When teaching middle school English, I had six preps for the week: 8th grade English, expedition (interdisciplinary) block, crew, writing intensive, and reading lab. The sixth prep was for myself. I had to prepare to be my best self in the classroom each day. I had to enlist buddies to go for runs to get away from my computer. I had to schedule painting classes, climbing, and time with my ukulele to nurture experiences that made my heart sing. And I had to practice being mindful outside of the classroom, so I could be prepared for the challenges of the day.
There are some people whose personalities seem easily suited to being a calm, nurturing presence in the classroom. One teacher at my school, Carolina, bubbled with laughter and exuded warmth every day. She navigated situations gracefully, from challenging students to interminable staff meetings to angry parents. She cared deeply about her students but did not become trapped on the emotional roller coaster of sixth graders. Another teacher, Mo, would bear hug her easily distractible student into completing her work. My principal, Elaine, would sit quietly through a parent's tirade against the school and reflect back to me afterwards that she could see this woman was simply terrified for her daughter. They all maintained presence of mind to hold a wider perspective on these behaviors and respond with compassion.
Some teachers have this equanimity easily accessible; some of us are, shall we say, a little rougher around the edges.
I have always loved my students. I have loved them hard and been hurt when they were mad at me, frustrated when they didn't listen to me, and angry when they were cruel to one another. I hurt when they were hurting, a phenomenon called “empathetic distress,” and brought it home with me. When they weren’t working hard and living up to their potential, I worried about where they might end up.
That intensity of investment was my strength, but at times, my achilles heal. For a while, it meant I resorted to martyrdom. I would stay late into the evenings, agonizing over the next day’s lessons. With grim satisfaction, I gave up my Sundays to stacks of essays, exit tickets, and unit plans. I sacrificed self care — sleep, exercise, yoga — in the name of my profession.
Subsequently, my classroom presence took a hit. I would be irritated when students did not appreciate the time I invested. How could they talk during my brilliant explanation that I spent five hours refining? I would be frustrated when they spent three minutes scribbling across the worksheets I lovingly created. I would recoil when they spoke back to my reasonable request to sit down.
I did my best to respond the way I wanted to, with a calm façade and occasional humor. However, my irritation underneath sometimes boiled over.
In her book Mindfulness for Teachers, Tish Jennings discusses how we are often so externally preoccupied while teaching that we fail to notice the subtle cues in our body alerting us to our emotional state. Suddenly, we are upset enough that we lose our big picture thinking and our cool. Negative emotions narrow our perceptions, so that we are trying to get that kid to sit down now rather than figuring out how best to help him manage his jitteriness, or how to make that mother stop yelling at us instead of thinking about what's underneath that yelling. Mindfulness helps us notice our emotions building and then manage them, so we can think more globally about what's actually happening.
We can even gather information from our emotions before responding. Jennings posits that when we notice our feelings during a student interaction, we can use those feelings to determine what the student needs. If we are irritated by their behavior, they may be seeking attention. If we are angry, they may be trying to engage in a power struggle. By carefully monitoring what is actually happening internally and externally, we can make better decisions about how to respond to our students.
If I wanted to be like the Carolinas, Mos, and Elaines of the world, with their broad perspective and warmth in the face of challenges, I needed to take care of myself first. I needed to do the extra work to scan my body, breathe deeply, and maintain perspective. Furthermore, Jennings highlights the importance of caring for our physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual domains before we enter the classroom. She uses a favorite line in the mindfulness world appropriated from flight attendants everywhere, "Put on your own mask before assisting the person next to you."
By my fifth year of teaching, I started to get it. I started saying no to evening engagements if I had already done a few that month. I said goodbye to the math teacher who was still pouring over work on his desk in the early evening. And I sought practices that helped me bring my best self to the classroom. I sat in the mornings before school to practice noticing my body, being with whatever arose, and self-soothing. I took on a sixth prep, it's true, but that prep was as important as those that prepared me to teach content. It was the prep that helped me greet my eighth graders with a smile in the morning. It was the prep that helped me weather their stormy emotions, and those of their parents. It was the prep that helped me be more intentional in the classroom.
I don't want to overstate the impact. Before I started formally practicing, I had plenty of days that felt great. And after, I had plenty of days where I felt overwhelmed, overburdened, and frustrated. But the ratio of moments that felt good to moments that felt bad tilted a little in my favor.
A few mindfulness skill building practices that can help in the classroom, adapted from Jenning's Mindfulness for Teachers:
Focused attention. Find a comfortable posture with an upright spine, and bring your attention to your breath, without attempting to control its quality. Notice the inhale and exhale at an obvious point, like the belly or under the nose. When your attention drifts, which it will, simply notice and find your breath once again.
Body Scan: From toes to head, take a moment to let your attention linger on each body part, noticing any physical sensation. Jennings points out that we are often unaware of our own emotional state in the highly externalized world of teaching, so this can come in handy later by making you more conscious of your body and its cues.
Set an intention. Give yourself a short mantra in the morning about how you want to be that day. Spend a few minutes focusing on that intention, much like you did on your breath. Name a few points throughout the day (ie- before eating lunch) to check in on that intention and recommit. This practice helped remind me that while I wanted my students to listen respectfully while others spoke, my compassionate response to them was the only thing that I could control.
Three breaths. Take three deep slow breaths before redirecting your student back to her work or to sit down. It's likely your tone will match your intention more closely.
Withitness. During quiet moments in the classroom, perhaps while everyone is tackling the do now, take two minutes to broaden your attention, filling the whole room. My Mindful Schools teacher, Chris McKenna, would instruct us to feel our feet then allow our gaze to move to the back of the room and take in the entire space. In that way, we invite our students into the safe field of our attention. We can also quickly notice if there is something that seems off and address it before it becomes more disruptive.
To learn more about these strategies and mindfulness in the classroom, check out Tish Jenning's book Mindfulness for Teachers.