Day 53: Read the Room

Photo by  Daniil Kuželev  on  Unsplash

Photo by Daniil Kuželev on Unsplash

Today, I presented at a conference for preschool teachers. It was an all day affair, and I was with the same group for the morning and afternoon session. They were thoughtful, engaged, and a pleasure to be around. We packed a lot of learning into the first and second sessions, and by 20-minutes before the scheduled dismissal time, I felt the energy in the room start to tank. Instead of forging ahead with a lengthy debrief activity, we did a final short relaxation and I sent them on their way, 15 minutes early.

One of the skills I have found most helpful in my mindfulness practice is attuning to the room. When we pause, we may notice subtle shifts in the direction of winding up or winding down. While we don’t always have the freedom to let our students leave as I could with my conference participants, reading to the room can help us decide if we are going to forge ahead with the next lesson or take a break. We can tell if we’ve lost everyone and need to take a fresh approach or if they are hanging on our every word.

Take moments to pause in your teaching. Stop moving and look around. What do you notice about the body language? What do you sense about where everyone is emotionally and engagement-wise? How can you proceed most effectively, given what is in front of you?

Day 52 : Step Back

Photo by  Manuel Nägeli  on  Unsplash

Last Thursday unintentionally worked out that all three of my classes were student-led, as will be a professional development session I led in the afternoon. So often, as teachers, we find ourselves at the front of the room, orchestrating and guiding. More and more, I am trying to back out of a front person role, and into a facilitator, guide, and support person. And it is deepening learning in a powerful way.

In my yoga class, when one student leader gave a cue I hadn’t offered before, a girl raised her hand. “Can I just say that it was so helpful for you to say that?” she mused. In my wellness class, as we watched student presentations, I asked the audience to distill what made presentations strong. Instead of standing at the front of the room telling them, just by directing them to pay attention, and having them share their thoughts out, they could do the learning for themselves.

A worthwhile inquiry may be, “What are the ways we can step back in our classroom? What roles and activities can we give up control over? Where will students learning deepen for our absence, rather than presence?”

Day 51: I like to move it, move it

Photo by  Ahmad Odeh  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash

While I love the stillness that sitting in silence brings, mindfulness does not have to be a motionless practice. If we are bringing mindfulness to our students, some may find their way in through movement. In fact, it took me years of yoga practice before it ever occurred to me that I might like to try a still practice.

After three years of teaching separate mindfulness and yoga electives at a local high school, this year I decided to combine the two into one class. There is a synergy between the movement and stillness. The students are much more able to settle after the mindful movement helps them get into their bodies.

In the professional group I met with this afternoon, we used Susan Kaiser Greenland’s mindful game activity cards to explore ways we could bring movement into our mindfulness practice with students. Here were a few faves:

  1. Pass the cup: fill a small cup full of water and see if students can get it around the circle without spilling. (Bonus: do it with your eyes closed…then add no talking.)

  2. Mind, Body Go!: roll a ball back and forth. each time you receive the ball, notice a feeling in the mind and body (ex- my mind is foggy and my hands are cold).

  3. Kindness with Every Step: Have students walk in a a circle or straight line, repeating kind thoughts for themselves (I want to be happy. I want to be safe.) Ring the bell and have them stop. Give them the direction to repeat kind thoughts for someone they love easily during the next round. (I hope you are happy. I hope you are safe.) Ring a bell and give them the final direction to have kind thoughts for everyone in the last round (I hope everyone is happy. I hope everyone is safe.)

Here, we have a focusing exercise, a self-observation exercise, and a kindness exercise, all mindfulness in motion. If you, or your students, are struggling with adapting to stillness, try movement first. It may be the way in.

Day 50: The Art of Hearing Feedback

Photo by  Jason Rosewell  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

Yesterday, as I was going around giving pointers to my students on their power points, I noticed a heavy dose of defensiveness coming back my way. There were excuses, there were explanations, there was jitteriness. I was dumbfounded. What is this?

