Teaching can be humbling. As one of my teacher friends remarked, just as you are about to drop some of your painstakingly crafted wisdom, your students are like, “Are we having tater tots for lunch?” “Do we have to do this?” “Joel broke my pencil!” “Did you see that meme about dog puke?” Throughout the day, a teacher has to navigate a cacophony of distractions and deflations, with a few serious crises tossed in the mix. Teaching is a daily feast of micro-decisions. When the school day starts feeling speedy and demands on our attention start to pour in, our interactions with students can become transactional and perfunctory. In one moment, James needs help with his homework, Jordan’s face is hidden in the crook of their arm, and Kirsten just came in late again, laughing loudly and disrupting the class. It can be difficult to toggle between various needs and the appropriate tone each interaction calls for. If we are responding with a mentality of pure efficiency, we might be able to whack all the moles, but in that process we can lose track of the warmth that makes school feel human and healthy. Figuring out what to respond to, what to brush aside, how to respect and honor the experiences of our students, and how to actually teach in the midst of it all, can leave us frazzled. Truthfully, students are also often frazzled. For them, the school day can be chaotic and relentless, as well as stressful and boring. So we’re all frazzled, and the whole thing needs a culture-shift, but where to start?
Many teachers attack the beast, employing strict discipline, a loud “teacher voice,” and an imposing demeanor to get control. Others are able to manage their classes with more grace and a less overt display of authority. For me, it depends on the day. On some days I feel like an Aikido master; other days I’m more like the loser in dodgeball. Classroom management is an art and watching a skilled teacher manage her class is a wonderful experience. By developing our skills and by gathering experience over time, this art can be learned.
But while skills and experience can help us bring order to a classroom, an even more vital factor informing how that classroom feels and what it conveys to everyone in it—what it actually teaches—is the teacher’s state of mind. In the midst of a chaotic school day, and more broadly, in the midst of these confusing and terrifying times that we live in, the feeling that young people need from teachers is the same thing we need from ourselves—a sense of calm, warmth, and dignity. These things are not personality traits, and they’re not really skills. Rather, they are qualities of presence that naturally radiate from a person who has worked with their mind in a genuine and disciplined way.
The most effective method for developing rapport with our own minds is mindfulness meditation. By working with our minds through the practice of meditation, we can become more inwardly stable. Our tendency to experience life situations through the filter of self-
preservation relaxes a bit. Our awareness becomes less like a leaf blowing around in the wind, and more like a tree—deeply rooted, flexible, and strong. Meditation can be more than a coping strategy. It can be a means of developing deep friendship with oneself. Through meditation we become more comfortable with ourselves, and less agitated by our thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. When a teacher develops this quality of inner contentment, their presence takes on an unwavering quality. They don’t have to act all calm, spiritual, or chill, but there is a sense of relaxation in the background of their persona. Like a mountain, their presence feels reliable and quietly powerful.
Our capacity to operate from a human, caring place in the midst of challenging day-to-day and moment-to-moment situations is a reflection of our ability to handle our own state of mind with care and gentleness. Since many of us tend to be hard on ourselves, and to operate from a self-centred place, deliberate work is needed to train our hearts and minds to open outwards in the service of others.
In addition to meditation, a potent way of engaging this work is to contemplate our motivation. Thinking about things like why we teach and what we hope to accomplish can be fruitful. But contemplating our daily, and moment-to-moment motivation is even more intimate. When it comes down to it, behind each of our activities our motivation is either “me” or “you.” As we go through our day we can swing from one to the other. Honestly though, most of the time our thoughts and actions revolve around “me.” For example, even though I teach every day and then go home and take care of my children, which are wonderful, service-oriented activities, I spend a great deal of my time just thinking about how I can be more comfortable as I navigate my day. When I really look at it, I can see that while I take pride in my teaching, engaging my students, and seeing them learn, a lot of my motivation is about me doing a good job and being appreciated, as opposed to truly benefiting my students. This is not to say that my teaching, or feeding my children, doesn’t benefit them—it does. But it is to say that the true spirit of an open heart, or a mind dedicated to the service of others, does not always flow through my actions.
Recognizing my self-oriented motivation isn’t something to feel bad about. In fact, caring for oneself is also important. But it is possible to expand our motivation, to open our hearts, to turn our minds toward the genuine needs of others. In each moment we can gently release our inner focus on “me” and allow ourselves to consider our students. Bringing a student to mind we contemplate him or her or them. We hold them in our mind in a neutral way, not analyzing or diagnosing them. By relaxing our personal agenda, we also release our student from the trap of being our personal project. This allows us to see them more as they are, and to feel the warmth of their humanity—their uniqueness, their vulnerability, their goodness—pulsing beneath the veneer of their personalities. We begin to have a feeling for their basic needs—their desire to feel good and to suffer less. Gradually our motivation expands: we begin to want that for them as well. When our motivation opens up we gain energy. We feel more connected to our students, whether they care for us or not, and we become less dependent on feedback.
When a teacher’s being is calm and their presence is warm, they radiate a natural feeling of dignity, like a mountain. Such dignity is not pretentious, but fully human. That in itself is rare these days. If a teacher can show up that way, even a little bit, it would be a meaningful offering to the young people in her classroom.
This article was first published at elephant journal.
“Progressive, holistic education…is more demanding than conventional pedagogy, for unlike these teaching practices, it emphasises well being. That means the teachers must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students… the practice of a healer, therapist, teacher or any helping professional should be directed toward his or her self first.” - bell hooks
“If we as teachers, along with our colleagues, are not happy, how can we expect the children to be happy?… The first step is to come back to yourself—the way out is in. Come back to yourself to be able to take care of yourself: learn how to generate a feeling of happiness; learn how to handle a painful feeling or emotion; listen to your own suffering, so that understanding and compassion can be born and you will suffer less. This is the first step and, as a teacher, you have to be able to do this.” —from Letter to a Young Teacher
This is Ms. Jane, a founding teacher at the Shambhala School in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Jane is an amazing teacher whose care for young people is almost legendary. Adolescent complacency has no chance against her caustic compassion. I love this picture, which captures Jane’s feminism, her humour, her commanding presence, and her love of cooking with students.
Send a picture and a short write up of a teacher you’d like to appreciate and I’ll post it here!
I’ll be sharing thoughts and new writing here, but I also hope to gather reflections, feedback, and stories from teachers and anyone else about the themes in Teaching With Bravery.
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