by Andy Johnsrud
The past 18 months of teaching have played out like the crazy “teacher dreams” many of us know too well. But rather than showing up in our subconscious in the month of August, we lived it! We all lived through what felt like a circus funhouse version of distance-hybrid-make-crap-up-as-you-dance-under-a-spotlight version of school. The weirdness of the past 18 months also provided a sustained and sometimes brutal assessment of some of the most basic things I think I know and do as a teacher.
We all struggled and got to see some things about our students and ourselves. Sometimes that view could be truly harsh as it revealed my judgment, lack of control, feelings of inadequacy. Sometimes that view was so very tender and revealed care, connection, empathy, and compassion with my fellow human beings of all ages. Many times this sustained focus kicked my bum and left me so far past vulnerable that I didn’t always know if I had what it takes to do this job. Note: none of these feelings were new--magnified and intensified, yes...but not new.
The struggle and challenge of these past months can be wonderfully fertile soil for me to grow, both personally and professionally. This is certainly not to be read as, “got things figured out now. Check that off my list.” This is the heart of our shared humanity and of being a teacher.
For me, acts of simple honesty to oneself and letting go of what we don’t control can help open a space. In that space we may be able to bring our most open and authentic care to one’s self. This is actually for the direct benefit of one’s students and their well-being beyond school, as well as for YOU.
STOP TO REFLECT
S for STOP
Adult Nervous System IS the Interverntion
A healthy mind-body system can be thought of as having both awareness and hope. Getting to that hope requires action on my part. This is not something we find in pedagogy nor plans nor assessment. My own growth has been helped by daily mindful practices, including meditation.
Pause for a moment to think of someone (teacher, parent, et al.) who had a profound impact for the better. What are two-three words that describe this person? It may be that those descriptors include terms that denote connection, limits, empathy, love and other traits. More than anything I believe that children, as humans (!), learn between the words and academics. They learn through the feeling and presence of the adults in their lives. This is another great hope--and a tremendous responsibility. My nervous system matters in “regular times” or “pandemic times”--the way I show up matters and can be a gift or a detriment to my students and my classes. This takes awareness and provides hope. There is something I can do for myself that will benefit others.
Patricia Jennings' research shows us what we intuitively know and hear: we actually TEACH better when we take care of our own nervous systems. Anyone who has ever taught knows that when one kid is hyper or "off" or whatever, there's a domino effect in the class.
Most of us are self-aware enough to know that that's true of our own regulation as well! These both clearly affect the class. A well-regulated adult nervous system IS the intervention. Simple. Not magic. Not easy. Not instant. It requires work over time. Many people do this through mindfulness or meditation.
Survival of the Nurtured
The psychologist and Pepperdine professor Louis Cozolino studies the social nature and adaptability of the human brain. He has famously said that, “[w]e are not the survival of the fittest. We are the survival of the nurtured.”
Many of us know the misleading claim that Darwin’s ideas can be reduced to “survival of the fittest.” This is contrary to what I know as a teacher. Teaching, learning, and nurturing are not a zero-sum game. Rather, Cozolino reminds us that as we modern humans change and adapt we need social connection. These connections are at the heart of what it is to be a good teacher, parent, person.
A number of good teachers teach about the importance of caregivers taking good care of self first. The notion of “survival of the nurtured” can reframe our work (and self-care!) as something we owe to our students for our benefit and their benefit. The former is an act of caring for children because it gives foundation for the latter. If the “bottom line” or “go-to” is always change/alter/fix, we risk missing a key opportunity for giving our kids what they truly need on a most basic human level.
Paradox is the Name of the Game
We do lots to try to help kids cope and learn about life. Raising resilient kids who think for themselves is a paradox. We know kids have to struggle, and hurt, and fall down, and make mistakes because they are human and this is how humans seem to learn best in the real world. This is how we instinctively know kids need to make mistakes and need us to offer the time and space, within limits, to figure things out for themselves.
The petri dish of 18 really weird months of unexpected conditions gave us a chance to see how we might recast and reconsider what it is we really do daily as teachers. This is a window, an opportunity to look at what I can really offer students as people. Experience has taught me that showing up for my students directly and unguardedly is what I have to offer my students. This is SO hard because we don’t want kids to suffer any more than possible--especially when the world turns upside down. But when I do this I can start to share emotional regulation and offer calm and secure relationships to my kids. This connection and relationships are basic human needs. Just like we preach to our kids, adults need time and practice to develop skills, too. Mindfulness is a tool for basic awareness. Mindfulness can bring greater awareness to my conditions and reactions AND my students’ conditions and reactions.