These kids could not hear feedback without melting.

It made me reflect about what happens when I hear feedback, and what I saw was that, internally, my initial reaction is not so different. I, too, have lots to say back, but I keep it inside. As a perfectionistic kid who was accustomed to lots of academic praise, it is still hard for me to hear constructive feedback without immediately thinking it is some reflection of my competence or goodness as a person. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

One of the gifts of mindfulness is that it helps us slow down. We can notice these truths about ourselves and not react immediately. We don’t blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. We can soothe down our own hackles, and respond in a way that is appropriate and respectful.

Today, I did an exercise with my students in which they received both positive and constructive feedback from three sets of peers. I asked them to pick out one piece of feedback they thought was helpful and say to the class, “Thank you for pointing out…. That is helpful for my revisions.” I assured them they weren’t bad people for receiving constructive feedback, and it didn’t mean there presentations were bad. It’s important life skill to be able to hear feedback gracefully. They practiced a mindful response so that the next time we do critiques, maybe they can remember to pause and respond. Pause and respond.

Day 49: "You are SO VERY super"

Photo by  Kyle Smith  on  Unsplash

Photo by Kyle Smith on Unsplash

Last week, my students and I were exploring a card deck for kids and teens to practice yoga and mindfulness. One of the cards my student led suggested that we stand with our hands on our hips, shoulders back, and say, “I am super! I am SO SUPER! I am SO VERY SUPER!” This particular group, good-natured as they are, delightedly shouted it. And we all had a laugh. And i reflected on how ridiculous it was to ask teens to complete this exercise.

But then today, as I am getting ready for a presentation with parents tonight, I noticed the edge of nerves creep in, as they always do. And for whatever reason, that phrase popped into my head, and I started repeating to myself, “I am super! I am so super! I am so very super!” I couldn’t help but smile and laugh to myself, remembering a whole class of high school students repeating this phrase in unison. And in that moment, my mood lightened.

I tend towards serious and reflective. I like to dig into hard questions and contemplate life. But sometimes, fun is what can create perspective and clarity. The laughter and silliness of that moment was what made it stick.

So here’s a reminder to not take it all so seriously. And here’s a reminder that, “You are SO VERY SUPER!”

Day 48: Screen Free Mealtime

Photo by  Anthony Espinosa  on  Unsplash

Photo by Anthony Espinosa on Unsplash

My wellness students and I explore what it takes to change a habit, and then we all make a resolution to change one habit for a week and document our progress. This past week, I vowed to not eat any meals in front of a screen. I noticed it was my habit for lunch, when no one was around to eat with, to whip out my phone and scroll. And I noticed I barely registered what I was eating. And I didn’t like it.

So this week, I am attending to my meals. And I have to say, it is nice to actually experience what I am eating. Even my peanut butter and banana sandwich on cinnamon raisin bread was scrumptious when I brought my full attention to it.

Give it a try. Put your technology away and use your senses to completely experience your meal.

Day 47: Reflective Mindfulness

Photo by  Hannah Olinger  on  Unsplash

Photo by Hannah Olinger on Unsplash

We think about mindfulness as an in-the-moment practice. But we can also be reflective about events that have already occurred in a way that brings more clarity to our continued perseveration over those events. In Mindfulness for Teachers, Tish Jennings talks about our “scripts” that we have around students, parents, and colleagues that impact how we react to them. If we cannot clearly see our own stories about the people around us, we both add layers of difficulty to our own experience and are unable to respond effectively to what is happening.

I spent Friday with a group of 40 educators, and we took some time to consider our scripts about kids/parents/colleagues and their behaviors as a way of gaining a deeper understanding of what is happening in those moments we find difficult.

As a practice, we took a recent event that was emotionally triggering with a student, parent, or colleague and teased it apart:

(1) OBJECTIVE EXPERIENCE: As best we could, describe what actually happened, without layers of judgement or conjecture.

