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guest post by Ira Rabois
For many years, when I was a teacher and the month of May rolled around, the end of the school year would feel like a surprise. What once seemed like a tremendous length of time was now only a few weeks long. Earlier in the year, I had to plan extensively to fill each class period. Now, there was too much to do and not enough time to do it. The once lengthy year was over too quickly.
I remember vacations I did not want to ever end, or conversations, concerts, a sunset over the Caldera in Santorini, Greece. I felt this moment might never come again and I wanted to hold on tightly. Or I felt I had missed something, or I preferred where I was to where I was going next.
Understanding the passage of time and ending anything, whether it be the school or a calendar year, a project, a vacation, or a job can be difficult, painful ⎼ or exciting. Just saying the word ‘ending’ can sound dramatic and consequential.
We might like what we are doing and not want to let it go. We might resist what is new because it is threatening or scary or maybe something from the past is still calling us. Or it might be difficult to accept the end because we never fully grasped or embraced the beginning. To begin something new we need to let go of something old.
Compassion Can Transform the Energy of Stress into Helpful Action
A school year or a work project is never just about the work. Relationships are formed. A community, maybe a family, is created. When the work is completed, the community ceases. This must be recognized, reflected upon, celebrated. The other people must be honored. After all, you came together, learned together, struggled through time and tasks together, and hopefully cared for each other. You pay a price if you forget this basic fact.
The fact of this community ending is part of the stress you feel. Some years, I created interactive final demonstrations for certain classes. For example, students had to discuss, in a small group, pre-selected essential questions related to the class subject matter and then answer follow-up questions posed by other teachers and university professors. We did this at my home or at night at the school, so we did the work and then shared a meal. Years afterwards, former students have told me they remembered the event and had found it meaningful.
At the end of the school year, it’s helpful to realize students are feeling every bit as strapped for time, stressed, maybe anxious, as you. Give yourself time to actually bring to mind individual students and feel what might be difficult for them and why. Then imagine how you might realistically help them be successful. When you open up to others, you open to yourself.
It is so easy to get lost in worries. Worry, stress, and anxiety are forms of feeling threatened. If you feel a loss of control, you feel more stress. The end of the year can give all the thoughts and concerns that you didn’t deal with over the year the stimulus they need to burst into the open and be revived. And the political situation in this country just amps up the background level of anxiety each of us faces daily.
To reduce the stress on students, you might do the following:
1. Provide a calendar of the last three or four weeks showing what is due when.
2. Help students figure out how long different assignments might take to complete and add starting dates for completing each assignment to the calendar.
3. Talk about what stress is, how it can be helpful or hurtful depending on how you respond to it, and practice strategies to monitor and reduce stress and anxiety.
It is not just deadlines that cause stress, but how you think about those deadlines and your ability to meet them. Allow yourself to be aware of the thoughts that come to your mind.
When you feel the crunch of time or the weight of responsibility, take it as an opportunity to learn how to face a challenge and assert your ability. The calmer you are and the clearer your thinking, the more you can do.
According to research on hardiness and stress, the more you feel committed to the activity (engaged, interested, curious), think you have some control (meaning you believe you have the ability to influence events and results through your actions) and consider the situation as a challenge or opportunity, the less stressed you feel. Give students some real choices in the topic and method of demonstrating their knowledge and understanding so they feel committed, control, and challenged.
Instead of believing judgmental thoughts, question them and help your students do the same. The end of the year can bring up thoughts about the end of anything, or everything. You and your students might think ”judgment day” is upon you and all the power is in someone else’s hands, not your own. You might imagine you are threatened or think the image you have of yourself is threatened.
You might feel not only less capable but more constricted and so no longer do the things that normally allow you to let go of tension. You feel anxious because you have lost touch with your own depth and want it back. You have narrowed your sense of who you are to who you fear you are, or to how you think others might see you. Remind students and yourself that you are deeper than any thought.
Take a moment to pause your actions and simply focus on breathing in and out. How do you know something is not right? To know an image is not right, you must have a notion of what is right. You recognize this feared image of you is a diminished one because you have a deep sense that there is so much more to you.
To counter feeling time-poor, slow down. Give yourself a few moments each day to close your eyes and breathe calmly, to notice something beautiful, or exercise with intensity. By giving yourself time, you feel time-rich, that you have time to give. You feel more in control. By looking for something beautiful, you remind yourself that there is still beauty around you.
You reduce stress by developing this dual perspective. On the one hand, the school year is ending. You focus on what needs to be done. Then you focus on how you do it. You focus on how you live, not just on what you do. And this changes how you do the work that is needed. The year has ended in your thoughts and imagination millions of times. In fact, it has ended each time you have thought about it ending. You’re an expert at such thinking. Yet, here and now is something new, something else, something more than your thought. Which is the real ending?
Noticing Feelings and Sensations
Practice noticing the sensations that indicate you’re feeling stressed as soon as they arise. What does stress feel like? Where do you feel it?
Close your eyes partly or fully and calmly take a breath in; then let the breath out. Just do that for a moment. When you inhale, notice what you feel. Where do you feel it? Do you feel stress, tension anywhere? Anxiety? Just notice it. Then exhale and feel your body relaxing, letting go of the breath, letting go of any tension.
Noticing the stressful sensations as soon as they arise and switching your attention from the story you tell yourself about stress to your physical act of breathing, can interrupt the stress response and interrupt fear. You feel your life is more your own. You feel more capable and alive. You feel present. You begin each moment fully, so you end fully.
About the Author
Ira Rabois has many years of experience as a secondary school teacher, instructor in the traditional Japanese martial arts, and meditation practitioner. While teaching for 27 years at the Lehman Alternative School in Ithaca, N. Y., he developed an innovative curriculum in English, Philosophy, History, Drama, Martial Arts, and Psychology, and refined a method of mindful questioning. He writes a blog on education and mindfulness. Mr. Rabois is the author of Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching.