Today was the first day of school with my new crop of (mostly male) kindergartners. By the end of the day, my voice was shot, but I felt mighty tall – something I only experience in my classroom! And so a new year begins.
This year, I’m working with several families I’ve worked with before, and it was heartwarming during our “Meet the Teacher” open house yesterday to hear older siblings up to sixth grade who are former students of mine sit down at the art table and reminisce about kindergarten. They remembered the most surprising things. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall last night listening to them prepare their little brothers and sisters for their first day of kindergarten.
As for me, I reread a couple poems I wrote when my youngest child started kindergarten, to remind myself that – despite all the ways in which early childhood education has changed since then – sending a child to kindergarten is still a big deal for parents. The first poem, “Five,” was written a few months before my son (who is now learning to drive) started kindergarten and originally was published in the March/April 2004 issue of Mothering magazine.
Sacred season of frog pond,
humming and mommy time
appreciates dandelions three-fold
with fistfuls of I-love-you bouquets,
proud salads of tender, hand-picked greens
(despite their bitterness),
and seed fairies blown into the wind.
He digs, snuggles, makes books
(humming all the while),
relentlessly searches for lilacs
to grace the kitchen table.
Budding scientist employs sticks, nets,
stones and containers as tools
of observation and exploration;
young monk sits straight, cultivating
meditative awareness of an anthill.
He plants peach pits,
stops to smell flowers,
cares for salamanders, frogs and insects
yet is fearful of bullfrogs and snakes
(who have no place in this pond).
Five dwells in the realm
of imagination and possibility,
bonds with the living, breathing world.
He creates fairy houses,
constructs the perfect train track,
names the pair of robins who
frequent our yard,
always enjoys a campfire.
Five is precious like a late autumn day
sunny and warm with clear blue sky
when a new season beckons.
Though winter silences the voices
of crickets, birds and frogs,
I beg Six
and school teachers
to spare the sweet songs
he hums throughout the day.
He says, “But I’ll always
be like I am, when I’m six and seven
and eight and nine and ten…
and twenty-eight and—what comes
Gratefully, I smile
as Five continues counting.
© Susan Meyer 2003
The next poem was written during his first week of school…when I wasn’t in a punctuating mood.
First Day of School
bit of scarlet in the treetops
bit of silver glistening in my hair
bit of chill in the morning breeze
as a season draws to an end
summer was sprinkled with showers
of anticipatory grief
crying at the drop of a hat
at the thought of him going
the first day of school
we walked together to his classroom
bypassing the dreaded school bus goodbye
that left a trail of mothers’ tears
all along our road
I handed him off to a woman
with a beautiful smile
who remembered his name
all I needed was the bridge formed
by looking into her eyes
and beseeching her, without words
to please take good care
of this precious boy
who already felt at home
tearlessly I walked away
returned to a quiet house
and cleaned the morning dishes
no small shadows
following me around
asking how to spell words
or begging to go to the library
feeling as if I were missing
he bounced off the bus
jubilant about his day
eager to ride the bus in the morning
and sure enough
he was dressed and ready
first thing in the morning
so as not to miss it
he is well attached and ready
along the sidewalk, mothers
wearing tee-shirts and ponytails
nourish hearts, souls, and bodies
some look tired, expressions
of marathon days, diaper changes,
tantrums, lack of privacy and solitude,
moments of sheer exhaustion
when a poorly timed spill triggers
a full-fledged breakdown
some look serene, expressions
of the perfectly timed kiss
that replenishes and brings you back;
innocent, kind words; new milestones;
gracious belly laughs
how many times have grandmothers
and mothers of older children
babbled to me with that knowing look
about how quickly time passes?
