I just learned that His Holiness the Dalai Lama will be at Emory University this week for talks, teachings, and discussions that will be webcasted live and presumably available to view afterwards, as well. My family and I went to hear him speak at Cornell University in October 2007, and last October I watched webcasts of his speaking engagements throughout New England and Virginia. It was a really uplifting week, and I look forward to more of the same this week!
October is a great time to be inspired by the Dalai Lama. One of his favorite topics is educating the heart, or “secular ethics in education.” Now that the school year is well underway and the idealism I dusted off over the summer has been shattered by the rigorous realities of the Common Core and more new curricula, it’s time to work with the pieces that are in front of me on the table and try to make the best of them. Their sharp, jagged edges pierce my heart and soul, but I remain hopeful that they will become smoother in time. How exactly that will happen, I don’t know, but they simply must. Right now, I need some inspiration, big-time.
I always appreciate hearing what the Dalai Lama has to say about education. It reminds me of why I wanted to teach in the first place. Sometimes I imagine myself asking him how I can reconcile what I know in my heart to be right and true with the way things are in public education now. His answer (in my mind) always conveys hope.
There has got to be something you can do right now to be part of a solution.
But first, I will provide a little context for my question.
For a couple years, I attempted to implement the Hawn Foundation’s (as in Goldie Hawn) MindUP Curriculum in my kindergarten classroom. It was a personal initiative; nobody else in my school was doing it, but it touched on virtually everything I felt was most important in social-emotional learning and supported my belief that educating the heart must go hand in hand with educating the mind. In a nutshell, the curriculum focuses on improving concentration, reducing stress and anxiety, managing emotions and interpersonal conflicts, choosing optimism and kindness, and developing empathy and resilience. It’s a really beautiful, well researched curriculum. I tried in earnest to implement it until this year. This year, I abandoned it (sadly) because I realize I do not have the resources or time to do it justice. But while still struggling with how to fit social-emotional learning into the curriculum, I was inspired by a panel discussion on “Educating the Heart and Mind” from the 2009 Vancouver Peace Summit. This was a nearly hour-long discussion between Eckhart Tolle, Sir Ken Robinson, Matt Goldman and Chris Wink from the Blue Man Group, Dan Siegel, Nobel physicist Murray Gell-Mann, and H.H. the Dalai Lama, moderated by Matthieu Ricard.
During the course of the panel discussion (at the 38:00 mark), Matt Goldman offered:
“Creativity has to be sewn into every single part of the educational process. Social and emotional learning – not a separate subject but part of everything – so that the skills of empathy, the skills of compassion – are all sewn into your literacy and your math and your social studies as strongly as anything.”
This became my new approach: Weave social-emotional learning throughout the curriculum rather than try to fit it into its own block.
But now we have a new obstacle. Teachers all across the state and country are being given new curricula. Tightly scripted curricula. And the curriculum packages seem to be constantly changing as more and “better” options become available from year to year. Even if we are given permission to adapt lessons to some extent, it is very time-consuming to learn a new curriculum. Adapting it takes even more time. After a couple years of implementation, it becomes easier to insert some degree of creativity and personal style into a curriculum. But not the first time around. The first time around, you learn it as you go along and just try to keep your head above water.
So it is within this context that, in my mind, I ask the Dalai Lama how to proceed. Here is the answer that came to me:
The least we can do despite it all – even if there is no time for anything else in the school day and the children won’t get it from the tight, mandated curriculum – is to model kindness and compassion. Every encounter and interaction with students or any other members of the school community is an opportunity to do just that. We can give the gift of compassionate listening and communicating – or a warm smile – to one another.
