goal, an intention for how they would spend their time at the conference. It was a simple and brief exercise, but a powerful one. I have described this as “a breath of fresh air” to many colleagues since.

While not a typical way to begin a conference, it established focus and readiness for the busy days ahead. This intention identified by each attendee was a guide to ensure purposeful action throughout the two-day conference. After all, everyone had taken time away from job, family and daily life to attend. Why not make it as productive and meaningful as possible?

As an adjunct instructor, I’ve experienced the demands related to not only establishing an online presence in my courses, but maintaining focus and productivity throughout an accelerated academic term. I don’t think I’m alone. As online education continues to grow, and the demographics of our students expand, the work of the online professor continues to evolve. The demands and expectations can add to our stress and anxiety levels, reducing our effectiveness and satisfaction overall.

In addition to the conference introduction, Tiffany also presented a workshop session titled, “Mindfulness and Online Presence: Take a healthier approach to building your ideal learning environment.” It was my pleasure to connect with her after the event to find out more.


When did you become interested in mindfulness?

I would definitely describe myself as a Type A, overachiever, perfectionist personality. Which is great for getting things done, but not always so great for taking care of yourself. (laughs) On my personal self-development journey I discovered mindfulness was an accessible tool to help manage my stress and promote overall wellness. My initial introduction into mindfulness was a Chinese moving meditation known as qi-gong. At that time a moving meditation was a good match for my restlessness and anxiety. And I’ve continued to explore new techniques and develop a committed practice for nearly 20 years now.


How did you arrive at your your current role as a coach? 

While my career path hasn’t been typical or predictable, it has woven together all of my passions in life to bring me to a place where I’m able to share my experiences with others in a meaningful way. And I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m able to pull all the ideas I’ve been delving into together and do what I really love by assisting others. My career vision always included entrepreneurship—I just didn’t know the exact timing until it arrived five years ago.


How do you describe the work you do today as a coach?

The diversity of my background in business, psychology, and spirituality lead me to practices that encouraged a coaching model that focuses on the whole person. We tend to compartmentalize the different parts of our lives and I’m working to let people know that isn’t necessary. And that in fact you can show up as a better version of you in the world by accessing all aspects of yourself. Mindfulness is truly the foundation from which I work.


How do you describe “mindfulness?”

Jon Kabat-Zinn, known as the “Father of Mindfulness” is credited with bringing mindfulness to the U.S. I find his definition to be the most easily understood and applied. His approach is intended to help us use mindfulness not so much in a Buddhist context, but in our everyday lives as a tool for health and wellness.

“Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgement.”

When breaking down the definition into four components you begin to see how it works. “Paying attention in a particular way, on purpose” is about making a conscious choice to be “in the present moment.” And we can practice this part of mindfulness pretty easily with consistent intention to come into the moment. I find “without judgement” to be the most challenging aspect of mindfulness. That inner critic who judges me can be brutal. But by continuing to practice mindfulness I’ve been able to train my brain to stay focused in in the current moment.


What defines an exercise as mindful?

Mindfulness is simple, but not necessarily easy. The good news is that the brain is just like any other muscle in the body. When you work it out regularly with exercises, it learns and remembers how to do it. Eventually you’re able to become mindful and present on demand with yourself. Even under stressful situations.

I find that specific exercises tied to getting in touch with your senses, becoming aware of your body, are a simple way to come into the present moment. Whenever we tap into one or more of our five senses of sight, sound, taste, smell, or touch we are in fact becoming present in that moment.

My favorite example of a mindfulness exercise is a ritual for me that taps into all five senses. Espresso is my thing and I really enjoy it. I have an automatic machine that does everything for me. It’s my first activity when I walk into the kitchen in the morning after I’ve finished my meditation. First, I see the machine (sight) and then I press the button to start the process (touch). I hear the beans grinding (sound) and begin to smell the espresso as it is brewed (smell). When I grab the cup with my hands I feel the warmth of the liquid (touch) and finally I bring it to my lips for the rich flavor (taste). This is part of my routine and an initial step into mindfulness for the day.


So, you think it’s important to practice mindfulness everyday?