now I have arrived at the other side
of this first crossing
I am one of them
now there is time
to begin where I left off
time to launch a career,
make phone calls and appointments,
think uninterrupted thoughts,
sit down to meditate,
entertain new possibilities
bit of scarlet in the treetops
bit of silver glistening in my hair
bit of chill in the morning breeze
yesterday’s eternal season
has drawn to an end
like a flash of lightning
in the summer sky
© Susan Meyer 2003
© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (susantarameyer.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”
-John Lennon, “Imagine”
I recently spent three days at Omega Institute for the sixth annual Mindfulness and Education Conference: Bringing Mindfulness to Children Grades K-12. I had wanted to attend the conference for the past few years but this year received a full scholarship that finally made it possible. My guess is that about 300 people attended the conference, and it was powerful to gather with that many like-minded educators who value holistic education, social-emotional learning, and mindfulness. Actually, I’ve never experienced anything like it! I have a few friends online who teach in schools committed to a holistic approach to education, and the college from which I received my master’s degree offers a holistic, student-centered educational experience and a faculty that attracts a diverse and alternative-minded student body. One faculty member literally “wrote the book” (several, actually) on holistic, progressive, and alternative education. It’s been eight years since I completed the program, and it was my last experience of being in community with so many like-minded educators until going to Omega this summer. For the past few years, I have felt like a fish out of water in the current educational environment and have questioned how much longer I can continue in the profession. I attended the conference hoping to connect with kindred spirits and to be inspired.
|Buddha outside Ram Dass Library, Omega Institute
A passion for social-emotional learning brought me to the teaching profession in the first place. After trying to implement the MindUP curriculum in my classroom for the past three years with limited success, I was in need of practical suggestions. Is it possible to implement such a curriculum successfully without support, given the present realities of public education? How do you fit it into an already packed school day?
Keynote speakers included Jack Kornfield, Amishi Jha, and Daniel Rechtschaffen. Social-emotional learning expert, Linda Lantieri, also was scheduled to present but was unable to attend due to health issues. I took so many notes at the conference, and there is so much I want to share! I am organizing this post around the ideas that stood out the most for me, indicated in bold. Clicking on the numerous hyperlinks included throughout the text will provide you with a wealth of information about mindfulness in education if you are are interested in learning more about it. I’m also including a list of book recommendations at the end.
The major understandings and inspirations I took away from the conference are as follows:
Mindfulness must be wed with compassion.
It’s not mindfulness unless it’s also heartfulness! Teach children to discover their worth, to value one another, to befriend themselves. Honor them by holding a beam of love and understanding. Teach them not only how to calm their minds and focus their attention but also how to be wise and loving beings.
Mindfulness and compassion training should not be something you’re forced to do but an invitation to well-being. It is a process of paying kind attention. The teaching of mindfulness and compassion is not religious; it promotes the development of universal human values, or what H. H. the Dalai Lama refers to as secular ethics. It is about teaching children and teachers to train their mind, regulate their emotions, and be more loving and compassionate.
Establish the classroom as a place of mindfulness, for tending and befriending ourselves. Consider beginning mindfulness exercises with a bell or a poem. Depending on the needs and energy of the group, there are times when sitting, walking, or heart practices are best.
Trace thoughts and feelings to the body.
Mindfulness of thoughts and feelings must be traced to the body – to where you feel them. One way to practice this with children is to put your hand in the air (where the thoughts are), and trace thoughts down the arm to the part of the body they’re attached to. The first step is to notice the thoughts and track down to the sensations in the body. The next step is to bring self-care to the body. Our body needs so much love and compassion when our head is spinning!
I realized that I tend to live in my head. Since the conference, I have reminded myself to drop down into my body, and it is a powerful practice! I did this once in a doctor’s office when I was in the midst of my “white coat” anxiety habit (in which my body seems to have a mind of its own), and the results were quite profound. Another time, I was awakened during the night by a thunderstorm, and immediately my mind started spinning. It was right after the conference, and my mind was trying to make sense of why I experienced such an emotional response to the conference. (More about that later.) Within a few minutes, my mind had created a tidy theory and was quite pleased to have wrapped it up so nicely. But there still was tension in my body. Then I remembered to sink into my body and practice mindfulness – to feel the sensations and hold them in kindness and compassion. A storm had come along, and I got caught up in a whirlwind of thought for a while, until I remembered and practiced – and quieted my mind. A couple hours later, I was awakened by another clap of thunder, and my immediate response was to practice. It was as if the thunderclap was a meditation bell! I sank down into my body and felt the sensations, thus strengthening that response. And that is what it is all about. Making an analogy between meditation and exercise, one of the speakers at the conference said that each time you bring your mind back is the equivalent of one rep. I love that.
I’ve also found that sometimes it helps to physically touch the place in which I experience the sensation in my body – for example, putting a hand on the solar plexus (where I often feel a stab when I remember my mom has died) or the heart. When I am falling asleep, I sometimes like to rest one hand on the pelvic valley and the other hand on the solar plexus and become aware of the wave of breath between those two areas. It is like ocean waves and is so calming. Likewise, you can teach children to focus on their breath by inviting them to put one hand on their heart and the other on their belly.