(2) SCRIPT: What story did we have about that person and about ourselves in relationship to that person?

(3) EMOTIONS: What emotional response did that script about that event trigger?

By breaking it down, we noted that we gained some empathy for the other. We could more easily see how our thoughts played a role in the interaction as much as the event itself. We thought we could more easily go into the next interaction with that person as we would want to, open-hearted and present, with the script noted and checked.

Try taking apart a difficult interaction in this way and see if you can gain any clarity into your own narrative.

Day 46: Re-evaluating the Rules.

Photo by  Paul Hanaoka  on  Unsplash

This semester, I was determined to draw a hardline around phone use in my classroom. My message from the beginning was this: No phones out, I don’t want to see them, or I’ll take them. For the most part, they followed instructions, though every few days I would have to take a phone away. And then, I started to notice if I would leave the room to check on someone in the hallway, inevitably kids would have them out when I came back in. “I needed to check the time,” they’d wail, though there is a clock on the wall. “I swear I was just reading the article,” they’d defend, though I could see their thumbs moving.

All of the sudden I realized I was playing a game of cat and mouse, and I didn’t like it.

I started wondering about the rule I had created and the consequences. What did I want them to learn from my rule about the phones, and were they learning it? My sense was, instead of internalizing some important social morays around phone use, they just saw me as an annoying authority figure to be worked around.

So when we got to the unit of tech use, I invited them to share their concerns with me, and I shared my concerns with them. I told them more concretely the reasons I had my phone policy, and invited them to share with me what they thought the optimal phone policy would be. I took their feedback seriously, and today let them know my new guidelines: no phones out at the beginning of class or during discussion. They could have their phones face down and listen to music during independent work time, as per their request. I told them if they really needed to get in contact with someone, they could step into the hall and deal with it, just as adults do in meetings. But I want them to practice using them responsibly. I want them to be reflective in their use, instead of habitual.

Sometimes, I can get so married to the way things “should” be, I lose track of the way things are. I can get inflexible in my thinking in the name of some ideal, instead of realistic in the face of what is in front of me. If I don’t notice this, I end up with unintended consequences of my rigidity.

I invite you to be open and clear-sighted in your thinking and evaluation of your own expectations and rules in the classroom. Is what you have established creating the environment you seek, or is it holding you to some impossible standard that doesn’t teach the lesson you want your students to learn?

Day 45: Loving that Breath

Photo by  Havilah Galaxy  on  Unsplash

Photo by Havilah Galaxy on Unsplash

Today I was overcome with how good it can feel just to breathe. Not as a tool to calm down, but just as an appreciative witness to the act. Have you focused your whole attention on your breath recently? Really engaged as the air moves in through the nose, down the trachea, expanding the lungs and inflating the diaphragm? Noticing as it all empties back out again, without any interference on your part? It’s just like the waves moving in and out against the shore. It is surprising how something so constant, so mundane, can be so blissful.

Day 44: Thanking the Students

There was a viral video of teachers telling students why they appreciate them going around social media awhile back. I remember being delighted as these teachers opened up with their students in an act of vulnerability that can be quite daunting.

When my students completed their gratitude assignment today, which was to write a letter to someone who they appreciate, and a bonus challenge to someone who might not know it, I chose a student. This was my second semester working with this student, and I had come to so deeply appreciate her kindness, seriousness of purpose, inquisitiveness, and dedication. Handing her that note felt so meaningful in its vulnerability. I hope to look for ways to speak it out loud more often.

Consider finding a student to thank. Not just for their effort in class, not just for being a “good” student, but for the impact they have on you.

Day 43: "Love Reality"

The big thing for me is to love reality and not live in the imagination, not live in what could have been or what should have been or what can be to this reality, and, somewhere, to love reality ... That doesn’t mean to say that we’re just to be passive to welcome reality, because we also have to know how to react in front of reality.
— Jean Vanier
Photo by  Wyron A  on  Unsplash

Photo by Wyron A on Unsplash

I was listening to On Being with Krista Tippet this past weekend, and the above nugget of wisdom was dropped.

