Day 61: The Sweet Relief of Having the Difficult Conversation

Photo by  Harli Marten  on  Unsplash

A few days ago, I had a conversation with a colleague that didn’t go well, and I left feeling unheard and unvalued. Instead of sending the email I spoke of in my last post, I spent some time processing with a few friends to figure out what I was really upset about. It was not the content of the conversation, but the subtext, that upset me.

Being mindful during conversations is incredibly difficult. There is so much to attend to, from what the other person is saying, our initial reactions to what they are saying, how we formulate words that capture our thoughts and feelings in a way that can be heard, checking if we have been heard, checking if we understand what is being said, etc. etc. etc. When you tease it apart, it can be incredibly overwhelming.

When I called my colleague to revisit our earlier conversation, it was so relieving to be able to tell her how I felt and why. It also opened a space for her to be able to clarify her earlier statements. And, as far as I could tell, both of us got off the phone feeling better for having talked again. In this case, there was a baseline understanding that we were both consciously focused on communicating well (not always the case).

We can’t control what the other person says or does, or even hears, but being able to speak our honest truth can be so powerful. To tell someone, “I was hurt by this,” instead of having that conversation in your head a million times, or fuming at them, or wishing them away, is freeing. Turning into the difficult conversations requires vulnerability and can provide such sweet relief.

Day 60: Don't Hit Send Just Yet.

Part of the beauty and complication of modern technology is the rapidity and ease with which we can communicate with one another. If a parent or colleague sends us an email that requires our immediate attention, we can respond right away. If a parent or colleague sends us an email that doesn’t land well, we may be tempted to respond immediately.

A gift from my father was a fiery temper, which I have largely learned to accept and find healthy ways of being with that do not harm others. Email can become an evil temptress for this part of self, where I may start typing out my anger on the keyboard before I even realize it. But as long as I don’t hit send, it’s okay. Even useful.

I have adopted these firebrand draft emails as part of my practice, allowing whatever is true for me to pour forth, uncensored, onto the page. I don’t try to craft it so someone else can hear it, or to make me look good and calm. I just write it out. And then I let it sit in my email draft box. And then I delete it. (It’s best not to put the person’s name in the inbox to avoid accidents, and enable the “undo” function on your email as an extra precaution.)

I find anger to be one of the most difficult emotions to sit with. It asks for reaction and release. Finding a way to hit the release valve first can help us get more clear on what’s really going on. What are we hurt about? What are we trying to protect? What do we really need to ask for/communicate to this other person? Having that initial release allows me to sift through and respond more skillfully. When I am ready.

Day 59: Just Like Me

Photo by  Ben White  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

There is a student in one of my classes right now who triggers frustration and annoyance in me. He is outgoing and gregarious, and regularly does not follow simple directions. “Please take your ear buds out….please get back to work…please stop talking with your neighbor…please don’t respond, “what?"; when I redirect you…please stop jumping on that kid’s back and fake punching him in the stomach, etc, etc, etc. I believe there are reasons he is exhibiting these behaviors that have nothing to do with annoying me, and I know he will require a particular kind of support to be successful. But geez….

To even be able to begin to provide that support he needs, I need to let go of some of my own annoyance.

One of my favorite exercises to practice for students like this is a, “Just Like Me” exercise from Daniel Rechtschaffen’s The Mindful Education Workbook:

Close your eyes and and take a few deep, grounding breaths. Call to mind the student, colleague, or parent who is difficult for you and imagine them happy and content.

Repeat the following phrases silently,

Just like me, they want to be happy.

Just like me, they want to be successful.

Just like me, they want to feel valued.

(Feel free to add any other phrases that feel useful).

And then…

May you be happy.

May you be successful.

May you feel valued.

Sometimes, just reminding ourselves of our common humanity can help us soften.

Day 58: The Beauty of Diversity

Photo by  Peter Hershey  on  Unsplash

I have a student I worked with last semester who, whenever I see her, spouts out, “Why can’t YOU teach my class this semester?” I always respond, “I miss you too!” She is a kid who makes a point of fronting a prickly exterior, so I take particular delight in this exchange. From the same class, I had a student who informed me he didn’t like my teaching style, and preferred to be in another teacher’s class. To both of them, I have shared that people resonate with different styles of teaching, and it is good to go to school with a mix of educators who both compliment your style and challenge it.

As I was looking around the staff lounge today, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of awe at my colleagues and I working together on behalf of these students. We operate in such different ways with different beliefs and interests that it really takes our entire village to serve our students. I know I will never go to a video gaming convention, but I am glad some of our teachers do. We represent a diversity of sexual orientations and religious backgrounds. I appreciate that some of educators are strict, others gentle, and still others somewhere in between. What holds us all together is our intention to best serve our students as we know how. We don’t do it the same way, though we are united in purpose.