Control: That's a Funny Dream
It can be painfully clear that we have very little if any control over our students’ lives outside the schoolhouse doors. The weirdness of the past 18 months has put an exclamation point on that for us: thank you very little COVID-19! I think it has also exposed some of the “theatre” of school: all the things we well-intentioned adult-teacher-types are going to “do” to “fix” kids to “learn” them what they need. Now don’t get me wrong, systems, pedagogy, and curricular design are wonderful tools--just maybe not the magic fixes we quietly look for given the desperate conditions some of our kids and families face. Throughout my teaching career, our responses have been driven nearly singularly by notions and ideas of improvement plans, curricular design, and top-down initiatives. These are all fine...but, Maslow before Bloom is a cliche saying for very real and valid reasons.
T for TAKE A BREATH
To be very clear: educational systems can and must change as our nation rightfully remembers, reckons with, grows, and walks into our shared future. When we’re honest, whether inside or out of the schoolhouse door, there is little that we can directly control about our kids and their learning. Our kids come looking for connection, time, and space to figure things out in their way. Sometimes that fits our adult-teacher timelines, but often it disabuses us of our ideas of control. Learning is always taking place, oft times between the words and lessons crafted with truly good intentions.
When we really drill right down to it, there is very little we control with kids beyond the shadow of a doubt. Think totally out-of-control toddler, think totally-out-of-control teen--picture painted? I’m sure we can all think of a student who has done a masterful job in teaching us how little control we actually have. Sometimes that can make for absolute hilarity and joy. Sometimes that can make for heart-wrenching patterns of sadness. Those are both part of life and beyond my control. Sometimes I feel like our culture tells me I’m not supposed to admit this as a teacher, as a dad, as a person.
When we are in the trenches dealing with the 9,001 things that we don’t control it can be helpful to put down some of the “doing” and “busyness” of teaching, parenting, or working with other humans. These two words, “busy” and “doing” seem to define modern existence. Sometimes the paradox of raising kids demands putting down the effort and recentering the equation back to being aware of what is happening right now, good-bad-and-all-between.
The research has been clear for decades: kids don’t need us to be the world’s greatest _______ (insert dad, mom, teacher, etc.). They need us to hold time and space for them as they find their way through. A wise teacher once told me that empathy is not owning, changing, or fixing things for somebody else. Empathy is about the time and space they need to find that path they are on. We are the same in this way, students and teachers.
O for Observe
Okay, so then What Do We Really Offer our Kids?
A well-regulated adult nervous system IS the intervention. “That’s it?!?,” may be a realistic response.
This is one of those “simple is rarely easy” lessons that life keeps shoveling at me over my nearly 50 trips around the sun.
This past year taught me that it is really important to take care of myself when I have the time. I will need to draw on reserve care and coping when I don’t have time and life is more challenging. It is 100% predictable and consistent that life will bring challenge to all of us. I can set myself up by working on my mindful, self-care muscles in small, day-day ways. Mindfulness has changed how I think about caring for others. My ability to care for others is directly proportional to my foundation of care for self. This is the only gift I may truly offer those around me. Don’t take that as mushy-gushy. I think it can be a raw and brutal truth for many of us, especially in our work to serve other people. Here, again, is a basic paradox of caring for others: it always starts on the home turf of good, simple self-care.
P for PROCEED
Developing a Mindfulness Practice Takes Time
Mindfulness is one of those things in life that many of us struggle with--small, incremental changes and habits over time. Think of developing a mindfulness practice as less “to do” and more “to be.” Small, consistent “doses” matter over time.
Richie Davidson, founder & director of the Healthy Minds project at UW-Madison, encourages both mindfulness practice and scientific rigor. Mindfulness is a practice and by definition, practice takes time. Davidson’s bestselling book, Altered Traits (2017) reminds us that altered states (temporary states brought on by mindfulness, meditation, etc.) become traits (relatively permanent changes in how our minds work) through repetition and practice. Modern neuroscience seems to point in the same direction as many ancient contemplative traditions: wisdom grows slowly over time.
This means small, consistent actions to build a foundation of emotional regulation and responsiveness both inside and outside the classroom. The eminent mindfulness teacher, Jack Kornfield’s shares suggestions from Mindful Magazine. Kornfield reminds that this is work that requires empathy and kindness for self. “Like training a puppy, gently bring one’s self back a thousand times. Over weeks and months of this practice, things start to gradually settle as one learns to calm and center using the breath.” My experience has been that meeting my restlessness, judgment, and neuroticism can expose the places where kindness, compassion, and connection have a chance to grow in my mind-body-heart.
As teachers we want to help. This is makes perfect sense! It seems that as adults who care about kids, we become super busy pushing buttons, or pulling levers, or designing hyper-specialized instructional methods, etc. This can easily drive one to become neurotic, spread thin, and overwhelmed by the very real needs of our children. Amidst all this busyness it makes sense that we all struggle. Maybe we can all stop to notice where we are trying to control things that we simply cannot. Mindfulness offers a means to both create and explore this space. In this space we have a great opportunity to care and nurture ourselves and our children.
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