Today, I “should” have been working on a presentation for Friday, but instead I was watching my sick daughter empty out the entire contents of her toy box onto the floor and tackling her down to wipe her nose from time to time. So how do I love this unexpected, not entirely pleasant reality?

By love, I think Jean Vanier asks us to accept it all. He asks me to turn my heart towards my truly precious daughter, but also towards my annoyance at the unexpected turn, and my frustration at having to reload her toy box. Only in fully embracing all of the reality could I even hope to soften, letting go of needing it— or I—to be any other way.

What would it feel like, today, to go in to school with intention of loving reality? Of accepting the foibles of ourselves and our students? Of loving the dance and challenge that is being together in a learning community?

Day 42: Look for the good

Photo by  Maria Teneva  on  Unsplash

Photo by Maria Teneva on Unsplash

On Friday, I presented to a group of students identified as at risk in a district near where I teach. For an hour, we explored what it means to have our reactive, distracted minds in the age of technology, and how mindfulness can support our well-being given the reality of our minds.

When I came in, all fifteen students had their phones out. At my request to put them away, 13/15 did so for the entire presentation. As we talked, I noticed students checking in and out at various points. A student with his head down in the corner piped in at one point with a comment about technology. A girl from the other corner of the room who was occasionally pulled into quiet conversation with her peers would redirect back to the task at hand. A few got up to use the bathroom. Throughout, I watched them tuning in and out.

At the end of the presentation, I checked in with the teachers. “You had them at their best,” one said, clearly dismayed at their behavior. And the other, “I was really moved by how you thanked them for coming back with their attention. Sometimes we get so focused on what they are doing wrong we forget to acknowledge them.”

It can be so hard for us to see and acknowledge the goodness in our students when we become focused on them being “better.” (As I told them, it is easier for me to come to their classroom and see this than in my own. I lose that perspective all the time when it is my students who are in front of me.) I could more easily see all of them listened attentively for some stretch of time, while their teachers noticed when they weren’t. I saw that the majority of them followed a difficult request to keep their phones away, while they saw the two who didn’t. I noticed many of them chimed into the class discussion at one point or another, while they may have felt dismayed by those who stay silent.

This is not blind optimism: I did notice the students who struggled, but I did not take it personally. I noticed when the energy in the room sank, and had us get up and play a quick game. When a student took out his math homework, I observed out loud that it suggested to me that he was getting bored, but I only had a short while left with him, and asked him reengage his attention. He did.

I invite you to set an intention to actively look for the good in your room: the inspiring interactions, the students who are giving their complete attention, the work that exceeds expectations. Name those things out loud for those students.

Then, try responding to the “misbehavior” as information: what needs of that student are not being met right now? Is there a way I can help them reengage? What’s my next, most effective move?

I’ll join you in this effort when I see my students next.

Day 41: Let it RAIN

At the beginning of my faculty session today, staff were coming in fired up. There had been some controversy brewing in their school, and they were concerned both with how it was being handled and how it was being perceived by the outside community. It was the perfect segue into talking about difficult emotions.

It can be really challenging when an unpleasant emotion comes up to accept it wholeheartedly. We often don’t have the time or space to process through in the moment, so reflective practice can serve help us use some of the tools of mindfulness in a more controlled environment.

A number of meditation teachers offer the the framework of RAIN to work through challenging emotions (see below). By slowing down and fully accepting our emotions, as crazy and irrational as they may be, and getting curious about them, we can give them space to move through unencumbered.

Set aside some time to consider a recent experience that brought up a difficult emotion. Walk yourself through the steps of Recognizing, Allowing, Investigating, and Not Identifying. Notice if you can breathe a little easier on the other side.


