A Season of Kindness

Since my November posting about the Arising of Compassion, I’ve been thinking some more about how we can cultivate joy in our classrooms (and our lives).  This led me back to a wonderful book by Sylvia Boorstein’s called Pay Attention for Goodness Sake (2002).   She talks about something that captured her imagination very early on in her mindfulness practice.  It was a small plaque that read “Life is so difficult, how can we be anything but kind?”  I think that this simple idea lies at the heart of what many educators strive for with their mindfulness practice.  We are reaching for the inner resources that can allow us to maintain our kindness towards ourselves, our students, our peers, and our families even during stressful times, in fact, especially during stressful times.

The practice of kindness is one of those things that generates its own energy beyond just the simple act itself.  I can still remember vividly the winter of my sixth grade year.  Sixth grade was a tough year in our district.  Students moved from small local elementary schools to a big, impersonal middle school.  Low level violence and bullying were routine daily experiences for many of us and it was struggle to feel seen by teachers as we moved from class to class every 45 minutes.  I hadn’t found my place in this new world yet and was often anxious and overwhelmed.

One thing that was consistent for me from elementary school was reading.  Each month we had a chance to order books from the Weekly Reader magazine and I always eagerly awaited the arrival of my new choices.  This particular month I had brought in money to order books as usual but when the books arrived, my order wasn’t there.  Somehow, in the shuffle of my teacher’s desk, my order had not gone in.

Merry Decker was the teacher.  She had actually been absent quite a bit that fall and I didn’t know her well.  I didn’t think she knew me either.  I can still remember exactly how I felt approaching her desk.  I was half ready to yell and half ready to cry.  I was both fiercely disappointed and mad at her.  I can’t remember anything about what I said or what she said, I just remember the feelings.  I remember feeling seen, heard, comforted.  I remember that she gave me books that she had ordered for the classroom to replace some of the books that I didn’t get.  And I fell in love.  Right there in that five minutes of interaction, Mrs. Decker became one of the most important people in my life, for that year and for many years afterwards until long after her retirement and my departure for college.

As it turns out, she was having a terrible year herself.  A divorced mother of two, she had just lost her adult daughter, Susie, in a car accident and was suffering a great deal.  I’m not even sure I knew about the accident that year, but I know that she somehow managed to bring her best self to the classroom each day.  I often marveled that she had lived up to her unusual name, Merry.  There was nothing superficial about her joy.  It was deep and wise and generous.   It could encompass suffering, hers and others, and produce not bitterness or despair, but kindness.  And that kindness allowed me to relax and begin to participate in the life of my new school more fully.

I’m sure that many of  you could think of similar stories in your own educational lives:  the small act of an individual teacher that made all the difference.  To cultivate this ability in my own teaching is definitely one of the goals of mindfulness practice for me.   It means I have to be open.  I have to really see the student in front of me.  It sometimes only takes a moment to really see, hear and help another person.  That’s going to be my practice this season.  I’d love to hear from some of you about your experiences with kindness in the classroom.  I think we can all draw inspiration from stories of those like Merry Decker, who have shown us the way.


Author: sdreyerleon

Susan Dreyer Leon, EdD is the Chair of the Education Department at Antioch University New England and the Director of the Mindfulness for Educators Program. www.antiochne.edu

One thought on “A Season of Kindness”

  1. I love this piece, Susan. I remember more general feelings about the kindness of my teachers as I think back; I’ll need to do some “dredging” to come up with specific stories like this lovely one you’ve shared. For instance, I remember the way I felt when Mrs. Ames — who I was lucky enough to have as both my 2nd- and 3rd-grade teacher — sat us down on the carpet, so that she could read us a chapter from one of the Laura Ingalls-Wilder “Prairie” books. This was long before the Michael Landon-Melissa Gilbert series came on tv. There was no talking, no giggling, no interruptions. Those 30 minutes of story time were sacred to all of us — not because Mrs. Ames ruled with an iron fist; rather, it was because none of us could have imagined a better place to be during that time.

    Something I often say to young and/or aspiring teachers is that there is one thing that students pick up on immediately and can go a long way in terms of “classroom management.” And if you ask any high school student about this, they’ll be able to speak on it: Students know, from the moment they step into the classroom, whether or not the teacher wants to be in the room with them. I’m not talking about having a bad day — that happens to all of us, students and teachers alike. But students know when teaching is coming from the heart, even if it’s coming with a struggle. I encourage young teachers to be honest with themselves about this feeling. If they’re in that room with that group of people for any other reason (at the core) than because they want to be, then they need to make a change. Either they need to explore a new path of professional development (Mindfulness, for example), or a new professional road altogether…

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