People handle stress differently, and some handle it better than others. Sometimes we reach our breaking point – the straw that broke the camel’s back – when yet another responsibility or demand is added to our already overflowing plate. And under all that pressure, sometimes we forget to smile and to be kind. To listen. To remember that we are all in this together. Sometimes we need to vent. Sometimes others need to vent to us. And if it comes out looking like anger, remember that it is rarely, if ever, personal. None of us made up these new rules. Everyone is doing his or her best to stay afloat, especially when everything we do is being evaluated and we are all under the microscope – when all we wanted in the first place was to make a positive difference in children’s lives.
It doesn’t take long to help someone who is in a state of anxiety or overwhelm. You don’t need to go immediately into problem-solving or avoid them because you don’t know how to help. Sometimes all people need to bring them back to a state of balance is to know that their feelings are being heard and that someone cares. Even if you can’t solve the problem right then and there, just pausing within an energy field of presence to reflect sincerely and compassionately, “Wow, you’re feeling really overwhelmed,” and “I’m so sorry,” can go a long way. When I feel stressed out and share my feelings with a particular colleague, she often asks (with eye contact and presence), “What can I do to help?” Even if I don’t have an answer to that question, I feel that my feelings are being acknowledged, and that makes a difference.
Oftentimes when a student is having a conflict or is telling me a story about something that happened at home, reflecting his or her feelings simply and sincerely – for instance, with a “You must have felt so…” sentence and an appropriate facial expression – is all s/he needs to carry on. The true communication is often much more about feelings than content, and it only takes a couple seconds for a child (or colleague, for that matter) to feel heard and cared for. And that builds relationship. As I have written before, teaching is fundamentally about the relationship between the teacher and the student. That relationship is the vehicle through which education occurs.
We need to remember to listen. It is such a gift! At the most basic level, that means not interrupting.
We need to remember to smile. Not because everything is wonderful and right in our school, but because smiling – despite it all – is an act of kindness and compassion. It also feels good to smile.
Small gestures of kindness and creating an energy field of presence go a long way in improving the atmosphere of a school. Little eyes are always watching, even when we don’t think they are. And little ears are always listening. Children learn so much from who the teacher is and how s/he acts. During a retreat at Omega Institute in June 2012, Eckhart Tolle asserted, “The child observes the parents’ [teacher’s] behavior and absorbs that, and also absorbs their state of consciousness. The child models your state of consciousness so that if you embody presence, then something of that will be absorbed by the child.” That is the unwritten curriculum. And that is the part over which we have some control.
So that is where I will start. Yes, a compassionate curriculum would be even better. But embodying a curriculum of compassion and awareness, to the best of my abilities, is how I will go about educating the heart right now, without waiting for anything else to change.
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“My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” – H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama
In response to some recent headlines in the news, I have committed myself anew to the practice of kindness, including intentional, random acts of kindness. There has been a lot of discussion recently about mental health care, gun control, violence in the media, etc. Kindness is a form of activism that can go hand in hand with political activism.
A few days ago, I came across a video that really touched me and reminded me that you never know who you might inspire as you go about your day planting seeds of kindness – or who might inspire you if you keep your eyes open.
My favorite recent, local example of kindness is Lorenzo, who directed traffic through a road work site close to my school. His smiles, waves, and greetings – given to every single person who passed by him each day – uplifted so many people that he was made an honorary citizen and given the key to the village for sharing his gift of “unbridled joy.” He showed us the power that a smile and a few kind words can have on an entire community, which was a powerful lesson – one that inspired me to reflect on how I can channel more kindness and joy into my work and into the world at large. As an early childhood educator, I have an abundance of opportunities every day to offer a warm smile, a sincere compliment, and a listening heart. I remember how great it felt as a child to be noticed by and to connect with certain teachers. Simply running into them in the hallway and receiving a smile and a hello was such a treat!
That kind of warmheartedness comes naturally to most early childhood teachers. However, I’d also like to cultivate a random acts of kindness habit in the New Year that requires more intentionality.
