Stories from the Field are small moments about how mindfulness is impacting the students I am working with, in hopes of capturing what it means to learn and use mindfulness. This story comes from a large high school resource room in Portland, Maine:
I met with a teacher after school today to talk about scheduling and how we will transition our high school students from learning about mindfulness to teaching it to others. When I walked in she said to me, "I just can't tell how much buy in we have. I think some of them like it but are pretending not to."
This is always a thought that always arises when I am teaching. "Is it working?" When I was teaching middle school English, I was obsessed with this question. I worked overtime on lesson plans, collected meticulous data in the form of exit tickets, quizzes, and verbal responses, and created new lesson plans based on that information. In that role, I needed to know if my students were learning exactly what I needed them to learn. I believed it was my failure when they didn't understand the material.
Through my own personal work with mindfulness, I came to see this belief as self-defeating and erroneous. Even more, it took the agency away from my students to suggest that I was solely responsible for making sure they learned. Tracking student mastery of standards was right on, but to maintain my sanity, I needed to be able to do that without attaching my emotional wellbeing to their achievement.
I cannot force students to value or appreciate anything; no matter how much I believe in the power of mindfulness, I cannot make students to see it. I can offer metaphors, personal anecdotes, research, neuroscience, and above all else, experiences, to demonstrate what it can mean to pay attention to our lives. To give them experiences that perhaps will show them the value. To need them to take something in particular away is to create my own suffering.
We also can never be certain how work that is so internal truly lands. I have heard countless anecdotes, from my peers teaching mindfulness, about the most disengaged-looking student making insightful comments about mindfulness only at the very end of the course. For my own middle schoolers last year, I wouldn't have known it was "working" until the end of the year when they reported using it during times of stress with family, on sleepless nights, to help focus in class, and to help calm themselves down. This was despite some of them occasionally dropping fart noises into our formal practice.
Finally, perhaps "working" takes many different forms, some visible, and some less visible. Perhaps "working" takes a longer term than we have the opportunity to see. If we expect all kids to immediately take to mindfulness, to be calm and quiet during practice, to engage without question, then we are setting ourselves up for failure. Even more, we are misunderstanding what it means to be mindful. We need to be open to the possibility that "working" may take many different forms, and may take longer than the time we have to see it grow to fruition.
As luck would have it, one of our students stopped by as we were wrapping up our meeting. "Brandon,*" I asked, "Be honest. Are you doing any mindfulness outside of the classroom?" Brandon was a quiet gentle kid who often sat in the corner and needed reminders about removing his headphones. "Yeah, I do." he replied, and told us about how he had insomnia, and he focused on his breathing or sound when he couldn't sleep. He talked about how he had been a "bad kid" in middle school with anger issues, and he thought this stuff could have helped to him. He was interested in our project to bring it to younger kids.
My job is to offer the tools, and then trust that students will take what they need. It is to know that it may not look like it's working, but sometimes we plant a seed that grows differently for each student. My job is to give them the space to explore their own lives, in all its variations and permutations.
*The student's name has been changed for privacy.