Create a safe place.
Establish safety first! Do whatever you can to help a child feel emotionally safe and relaxed and present in their bodies. We must get kids into a place where their parasympathetic nervous system is in control so they can grow and learn. Help them to understand that they are not alone in their suffering – that we are all in the same boat! Help them to see that other children have divorced parents, have felt bullied, have fears, etc. Let them see each others’ beauty and troubles. Teach them of their own goodness and vulnerability. Teach them mindfulness and heartfulness when they’re calm. Young children need to learn what it means to “pay attention.”
Include movement first.
Younger children have so much energy that you need to allow them to release a little through physical movements before asking them to sit and breathe. Include a movement activity before attempting seated mindfulness practice. When kids are antsy throughout the day, do yoga poses.
I find this is also true for myself. It’s always easier for me to do seated practice following yoga or another form of physical exercise.
Begin with yourself.
For years, I have struggled with how to teach focused awareness to a whole group of children – some of whom struggle with attention control or can’t sit still – without any assistance in the classroom. When I try to lead a core practice in mindful awareness, inevitably one or two students will effectively sabotage the whole experience by acting out, seeking attention, etc. For example, in the MindUp curriculum, there is a daily core practice of focused listening (to the sound of a resonant bell) and deep, belly breathing. Each year, I have grown weary of trying to manage behavior throughout mindfulness practice – and abandoned it altogether because the behavior management became so exhausting. But I always was pleasantly surprised when some children later begged to listen to the bell ring because “We haven’t done it in a long time.” They must like how it feels to do the practice, and I don’t want to allow the behavior of a small minority to ruin the experience for the whole!
One of the biggest realizations I brought home from the conference is that if you can’t control anything else in your school environment, the most basic step you can take is to maintain a daily mindfulness practice. Even if I’m teaching in an environment that doesn’t actively embrace the benefits of mindfulness, I can do it in my room, in whatever capacity I can manage. Some years I might be able to do more than others. The first step is for me to practice mindfulness every day. Before school and even during the school day when the kids are out of the room, I can turn off the lights, lock the door, and do it! Do it on my own, deliberately. Make it an individual practice until the cavalry comes. Or if the opportunity arises, link up informally with others who are doing it.
Chris Cullen, cofounder of the Mindfulness in Schools project, offered these priorities to keep in mind:
- Be mindful.
- Teach mindfully.
- Teach mindfulness.
Rather than throw my hands up in frustration because I’m not able to teach mindfulness the way I’d like to, focus on being mindful. That is a great start! And if that’s all I can manage, then that is enough! It is a worthy accomplishment to succeed at that first step. If you’re doing it, you’re doing a good job! Success is not opening the refrigerator or turning on the cell phone!
The missing piece: Caring for teachers
Teachers cannot solve the whole problem of fixing what is wrong with public education. Because we are the ones on the front line, we need to cultivate self-compassion – so we can stay in the job! Someone at the conference said they realized they had to make a choice between changing their mind or leaving their job.
Our schools aren’t failing. Our kids aren’t failing. Our schools are failing our teachers. The missing piece is taking care of our teachers. When you’re doing your best in an impossible situation with an impossible workload and your professionalism is questioned when you act with deep integrity on behalf of children, and your core values are not reflected anywhere in the curriculum, and you don’t feel supported or valued, how can you create a safe space for children? Our schools are filled with burned out, stressed out teachers who are expected to do more with less each year. Children absorb the teacher’s energy and ultimately are the ones losing out despite the teacher’s most sincere and heartfelt efforts. The teacher’s state of consciousness is the unwritten curriculum.
If our schools fail to care adequately for teachers, it is essential that teachers practice self-care. It is so much more satisfying and empowering than being a victim and squandering precious time and energy by complaining and feeling bad. That is precisely how I became serious about nature photography. I challenged myself to connect with beauty every single day. It was a way for me to unwind and re-attune after an exhausting day at work and often occurred during a walk (for physical exercise is also essential to mental health). Now I’ve added some quiet time for seated meditation, for I find that it makes a huge difference in the quality of my day. It clears my mind, weeds the garden of my senses, and is time well spent. It’s so easy to get caught up in the endless stream of work during the school year, but it is essential to learn how to put work aside and take time to care for ourselves and enjoy our families. It sounds so basic, but