The day before Christmas, I saw a picture online that made quite an impression on me. It was of a card a couple received on the windshield of their car when they came out of a hockey game. The card contained a $5 bill and a kind message and was given in loving memory of a certain child who died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School attack. I had heard of the new “26 Acts of Kindness” movement to commit a kind deed in honor of each victim of the school shooting and had intended to accept this challenge. However, the picture motivated me into action; a new wave of kindness already had begun!
I decided to begin with a copycat act of kindness in our community with my son. I found a handmade card, wrote a kind message, and invited my son to select the child in whose memory we would perform this random act of kindness. His eyes widened in an urgent sort of way, and he said that there was a particular child who really stuck out in his mind. We looked at pictures of the 20 Sandy Hook students, and he found the child immediately. I wrote her name, age, and the name of her school on the card with tears welling in my eyes and slipped the money into the card. Focusing on that one child – learning her name and deciding to offer a kind deed in her memory – was a powerful, emotional experience. At the bottom of the card, I wrote, “Remembering this precious child through a random act of kindness that hopefully will make the world a better place. Please pass it on in some way.” We drove down the road to our town’s grocery store, selected a car, and left.
After returning home, I felt compelled to learn more about this little girl. I read about her interests and considered the idea of future acts of kindness being related to what each child loved or something unique about him/her. For instance, we might decorate a tree with treats for the birds in honor of a child who loved animals or donate a book to a library in honor of a child who loved to read.
Normally, I engage my kindergartners in a random acts of kindness project between Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Valentine’s Day. We create a paper quilt detailing 100 acts of kindness performed at home, school, or in the community. The children color heart designs, and their acts of kindness are written in the borders around each quilt square. I ask families to email me or send notes about kind deeds their children perform outside of school.
This year, I’m considering challenging each child/family to perform 20 acts of kindness – in honor of each of the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. We are focusing on the numbers 0-20 in math, and there would be no need for the children to understand the significance of the number 20. I just love the idea of responding to tragedy by flooding the world with kindness and light and the message that love is stronger than evil, hatred, and ignorance. Acts of kindness in the classroom also count.
Personally, I think I’d like to begin with the “26 Random Acts of Kindness” and then extend it by performing a kind deed every day during 2013.
Here is the link to an article about kindness research underway in Vancouver: Random Acts of Kindness Can Make Kids More Popular. I have to admit to fantasizing every now and then about moving to Vancouver to study with lead researcher, Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, whose work I have been following for several years. (And I have some really awesome relatives in the Vancouver area…) But perhaps I can work to implement research-based practices related to kindness, empathy, and awareness in schools in my area.
There are a number of resources online with ideas for random acts of kindness, in case you are so inclined and would like some ideas. Here are a few links:
There is another book about kindness that I refer to quite extensively in my classroom but must recommend along with a suggestion. The book is called Have You Filled a Bucket Today?: A Guide to Daily Happiness for Kids. The book explains that each of us carries around an invisible bucket that holds our feelings of happiness. When our bucket is full, we feel good, and when it is empty, we feel bad. We can fill other people’s buckets by being kind and helpful, and in the process of filling their buckets, we also fill our own. However, we also can dip from other people’s buckets by being insensitive or hurtful. But dipping from someone else’s bucket does not fill our own bucket. The ideas of bucket filling and bucket dipping are easy for young children to grasp; however, there is an important element missing from the story, which is learning how to put a lid on our bucket, to prevent others from dipping into our bucket in the first place. This piece involves resilience and personal empowerment and ensures that our happiness is not dependent on the actions of others. Although this idea does not appear in the book, I have seen it presented on the Bucket Fillers website and feel it is a critical piece.
Please let me know if you know of other good books about kindness!
And then there’s the movie, Pay It Forward, about a boy who started a kindness movement as a school assignment:
Whereas the various issues being debated in response to recent acts of violence will take some time to work out, kindness is something each of us can do today. It is a way to heal the world more immediately. May it spread like wildfire!
