Take CHARGE Day 16: Mindfulness
(To read Day 15, click here. To listen to this post as a podcast, click here.)
Take CHARGE of the Moment
For teachers to truly take charge of the moment, they first must be in the moment. Too often events seem to spiral out of control when misbehavior pops up in a classroom. One thing leads to another and, like a long line of dominoes, events unfold seemingly on their own.
For example, Jacob says Julianna is a fat pig. Julianna gets angry and throws a pencil at Jacob. The teacher sees the flying pencil and goes off on Julianna, threatening to send her to the office. Julianna screams that it's Jacob's fault and he can't seem to remember what he said (if anything). Now, instead of finding the least common denominator of 2/3 and 4/9, the teacher has to start a full-scale criminal investigation. Witnesses are interviewed, statements are taken, and instruction is completely derailed.
This occurrence, or something similar to it, happens in schools every day. Events quickly take a wrong turn and teachers feel as if they are trying to conduct an orchestra in the dark with several people not even knowing how to play their instrument. One key, then, to keep in mind during tense situations is to stay mindful. The moment is here and happening now. Instead of running from it, denying it, or trying to bulldoze through it, simply enter it.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness does not require yoga positions or tinkling waterfalls, though those can be involved. It does not demand that you criss-cross your legs and listen to your breath, though that is a useful technique. Mindfulness is not an abstract state, useless for real teachers in real classrooms. Instead, it's a kind, curious, nonjudgmental awareness that we try to bring to each moment. That's it. Mindfulness is awareness of the moment. So what's the big deal with mindfulness?
Mindfulness enables us to connect deeply with ourselves so in turn we can authentically connect with others. In the midst of the crisis that Jacob and Julianna are in, they both need someone to connect with them. They feel angry, hurt, ashamed, and a host of other emotions. To help them process their feelings, take ownership for their actions, accept the consequences and repair the relationship, they need a strong and steady guide to help steer them. In the scenario above, the teacher was NOT that guide.
Yet mindfulness isn't just a generic mental state. It's energy we cultivate through kind, present-moment awareness. It involves the practice of coming back to the peaceful compassionate space we all have inside ourselves with curiosity and without judgment.
When we come back to this space repeatedly, it grows. Much like any other skill, such as juggling or throwing darts, practice is required. It'll be hard to remain mindful in a stressful situation if it's never practiced in peaceful situations.
The mind is like a muscle. The more it lies in certain states, the more it will seek them. Mindfulness is a way of training our minds through intentional awareness so that they stay in a peaceful and compassionate state. The key words that crop up again and again with mindfulness are curiosity, peaceful, compassionate, and nonjudgmental. Mindfulness isn't just being present in a situation - it's being present in the right frame of mind.
Respond, don't react
Mindfulness enables us to be responsive and less reactive. In the scenario with Jacob and Julianna, the teacher was highly reactive. She saw the flying pencil and immediately jumped to conclusions. Rather than being in the moment, curious and peaceful, she rushed through the environment like a bull in a china shop.
Mindfulness is comprised of three core elements. First, intention involves knowing why we are doing what we are doing. What are our ultimate aims, our vision, and our aspirations? What do we intend to do with the moment, either consciously or subconsciously? Second, attention involves attending fully to the present moment instead of being pulled into the past or the future. What will happen will happen and what has already happened is too late to alter. Instead, the present moment is what we can affect. Finally, attitude, or how we pay attention, enables us to stay open, kind, and curious. Are we harsh and critical or curious and accepting?
Some of you new to mindfulness might have misconceptions about it and approach it from a domination point of view. It's not about controlling your mind with mental discipline. There are schools of thought that focus on mental control but mindfulness isn't one of them. No, it's about transforming, not dominating, your consciousness. The point of mindful introspection is to bring awareness to what happens in your mind and body (e.g., thoughts, emotions, physical sensations).
So if mindfulness is like a skill that needs to be practiced, how does one practice it? There are many books, videos, apps, and websites dedicated to just this. For those that want a simple starting point, however, try breathing. Observing the breath is one of the easiest, simplest ways to start practicing mindfulness. Sit somewhere quiet and put a timer on for 3 minutes. With your eyes closed, focus on your breathing. In through the nostrils, out through the mouth. As your mind wanders, bring it back to focusing on the sensation of breathing.
As elementary as this sounds, it can be extremely difficult. Our minds are always racing and constantly being bombarded with images and sounds. Taking that away and focusing on something you'll do at least 20,000 times a day seems simple. But it's not. Bringing our minds back to our breathing when it wanders, not forcefully or harshly, begins to develop in us the ability to bring our minds back to the moment in high stress situations like flying pencils in the classroom.
Another key component of mindfulness is that it strengthens our acceptance. Mindful awareness is about attending to - actually "tending to" - our experiences with care and acceptance. The acceptance stems from a recognition that what is happening is already happening. That might sound extremely obvious, but so many times we fight against what already is because it doesn't line up with what we want.
In the scenario with Jacob and Julianna, the teacher clearly did not want the situation to happen the way it did. She'd rather move through her lesson about fractions and not deal with projectiles hurtling through the classroom. In her inability to accept the moment as it is, her emotions became unbalanced. She not only reacted to the flying pencil, she also became disoriented because her expectation of the lesson did not come to fruition. Her response was as much about the flying pencil as it was about her inability to control her environment.
What's happened has already happened. Acceptance is mindfulness in action and improves our mental well-being. By calmly and curiously approaching each moment, especially those that are highly emotional and pointing toward behavioral chaos, mindfulness is a powerful tool. It allows us to enter each situation with a desire to help students be more successful rather than punish them to control their behavior.
By focusing on reading and meeting their needs - as opposed to using punishments and rewards to control behaviors - you become better able to regulate and teach your students in the moment and help them become self-disciplined over time. Teachers know that modeling is extremely powerful. The words we say and the attitudes we adopt are often mimicked by our students. By accepting situations as they are, rather than letting frustration boil over because they are not what we want them to be, we demonstrate a calm serenity that our students will most definitely pick up on.
So the next time Jacob says something rude to Julianna that sets her off, take a moment and breathe. Respond in the moment rather than react to what you wanted the moment to be. You'll find that your calmness and presence will open the door for swift and painless resolutions.
Action: Practice mindful breathing for 3 minutes a day for at least 5 days in a row. Doing nothing but that, see how it helps you in high-stress situations to be mindful of the moment. The next time you feel like you are about to yell at a student, stop and take 3 deep breaths.
Reflection questions: How mindful are you? Do you feel like you are open to the moment, curiously taking each experience as it comes? Or do you feel like you are stuck on a raft with no oars in the middle of a raging river, battered and tugged with no control? How can mindfulness help you slow the current of your mind?
Bailey, R. A. (2015). Conscious discipline: building resilient classrooms. Oviedo, FL: Loving Guidance.
Greenland, S. K. (2010). The mindful child: how to help your kid manage stress and become happier, kinder, and more compassionate. New York: Free Press.
Shapiro, S. L., & White, C. (2014). Mindful discipline: a loving approach to setting limits and raising an emotionally intelligent child. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Srinivasan, M. (2014). Teach, breathe, learn: mindfulness in and out of the classroom. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.
To read Day 17, click here.