Today we are thrilled to offer a beautiful guest blog post from Antioch University New England Integrated Learning student, Janice Waldron-Hansen. Janice writes about her experience of using her own mindfulness practice to explore the terrain of her student-teaching environment and then sharing mindfulness practices with her young students. This reflection came as a result of her work in our Mindfulness for Educators spring weekend elective course, which is open to current students, alumni, and as continuing education. For more information on the Mindfulness for Educators Programs at Antioch University New England, please visit our website at http://www.antiochne.edu/teacher-education/mindfullness-for-educators-certificate-program/
Teaching as a Mindfulness Practice
A deeply cold winter ushers in this semester, in January 2014. Halfway through the month, I realize the necessity of needing to leave my internship; this sets the tone for the next five months. This semester I learn to trust in the teaching I gleaned from the Vipassana meditation training of “everything being as it should be.” The teaching succeeds in holding my head above the surface of the quickly changing waters of a 15-month learning cycle about becoming a master teacher. The deep inhalation of the breath brings my body the oxygen needed to make the crossing of the great ocean of my mind’s eye. The great ocean of understanding everything is in a flux and a flow, in constant change. The sister-ing exhalation empties me of what I no longer need to hold on to, as I let the air from my lungs seep quietly, and sometimes not so quietly over my lips. In sitting meditation, following the breath, and sensing the sensations of my body, deepens my concentration. This is the same concentration I use to track myself while teaching. The focus gained from tracking the sensations of the body in sitting meditation, support the construction of lesson plans anchored in the school, and lives of the students I work with.
I start the days of my new internship by taking a reading of the energy of the classroom, generously shared with me. Each morning, I read the barometer of my coordinating teacher, her 2nd grade students, and myself, as they enter through the door into the room we’ll share for the next three days, of each week, for the next 15 weeks. I find the listening skills I’ve cultivated in walking meditation give me awareness. The same awareness guides me as I make my way through the layers of learning that adults and children in the school’s community are embedded in. The town surrounding the school is full of hardship. I witness myself learning to understand the context of a community where children arrive hungry to school.. I see for the first time, in real time, bone-thin children whose appetites are taken by the drugs that help them quiet themselves, in order to get through a day in school. “As it is,” I find myself repeating to myself, sometimes too often. Again the breath, and its partner, compassion become the raft keeping me afloat. I work harder to understand where I am, and how I might be able to participate in teaching, amidst the hardships of lives wrought from challenges children do not choose for themselves. The learning stored in the brain-body of my muscle motor memory supports me as I gain insight into the complexities of creating a safe and nurturing classroom culture, from a wise coordinating teacher and supervisor.
Midway through the onset of February, my realizations about the stresses and strains facing the teacher and child of the public classroom shake me to the core. I lose the buoyancy of the practice of insight meditation. Overcome by the reaction of my bodymind saying “no,” in daylight and in the wake-light of dreams twisted. I learn from my Antioch teacher, Teri Young, who refers to this kind of an event as an “epistemological shudder.” She reminds me with her teaching to make the pause, take the breath, refrain from the naming of things, in order to let in the greater why of a situation. Laying supine on the floor, deep in relaxation, I take the breath, deeply inhaling and exhaling, I find clarity of thought and emerge from the overwhelm. At school the next week, I’m with a boy, after his class has left and gone into the hallway, as a result of his choices. I’m able to help him find a place of calmness while we pretend to pick a dandelion and blow its fluff softly away.
Starting again, I learn the value of one breath grabbed in the quick-paced environment of teaching and learning with children. The one breath adds itself to another one, also quickly snatched from frantic airwaves strung tight by taunt emotions. Engaged in the free association of the teacher’s path of assessing and responding to the needs of her students, I manage to take another breath. Then, like a bell being struck, I see truth in the ring of action. While I’m practicing insight meditation, and teaching young ones how to tune to their breath, I find certain calm comes to the room full of learners.
Still cold, and early in April, the sun warms the wooden floor of the dance studio, where I sit remembering, and learning to embark on teaching mindfulness practices to children. Later in the month of May with an even warmer sun, I help children learn how to feel and find their still place, (adapted from Amy Salzberg, as taught by Susan Dreyer Leon in our class, Mindfulness for Educators). The results are instantaneous, and plain to see in our 2nd graders. They are happier, more relaxed, and able to listen better. In the following weeks, I guide the children in visualizations. They practice feeling their breath, and noticing how their body feels. Then we learn about walking in the halls quietly, not because we are bound by a rule, instead because of the peace we feel, as we go from one place to another, neither here, nor there, but somewhere in between, when we’re not rushed and saunter, relishing the passage. Finally, last week I shared Susan Kaiser Greenland’s “Rocking A Stuffed Animal To Sleep With Your Breathing.” The effect is overwhelmingly pleasant for everyone in the room. The observing coordinating teacher, the children, a boy from another classroom in the take-a-break-chair, and me, all are noticeably calmer and happier afterwards. The children open their eyes in quiet rapture as they see the stuffed animal on their belly. We all are rested, taking on the math lesson with a freshness, and openness I’ve not seen in the four previous months.
My experience of introducing mindfulness practices to children and adults in a challenging school community has been undeniably proactive in changing the stress levels I was encountering in my internship. The children continue to ask for more experiences, and to repeat those we’ve tried. I see the children meeting my efforts with their own, one for one. As I help them find different ways to make contact with their breath. The intrinsic nature of the child supports them in acquiring this vital tool. This same tool serves me in my growth as a teacher, while I observe the differences in learning without engaging breath awareness, and learning that does. The evidence in support of the child’s increased well-being is clear, while my observational acuity as a teacher grows. The quick pace is slowed by the path of mindfulness, affording a presence of mind allowing for attunement to the environment and my students.
“…This singing art is sea foam.
The graceful movements come from a pearl
somewhere on the ocean floor.
Poems reach up like spindrift and the edge
of driftwood along the beach, wanting!
from a slow and powerful root
that we can’t see.
Stop the words now.
Open the window in the center of your chest,
And let the spirits fly in and out.”
Rumi, Where Everything Is Music,
The Essential Rumi, by Coleman Barks, with J. Moyne