“Every kind act, no matter how small, is like a pebble tossed into the pond of human caring. The rings reach out far beyond the point of impact; the action of our kind deed acts more kindly toward the people around them, those people act more kindly toward the people around them, and so it goes, on and on.” –Author unknown
I want to share a couple insights from a story called “The Star Child,” which I used to read to my children at bedtime on Christmas Eve. It is from a wonderful book called Gently Lead by Polly Berrien Berends. The story in its entirety is simply beautiful, and it is possible to read it on Amazon. (Click on “Search Inside This Book,” and then enter “Star Child” in the “Search Inside This Book” field – which might require logging in. When the results show, click on the bold text “STAR CHILD.”)
In the story, the author explains that most people were too busy inside their homes to notice the Star of Bethlehem shining brightly. However, some simple shepherds who were outside looking up at the sky saw the star. And…
“The only other people to see that star were three wise men. They had big houses with lots of lights and all the shiny treasures anyone could ever wish to have. Yet each of them still had one big wish. They wished to find something brighter and better than all the treasures on earth. The wise men saw the star because they were looking for light. So the only people who saw the star of the baby were some shepherds who had almost nothing and three wise men who had almost everything.” (Berends, p. 42-43)
Citation: Berends, Polly Berrien (1998). Gently Lead: How to Teach Your Children about God While Finding Out for Yourself.New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.
I have contemplated this idea a lot over the years and find it quite profound, especially when I get caught up in the mundane preoccupations of life. I find that my life becomes more fulfilled when I take time to look for light and to make this quality of awareness a way of life.
The “Star Child” story goes on to describe the rest of the Christmas story and how Jesus grew up and discovered
“that God is love and that everyone is God’s child. Jesus saw everyone in the light of God’s love. No matter how unfriendly or sick or sad someone seemed to be, he could always see the star child shining through.” (Berends, p. 43)
What a powerful practice it is to look for the highest good in everyone with whom we come in contact! A quote from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow comes to mind:
“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should see sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
And it is every bit as powerful to experience someone connecting with our inner light. During the last meeting of a World Religions course at Ithaca College, the professor (with whom I remain closely connected) went around the room, looked into each student’s eyes, and stated that she saw our divine nature.
Remembering this experience, I entered the teaching profession vowing to connect with the higher nature of each of my students, no matter what kind of behavior or attitude they exhibited. This kind of presence is a gift for both the giver and the recipient. It has an elevating effect and is worth cultivating in our lives. It is a radical act that requires rising above so much worldly conditioning and the ego’s desire for comfort. Love – which I think of as a force of unity and connection – is radical and courageous. We must risk stepping out of our comfort zone and calling our prejudices into question. Every single one of them.
Every single person in this world began life as an innocent, radiant star child. Everyone is someone’s son or daughter and worthy of love. No excuses or exceptions. And we are all the sons and daughters of the same life force that created us, which makes us all brothers and sisters. We are more alike than we are different. This doesn’t mean condoning misguided or harmful actions or being permissive when firm action is in order. But may we hold every human being’s inner light in our hearts and pray that it may grow stronger. When we can do this, our light shines brighter, as well. And with that, I wish all of you who celebrate a very merry Christmas. May the love in our hearts shine brightly, revealing the best and the highest within everyone we meet.
As a mother and a kindergarten teacher, my heart goes out to everyone affected by today’s tragedy in Connecticut. I remember hearing about the Columbine school shooting when my own children were one and four years old and how it shook me to my core. Now a new generation of parents has to grapple with unanswerable “why” questions and concerns about their children’s safety. You just want to hold them tight and keep them safe.
I recall driving my oldest child home from the hospital 24 hours after she was born. Passing through a crime-ridden section of Albany in the darkness, her newborn life seemed so fragile. Those first days of her life, I kept thinking about how she was going to have to share the world with so many hurting people who, as a result of their own pain, would be capable of hurting her. Protecting her from harm had become my new life’s purpose.