Day 40: Your Inner Critic

Photo by  Daniel Páscoa  on  Unsplash

Some time ago, I started imagining my inner critic as a grumpy old man sitting high up on a porch, yelling out at unsuspecting folks strolling down the road. Being able to visualize an actual being made those thoughts and comments that passed through my mind so much less intense. I could hear them without personalizing them when I called this character to mind as the speaker of said comments.

Today, I did this exercise with my students. They came up with images of Oscar the Grouch-esque characters, their younger selves, a little gremlin, an exhausted dog, and more. When I asked them why it might be helpful to visualize this character, they said,

(1) It helps to create some distance around the critiques and notice them more when they are there.

(2) It helps them not take them so seriously and accept the inner critic.

Often when we practice mindfulness, we are creating space around our thoughts to see them more clearly. We can scaffold this process when it comes to difficult thoughts with this psychological trick:

Try envisioning your inner critic as a being. Notice when it’s voice makes its way into your thoughts. Embrace it.

Day 39: Practicing Not Reacting

I was talking with a group of faculty today about what makes practicing mindfulness hard. One said, “I am afraid I would spend the whole time thinking about how long it has been, and wondering about time. It wouldn’t be productive.”

The expectation that our sitting practice is “productive” is hard to overcome. Even those of us who are practicing awhile may tend to classify pleasant sits when our minds are relatively settled as productive, and sits where our mind is busy and restless as unproductive. Especially as teachers, we are coached to carefully measure each moment of our class to make sure we are maximizing productivity. It can be hard not to apply this to all of life, even our mindfulness, when time feels so precious.

But what we know about mindfulness is that we are actually setting aside a time where we are intentionally being present for whatever shows up. We are practicing being nonreactive to those thoughts. Okay, time is passing. This is boring. Can I still stay? I have a million things to do. Why am I wasting my time? Can I take a breath and still stay? In the staying, we learn so much. We can see how impulses come and go. We can see how we don’t have to react, in this small way.

So practice your non-reactivity. Practice noticing “needing” to do something different, and breathing through, finding yourself on the other side. Your mindfulness practice need not look a particular way for it to be ”productive.”

Day 37: Be Away

Photo by  Jenelle Hayes  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jenelle Hayes on Unsplash

It can be so easy for thoughts of work to seep into every spare moment of the weekend. When i sit in the mornings, I find myself considering something a colleague said. While I watch my daughter wrestle with the crayon box, my mind drifts to a plan for my lesson next week. It can be so hard to turn it off once we have some space. We can work our way right through the weekend, mentally chewing on the demands of the job as we go about our days of rest.

Whenever I catch myself away, I encourage my mind back to the moment. That’s not something you have to figure out right now, darlin’. I might gently chide (my inner narrator is sometimes southern) Leave that be for another time. That other time is a time I have intentionally carved out before the weekend begins, so I know there is dedicated space to do that thinking. This assures me I will come back to it. I love my work, and I love considering how to approach it, but I also love my daughter, my husband, and my world outside of school. It, too, deserves my whole heart. But I find it takes conscious effort to close the door until I am ready to fully engage.

When you are away, be away. If you catch yourself drifting back into school mode, with barely a touch, guide yourself back to your now, with promises of return.

Day 36: Mind Traps

When I get sick, my thinking tends to be fairly catastrophic. When my daughter gets sick, this tendency is amplified by a million. So today, in my head, my daughter’s deep nasty cough meant pneumonia and my sudden onset throbbing headache was a clear indication of brain tumor. I have learned to take these ideas in stride only because I have again and again and again watched myself catastrophize, and I am (almost always) proven wrong. Indeed, the pediatrician informed me, my daughter had post nasal drip, and I came to see how my stuffy nose was creating a run-of-the-mill sinus headache. Everything was, in fact, fine.

Last week, I talked with my classes about Mind Traps, a term I learned from my MBSR course. We as humans have universal habits of distorted thinking that make it difficult to see the world clearly. Some of my personal favorites include:

  • Personalization and blame: Personalization occurs when you hold yourself personally responsible for an event that isn’t entirely under your control.