Absolutely. Being able to create mindfulness rituals for yourself around things you’re already doing, is, I believe, the most effective way to bring mindfulness into your life. Where can you practice mindfulness in your day-to-day life that isn’t cumbersome? These are the moments that can become more mindful without adding to the to-do list. It’s just you becoming more present in your life.


It was exciting, but also a little surprising, to see your session topic at an education conference. While mindfulness is gaining attention as a broader trend, why is it particularly relevant for those in online education right now?

I’ve worked with K-12, undergraduate, and graduate institutions with both faculty and students. But hadn’t yet had the opportunity to explore and understand the world of online teaching. In my research for presenting at the conference I conducted interviews with instructors and personally completed two online courses at UW Madison—“The Fundamentals of Online Teaching” and “Building Online Presence.” It quickly opened my eyes to how overwhelming and demanding online education can be for both the instructor and student.


Do you feel the stressors are different for face-to-face instructors versus those teaching online?

Yes. There’s a huge shift in the demands of online teachers and learners when we move from face-to-face to online courses. Until you’re doing it I don’t think you fully understand. It’s not just about dropping your class content into an online course. This is especially true where online presence is concerned—what you need that experience to be, and the engagement of you and your students for effectiveness, without everyone getting burned out in the process. I find many instructors take on a heavy emotional burden associated with the expectation that everything needs to be perfect for their students, as a responsibility for creating the ideal learning environment and experience for success.


How can mindfulness make a difference in online learning environments?

The idea of being present, being engaged and knowing what you want to get out of an experience is important. Often the mind works against this. It’s what I affectionately refer to as “the runaway brain.” It goes this way and that, down all kinds of irrelevant mental pathways. By setting a clear intention about how you are spending a section of time, and having a tangible statement to refer to, such as that declared intention, you can bring yourself back to the present when your runaway brain takes off. This is one of the reasons for the mindfulness exercise introduction at the conference. Asking everyone to really consider and play with the idea of their intention as it related to the conference: How do I want to spend this time? What do I want to get out of it? This exercise can be used by instructor and students each time they engage in the online learning process to facilitate a more fruitful experience.


How can online instructors integrate mindfulness with their teaching?

There are two beginner strategies I would recommend for online instructors—building boundaries and managing transitions.

For instructors, building boundaries around when they are and are not working is key. Simply put, it’s about creating specific time spans during which they’ll be online in their courses and then making the conscious choice to be focused solely on that for that window. This prevents the need to constantly check email, grade assignments, or communicate with students. Defining a reasonable timeframe to complete the work versus anxiously popping on and off randomly provides a better sense of control. Take a moment to observe your own working behavior. You’ll probably find that you begin to do one thing, skip to another task like answering an email, then flip to something completely outside of the course—ultimately realizing that you haven’t really done the work you sat down to do.

One participant at my conference session commented that holding boundaries is very difficult, which is true. If you practice mindfulness though, even in the most basic of ways like my espresso example, you’re training your brain to be present. It’s a muscle. The more we train it to be focused, the easier it will become to pull yourself back when the mind jumps to a place of anxiety or distraction. Let your decisions about what you are doing being deliberate. Having an awareness of this is empowering. When you don’t recognize what’s happening, you can’t stop it.

Everyone has transitions between tasks and types of work. But we so quickly get distracted when we don’t make commitment to the task. That’s when we start to feel our energy dissipating and painfully realize we haven’t gotten done what we needed to. Leveraging these transitions is a great way to practice mindfulness. I call it transitional breath work. It looks like this:

  1. Note that you are transitioning to a different task or type of work,
  2. sit up straight in your chair with both feet on the ground,
  3. take three or more deep cleansing breaths with eyes closed, and
  4. begin.

My favorite way to do this is to set a time for two to three minutes. As you start each task you are being deliberate, conscious, and purposeful about what you are doing and why you are doing it.


Do you recommend that instructors encourage students to use these practices as well?

Yes. These are helpful for both groups and if they are practicing together it creates an even stronger and healthier online presence.


What are some of the potential benefits of applying mindfulness strategies in online teaching for instructors and students?

There are endless benefits to mindfulness but there are three that I would call out specifically for online teaching for both instructors and students: (1) an increased sense of connectivity with others, (2) greater self-awareness of our impact, and (3) a stronger sense of feeling focused and in control of our day.