Children are especially on my mind this evening. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a child and to hear about innocent children “just like me” being killed so senselessly at school. Every single day, I use the language of safety in my classroom, reminding my kindergartners that my number one job is to keep them safe, and that the various rules they are expected to follow are there for their physical and emotional safety. School is supposed to be a place of safety. For children with challenging home situations, school is a place of consistent, comforting rhythms and routines, an atmosphere of caring.
I hope families – parents, older siblings, extended relatives – will be mindful of how and to what extent their children are exposed to news about the Connecticut school massacre. Some families will be vigilant in limiting their children’s exposure to the news. Others may have the news on in the background and assume the children aren’t paying attention. Still others may communicate more or less openly with their children about what transpired. Even when families are vigilant, we can’t control what young children may overhear on the bus or from older siblings.
Here is what I wish, most of all, for children to know about tragedies such as this one: Yes, something happened that was very wrong. However, there is more light than darkness in this world. People are capable of fantastic, wondrous things.
I am inspired by a quote from (“Mister”) Fred Rogers that I copied down several years ago:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.
May we do everything in our power to nourish the gardens of our children’s hearts and minds with the sunlight of kindness, the pure water of beauty, and the warmth of goodness, and be vigilant in tending to the weeds of fear and sadness as they arise. May we teach them through our example and loving presence to be kind and resilient and to do good work in this world each day. May we expose them to positive role models – the helpers of this world who rarely make front page news but go quietly about the business of filling our world with light, hope, and love. May we bring children’s attention to the goodness that exists in this world and surround them with opportunities for developing kindness, compassion, and caring. May we guide them to feel safe and secure, knowing that many people are looking out for them and safeguarding their well-being and that there is much more good than evil in the world.
I also envision a world in which people who need help have easy, affordable access to appropriate, effective health care.
For the adultsstruggling with fears, sadness, uncertainties, and unanswered questions, I offer a poem that has comforted me on numerous occasions titled “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry:
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Sometimes our light goes out, but it is blown again into flame by an encounter with another human being. Each of us owes deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this inner light. -Albert Schweitzer
Every morning, I take a few moments to give thanks for various blessings in my life, set an intention, and invite into my day enough guidance, support, mindfulness, and skill to manage my classroom and other interactions effectively. This morning when I woke up, my heart was filled with gratitude for the ways in which such guidance and support have manifested, and I feel compelled to write about a few people who make a positive difference in my life.
This school year has been exceedingly challenging for me thus far due to a number of factors, including: school reform mandates, challenging behaviors, increased class size, and limited human resources. I find solace in knowing I am not alone. Public school teachers all over the country – licensed, highly educated, experienced, committed, caring professionals – are feeling overwhelmed and disempowered by a system that is being driven by statisticians and politicians at the state and federal levels who in general appear to understand neither child development nor the realities of the classroom. That being the case, I want to acknowledge two angels in my professional life who provide me with valuable guidance and support through the storm.
The first is Sally Haughey of the Fairy Dust Teaching blog. I knew the instant I visited Sally’s newborn, Waldorf-inspired blog nearly two years ago that she was a kindred spirit. When she began offering professional development courses online via her blog, I signed up for every one of them, hungry for the wisdom she offers so generously with regard to “soulful teaching.” She has been holding my hand all the way from Oklahoma for more than a year now and enriching my life both in and out of the classroom. I am grateful for her vision, passion, and inspiration and for the technology that makes such sharing possible.
Another small miracle in my teacher life is a community volunteer who is helping in my classroom every morning out of her sheer love for children. Peggy does not have any children in our district but is a retired high school teacher from another district who lives in the neighborhood. I didn’t know her until a connection was established via my administrators. Unless you are a teacher, you probably have no idea how much of a difference volunteers can make in the life of a classroom, especially now that the whole game has changed. If there is any way to help a school or teacher in your community, please consider doing so. It is becoming clear to me that some of the finest teachers are among those most seriously considering jumping ship, and you might be responsible for keeping one in the classroom.
