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Sunday, September 1, 2019

Five Ways to Begin the School Year with Mindfulness and Compassion

Photo by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi from Pexels

guest post by Ira Rabois

For every teacher I know, the end of summer vacation means rising nervous energy, anxiety and excitement. It means getting ready to begin a new experience, with new students and sometimes a new curriculum.
To start the school year, or anything new, it is obvious that we must make plans. We need to determine where we want to go, and what we want to accomplish, in order to fulfill those objectives. But we often ignore the emotional side of getting ourselves ready.

1. Meet Each Moment Mindfully
Take a moment to feel what you feel and notice your thoughts. Only if you notice your thoughts and feelings can you choose how and whether to act on them. Start with understanding what beginning the school year means to you and what you need. Then you can better understand what your students need.

Many of us plan our classes so tightly that the realm of what is possible is reduced to what is safe and already known. It’s not truly a beginning if you emotionally make believe that you’ve already done it.
Take time daily to strengthen your awareness of your own mental and emotional state. If you arrive at school energized but anxious, get out of your car, stop, look at the building and trees around you, and take a few breaths. Then you’ll be in your body, present in the moment—not caught up in your thoughts. After greeting yourself, you’ll be more prepared to greet students.
One way to do this is to practice SBC: Stop, Breathe, Notice. 

Periodically stop what you’re doing, close your eyes, take three breaths and notice your thoughts and feelings. Notice how you feel after such a break.

SBC is also a good practice to teach your students. You can use it to begin each lesson, or in the middle of a heated discussion.

2. Meet Your Students Mindfully
Before the school day starts, take a moment to close your eyes. Feel your body sitting comfortably in a chair, and feel the breath entering your body.
Imagine you are in your room and students are entering. Imagine what students might be feeling or thinking. Imagine how much the students need you. 
They are trusting you, putting themselves in your hands. Can you feel grateful for this opportunity? Proud? Brave? Imagine yourself as you’d like to be with your students. Open? Decisive? Informed? 
Just sit for a moment feeling grateful, proud, open, present.
On the first day of school, dispel any student fears that you will hurt or distrust them. Students feel freer to be open when you are open to share both your excitement and nervousness. When you hide behind a role with a schedule to keep, you feel stiff and nervous. But when you trust students this way, you yourself will be trusted.
Start the first day with a little mindfulness or a journal, or combine the two with an inquiry practice. I offer several suggestions for doing this in my book Compassionate Critical Thinking.
1. After greeting students, you might say: My day has been both stressful and exciting. How many of you felt stressed today? 
Listen to your students. Ask: What helps you feel more confident and ready to learn in school? 
2. Ask what they know about mindfulness. Develop curiosity. Assign research on the mental, emotional, and physical benefits of mindfulness. 
Ask: Do you just want to talk, or do you want to experience it? 
3. If they are in favor of experience, say you could introduce them to a short practice.
Close your eyes partly or fully, place your attention on the air passing over your upper lip as you breathe, and take 3 calming breaths. 
4. Then ask one of the following questions: 
*What do you think I need to know about you to help me work with you? 
*Imagine a time you had a wonderful learning experience in school. Where was it? What made it wonderful?

Ask students to open their eyes and write what they imagined.  Allow them to share their thoughts with you or the class if they want to do so.

3. Open the Class to the Lives of Students

Uncover the students’ own questions related to the course, as well as their awareness of their own internal state. You can ask one or more of the following questions:
How does the material from this class relate to your own life?
What questions about … have you always wanted to ask?
How can you help others when they’re anxious? When you feel anxious, where do you feel it?

Such questions naturally engage students because they connect their real lives to the curriculum. They feel empowered to face whatever life presents to them. The classroom becomes a place where mysteries are revealed and solved, and meaning is created.

4. Integrate Mindfulness and Visualization with Academic Content

You can combine mindfulness, inquiry and imagination when you teach your course material. In an English class, for example, ask students to visualize a character and his or her motivation for a particular action. Or in a history class, visualize a street in ancient Rome. Or simply start the year or class by asking a question

The school year or the lesson then becomes the process of answering the question.

What do you think is the biggest problem we humans face today? 
Which is more important: living a long life or a meaningful one?
Muriel Rukeyser said: “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” What does she mean? Is there a way this can be true?
What responsibilities, if any, do citizens have in a democracy to make the system work?

It is crucially important to teach questioning of what they hear and read as well as what they believe.
What is truth? Fact? Opinion? Theory?
How do you verify what you think is real?
What questions do you think we need to ask and answer in order to understand…?

Such questions challenge assumptions. The Greek philosopher, Plato, said: "Philosophy begins in wonder," the wonder from which real questions arise and which they evoke. Can wonder be allowed into the classroom?

5. Develop the Classroom as a Compassionate Community.

Ask students to focus on their breath. Then say:
Picture in your mind one person in the class you don’t know so well or you need to work with on a project. Imagine this person has feelings and thoughts very much alike, yet also somewhat different, from your own. Imagine that this other person wants to know what you think just as you want to know about her or him. What does it feel like to know another student values what you think?  Just sit for a moment with that feeling.

You can do this yourself when you are having trouble with a student. It will help your thinking clear and your feelings calm. You model awareness, of your own inner state as well as of other people there with you. This is the ultimate end you want to teach from the beginning: how to be a compassionate, clear thinking human being.
What stressed me out when I began a school year was the idea that I had a whole year to face. All that work, all that time. But if I planned enough so I was clear about what I was doing and why, and I developed my awareness with mindfulness and compassion, then instead of facing the idea of a whole year, I faced only an individual moment. I was prepared. I could trust myself and be spontaneous. One moment at a time—I could do that. And this changed the whole quality of my teaching and of my life. My teaching and my life were one.
As you begin a new school year, I hope the above suggestions help you become one with your work, your students, and your life.

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