Communicating takes on a different level of effort with online learning. It’s the responsibility of both instructors and students to determine the baseline for appropriate communication amongst the group. Once something goes out there after you send you can’t get it back. The question we should be asking is “what happens after I hit send?” Hence the need for both self-awareness and a sense of connectedness with others in the class. Becoming more mindful and less rushed can assist here.

Building self-awareness through mindfulness can positively impact our effectiveness and create a sense of empathy and compassion. This takes us a bit deeper into the mindfulness concept. If you have no connectivity to the person on the other side of the computer you’ll likely interact differently than if you have built rapport. Instructors can model this for students, and what’s possible will vary depending on things like what kind of course it is and how many students are enrolled.

Using mindfulness practices opens opportunities for instructors to create an online presence that builds a respectful environment that nurtures the individual and the group. And it’s the skills built through mindful practices that extend beyond the virtual classroom and into the world in a positive way.


We talk about building online presence in a course, and the terminology of mindfulness is about being present. How do these work together?

You can’t have a 24/7 online presence, but being thoughtful about the interactions you do have is helpful. It’s an awareness you bring to your own process.

Many people I talk to say they just don’t have time for this, and it does take time to train your brain, just like it does to see the benefits from exercising the body. Mindfulness is exercising the mind to be more aware of what we’re doing and then choosing to refocus our attention. By taking it in bite-size pieces and integrating it into your existing routines it’s doable.


For educators interested in learning more about mindfulness, what should they look for?

Start with the basics. Find resources that match your interests. For example, if you want to know more about the science of mindfulness, explore the research—there’s plenty.

If you’re more interested in exploring mindfulness techniques, try an online course. Look for those designed to help you apply specific concepts to your life and work, to help you cultivate your own practice. If you’re a structured person this can have immense benefits

Apps are yet another resource. Many of them are free with an option for upgrades with features like guided meditations and courses. There are a lot of options out there and it may come down to finding a voce that appeals to you, especially as you listen to recorded materials and guided exercises.

For people who are drawn to do more integration of mindfulness into the day-to-day, identify a few ways that aren’t overwhelming or burdensome. Through my blog I share Mindfulness Monday, which are quick exercises that you can apply to daily living and working.

There are also in-person learning options in your local community where you can dabble a little bit. Contact a wellness center near you or the local community college to find out what might be available in terms of workshops, classes, and seminars.


Throughout our conversation, Tiffany repeatedly came back to this idea: “We’re talking about the future of education … this is what moves the world forward.” We all need to be lifelong learners, to not only stay up-to-date on the job, but also pursue opportunities for personal growth. Mindfulness is one way to support these efforts as we move through the inevitable changes we encounter in our lives, often amid the overstimulation of access to technology and not a lot of downtime. Managing stress, coming up with ways to help ourselves, is really important.

To learn more about Tiffany Guske’s work visit her website. You can also explore a Quick Start Guide for building a mindfulness practice and review the resources provided to Distance Teaching and Learning Conference attendees.


About Tiffany Guske

In her coaching and consulting practice today, Tiffany Guske expertly guides others on how to integrate mindfulness into their daily lives and careers. With more than 25 years of experience that ranges from a senior directorrole in financial services to providing counseling services for autistic children and their families, she is well equipped in her quest to help others achieve wholeness. Supported by her formal education of a M.S. in human resources from Loyola University Chicago, M.A. in counseling psychology from the Adler School of Professional Psychology and a host of certifications and licensure, she has artfully woven together the worlds of business, psychology and aspects of spirituality through a foundation of mindfulness. Much of her work offers both individual clients and organizations an experience in self-discovery and reflection that leads to building a realistic, practical and achievable plan of action. Understanding how and why we work the way that we do has always been a fascination for Tiffany and as a lifelong learner she has sought to understand the parts of us that are not so evident physically, the psyche and the soul.

About the Author

Melissa A. Venable, PhD is an Online Education Advisor at, a role that includes writing, research, and social media management. Her background includes experience as an instructional designer in industry and higher education. She received her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction-Instructional Technology from the University of South Florida in 2007. Melissa currently teaches graduate-level instructional design and project management courses online at the University of South Florida and Saint Leo University.

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