I never tire of quoting Parker Palmer, who writes:

If good teaching cannot be reduced to a technique, I no longer need suffer the pain of having my peculiar gift as a teacher crammed into the Procrustean bed of someone else’s method and the standards prescribed by it.

May we all reflect on our particular gifts as educators, and take a moment to appreciate those gifts and qualities that others possess.

Day 57: We are Doing the Best We Can.

Photo by  mauro mora  on  Unsplash

Photo by mauro mora on Unsplash

Over the winter, I ran a short course with a group of alternative education teens at a local high school. It was a guarded crowd, and they had lots of different ideas about how they would like our time together to look. When it was over, I anonymously asked them what they thought of it. Four said it wasn’t for them. Seven said they liked it and/or they thought it was useful (not always both). There were a number of others who never attended. The teachers decided not to move forward with another round, as they felt it was not serving all of their students.

I have been reflecting on that feedback, and my reaction to that decision. I have wondered if there was something I could have done to make it more accessible, or if it could have made sense to serve those students who saw the value. Either could be true, and it is worth reflecting on for my next program. But when I catch myself stuck in a cycle of unproductive thinking, I come back to this:

All I can do is offer what I know to the best of my ability. All I can do is get the best training I possibly can, go in with the right intentions, and be reflective of my practice. I truly couldn’t have done better knowing what I knew, being who I was, in those circumstances. This is not a defensive stance, but a statement of what is true.

What might it be like to believe that we do the best we can given the circumstances of any given moment? Might we have more space to forgive ourselves? To grow rather than shrink? To learn?

BONUS: What if we also believed that of those around us?

Day 56: Begin Again

Photo by  Aaron Burden  on  Unsplash

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

One of the things I’ve observed about my mindfulness practice is that it waxes and wanes over time. At one point, that was worrisome to me. Like if I wasn’t getting in my full sit every day, I wasn’t “doing it right” and it “wasn’t enough.”

When I work with teachers, at the end of the course there’s often someone who guiltily names that they haven’t been able to incorporate meditation into their daily routine. What I shared with my educator group today, as we came to a close, was that one thing I have developed is trust in the foundation of my mindfulness practice. Trust that I will return to it. Trust that I can begin again at any moment, not by bullying myself into it, but by believing that each moment is when I can start anew. This trust is predicated on years of leaving and coming back to deepening my practice, and the belief that it is this moment that matters, not all the moments when I didn’t make it to my cushion.

We can always begin again.

Day 55: What story are you telling?

(Thank you for your patience with a few missing posts lately. Squarespace has been having some technical issues, but we should be back on track!)

Photo by  Patrick Fore  on  Unsplash

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

I’ve had a particularly busy month with a lot of extra engagements on top of my usual course load. When I woke up this morning, I noticed a sense of heaviness and dragging. “Ugh, I’m sooooo tired. I just have to get through this morning,” I promised myself as I trudged downstairs to get the water on. I found myself repeating like Thomas the Tank, “Just get through it, just get through it.”

At some point, I recognized this narrative looping in my head. And I wondered, “Is this serving me? What would it be like to shift the story? What if, instead, I approach the day with the intention of enjoying the company of my students as we explore learning together?” Even dropping these questions in helped me to feel a little lighter and a more ready.

Our thoughts are tremendously powerful, and when they just run amok without our awareness, we can sink energetically and emotionally.

I am not the kind of person who can go from internal darkness to blinding light with a switch. Pretending, “Today is going to be great! I’m so excited!” would not necessarily feel authentic or accessible to me. But just noticing my story and asking myself what it might be like to try something else helps free me up.

Day 54: Get in Your Body

I have been working in front of my computer for at least three hours now. This is not uncommon in the afternoon while I work on lesson plans, answer emails, and build workshops. After awhile, I caught myself flipping back and forth between these tasks and Facebook, these tasks and an interesting article I had pulled up from Facebook, these tasks and a funny video from Facebook. This was my cue.

It was time to get back in my body. I took myself upstairs and started sorting the pile of books, activity cards, and various other conference paraphernalia that I had left out from my conference yesterday. I needed to touch real things in three dimensions, feel the weight and softness of breathing buddies as I put them back in their bag and smell some of the essential oils that were lined up on my shelf.

Taking this break not only allowed my mind and eyes a moment to rest, but also allowed me to reengage with the tangible world. This strategy of reentering my body sometimes takes me to the kitchen to cook, outside to walk, or around the house to putter and clean, but in all cases, I find my way back to the moment through this movement and sensory awareness.

The next time you feel your energy flagging, or your focus waning, try shifting back into the body through movement and awareness of your senses.

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.