Several years ago when I was in the midst of a graduate program in education, I encountered some obstacles that nearly caused me to abandon my dream of becoming a teacher. On my birthday, I had a powerful dream that has stayed with me all these years and filled me with confidence and optimism. In the dream, I was traveling on a road surrounded by water, and it was raining so hard that the road up ahead in the distance was flooded. I didn’t know how I’d ever get back to my car. When I finally reached the flooded area, I noticed there were several flotation devices off to the side, and I used one to get across. The point was that I couldn’t see these objects from the distance; they appeared when I was truly in need of them. The dream convinced me that there would be help available when I need it – help I would not be able to foresee. When circumstances seemed bleak, the memory of that dream helped me to push through.
The two women mentioned above are examples of the kind of help that becomes available in times of need. I never could have imagined or anticipated the gifts they would give me! They appeared all of a sudden as if out of nowhere.
Finally, I want to mention two other people whom I consider everyday angels and whose positive energy is infectious. The first is a man named Lorenzo who works on a road crew at a construction site I drive through every day. He is so friendly and animated and looks like he is having the best time managing traffic. Talk about positive vibes! It always makes me smile and feel good to see him. He’ll exclaim (even through closed windows), “What a beautiful smile! So great to see it!” when I drive by and wave back at him. He is like a performer interacting symbiotically with an audience, fueled by the energy that returns to him.
Today during a staff meeting, the presenter happened to mention Lorenzo and that he’d given him a gift card. Then we discovered that other staff members also have given him gifts or stopped to thank him for his incredible, uplifting energy. I considered taking an alternate route around the construction on my way to work in the morning but decided I’d rather leave a few minutes early and wait in traffic in order to experience Lorenzo’s extraordinary energy! When I mentioned his exuberance on Facebook, several people commented that his happiness fills them with happiness and excitement and that they go out of their way to see him. What a gift he bestows upon our little corner of the world! I wonder how far it ripples as each of us, uplifted by his cheerfulness, goes about our day.
No doubt the finger pointing at the left edge of this photo is attached to a smiling face!
Spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle, explained that the first step toward finding more satisfying work is to change how you do what you’re already doing by bringing full presence to it. You radiate positive energy, and then perhaps somebody will notice how present you are and feel drawn to that. Then perhaps you will make a connection that leads to a new opportunity. Or perhaps the act of being present will breathe new life into the work you already do. I think of this when I drive through the construction site because that is the kind of energy Lorenzo radiates.
Addendum: Lorenzo’s smiles and greetings have created such a buzz and touched the hearts of so many people in our community that a couple articles have been written about him, and he recently was given the key to the city and made an honorary citizen “because of the unbridled joy he gives to all those who pass by him.” What an extraordinary example of the difference one person can make through the power of a smile and simply being kind and loving to everyone he sees!
And then there’s Bill, the crossing guard/custodian at our school – an older man who has got to be one of the sweetest, gentlest souls on this planet. Every morning, he greets me by name with a smile and a few words about the weather. I look forward to his daily greeting. On special holidays, Bill gives all the children candy canes or other small treats just to see their smiles. Truth is, he reminds me so much of my deceased grandmother, who also loved children and worked at a school. Last Christmas, I gave Bill a card that acknowledged how much his morning greeting means to me. I knew that if I didn’t communicate this to him, I would regret it someday.
Peace Pilgrim said, “Just as there are no little people or unimportant lives, there is no insignificant work.” By the very nature of the energy we put forth in the world, each of us has an effect on those with whom we come in contact, however briefly. Never underestimate the power of a smile or kind word to light up someone’s day. May we be a channel of blessings to others through the energy we emit throughout the course of our daily lives, and also be receptive to blessings that flow to us through the simple, caring actions of others!