  • Magnification: You exaggerate the importance of your problems and shortcomings, or you minimize the importance of your desirable qualities. This is also called the “binocular trick.”

  • Discounting the positive: You reject positive experiences by insisting that they “don’t count.” If you do a good job, you may tell yourself that it wasn’t good enough or that anyone could have done as well. Discounting the positive takes the joy out of life and makes you feel inadequate and unrewarded.

When I asked them why it might be useful to have a list like this, they very quickly hit on the two benefits that I find for myself:

  1. You are not alone in your crazy thinking. It’s a human condition, not a personal defect.

  2. You can more easily identify when you’re in a mind trap just by having language to identify it.

So when you have a moment, read through the Mind Traps and consider those that are your personal go-tos. Take heart that we all are a bit crazy, just with our own brand. Perhaps the next time you’re in the midst of a Mind Trap, you can just notice, and perhaps even grin. There I am, being a silly human again.

(credit to MBSR teacher Mary Bitterrauf at MaineHealth for this compilation)

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Day 35: Gratitude

Photo by  Courtney Hedger  on  Unsplash

Photo by Courtney Hedger on Unsplash

I have so many interesting conversations with my students about gratitude. What might seem like a straightforward invitation to appreciate all the good quickly can become muddled in the expectation that one “should” be grateful. When a few students last semester expressed that they didn’t think they “should have to” feel grateful, I was taken aback. No, my darlings. You don’t have to! You get to. You get to experience the warmth and tingling. You get to feel a sense of connection with the world. You get to receive this gift of wonder and awe at all that graces your life. (These students and I worked together to figure out where this sense of “have to” was coming from, and it was from parents using it against them when they thought they weren’t showing adequate appreciation or were challenging their authority.)

So for me, I get to share what I am grateful for with my community each night. I get to take time to reflect on all the people, places, objects, foods, and events that make my life rich and beautiful. I get to bask in all the good feelies that flood my system and encourage me to stay connected to those things.

Tonight, I am grateful for:

  • The opportunity to reflect on and share my learning with this community.

  • Collaborating with reflective, humorous, hard-working colleagues at school and within the mindfulness community.

  • An amazing in-home daycare down the street that allows me to go and do the work I love

  • The opportunity to do work that comes from my heart.

  • Honey nut rice cakes (Seriously. They are good).

  • You.

May you also wrap yourself up in the cozy sensations of gratitude each day.

Day 34: Empathetic distress

Photo by  Valeriia Bugaiova  on  Unsplash

One of the major causes of burnout amongst teachers is empathetic stress: the taking on of our students’ (colleagues, administrators, parents, etc) emotions and difficulties as our own. Those of us prone to over-empathizing can arrive home feeling quite drained from being with the tumultuous inner lives of our students.

Today, I met with a student who was angry with another student in our class. He had said something to her she found offensive, and on top of that, she was really upset with his lack of participation in general. As she shared, she was rocking from her toes to her heels, her voice tense with emotion.

When I left the meeting, I could feel my whole body reflectively tense and I found myself upset. My first instinct was to go drown it out with snackies or Netflix, but then I asked myself, what would I tell my students to do here? I had just coached this student to own what was hers, the hurt, and let go of the parts that were not hers to take on, his lack of participation. So what did that look like for me?

I acknowledged that it was a hard conversation and that the sensations in my body were tense and uncomfortable. Then I started taking deep breaths, allowing the sensations to slowly dissipate with each exhale. This allowed me to release some of the charge of the interaction so that I could focus on the content and how I could move forward with both students.

For us to sustain ourselves as teachers, we cannot take home all the emotions and pain of our students. We can consciously help resettle the nervous system by acknowledging how we are affected, using deep breathing, and grounding into the body.

The next time you notice you are wrapping yourself up in the emotions of a student, parent, or colleague, pause and take a moment to breathe deeply and relax the body. Remember, it’s not yours to own.