It Is Time For Mindfulness In Education

I set out for the Omega Institute in beautiful Rhinebeck, New York this past July.  I had last visited Omega almost twenty years ago as a young physical education teacher and varsity basketball coach. I had been noticed by local celebrity Charlie Rosen, an author, a professional basketball coach, whose biggest claim to fame was being NBA legend Phil Jackson’s best friend.  

The Onteora High School Staff were playing in a charity game against the local radio station and Charlie was our coach. I happened to be, as Dan Patrick would say, “En Fuego” that day, hitting so many 3’s that the not so fleet footed host of the WPDH radio station guarding me resorted to the gimmick “Box and One” defense.

Charlie liked my jumper, my competitiveness, and my unwillingness to stop shooting.  This led to an invitation to assist him in an upcoming event he was leading at The Omega Institute called Basketball and Dreams.

Basketball and Dreams was a weekend camp for father and son basketball junkies held on the serene grounds of Omega, complete with basketball and behind the scenes NBA stories told by Coach Rosen. It was an experience I never forgot.

In my wildest dreams I couldn’t imagine returning some twenty years later as an Assistant Superintendent of Instruction to explore the benefits of meditation and mindfulness in schools.

We tend to paint pictures of who we think people are and who they will become. I was the intense coach who struggled with my temper, especially while competing or getting ready to compete. One of my least proud moments was when my father, my unofficial assistant, was thrown out of a game I was coaching. Five minutes later, I followed him by acquiring my second technical foul of the night by dancing down the sideline frantically spinning my arms begging for a travelling call.

Frank and I set up camp in the hallway sneaking peeks of the game, him grunting after each bad call and waving his arm in disgust at each miss.

As embarrassing and regretful as it may seem, things did get worse and I am cringing think about what happened the next day. Fred and Pete, two of the custodians at the school, the two adults I connected with the most, came skipping into the gym with a newspaper in hand, excited to bust my chops about the article that bashed “the antics of Onteora coach and his father.”

Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse I was called into my boss’s office. The athletic director known as Joe D was impeccably dressed in his mock turtleneck, accessorized with a quarter inch rope chain and 14K Italian horn. His office had the distinct smell of Drakkar Noir and I started to sweat, thinking about the tongue lashing I was about to get, something I could ill afford as an untenured PE teacher.

Maybe it was because I had heard Frank use the excuse the night before, or maybe I just panicked, but when he asked what the hell I was thinking and berated me for embarrassing not only myself, my kids, and the school (all true), my excuse came out a little too easily.

“Mr. D, I didn’t really do anything; they just don’t like Italians up there in the mountains.”

He first looked at me with confusion, then understanding, and softened a bit before saying, “Kris you will face that sometimes; you just have to handle it better in the future.”  

I was a bit relieved, but was and still am embarrassed to have been one of the few white males to successfully pull the ethnicity card. I believe I have grown since that time, but I would guess my friends from OCS might be a bit surprised that their old Coach was spending the weekend meditating and ringing singing bowls.

The trip to Omega was not my first foray into mindfulness.  I have always searched for ways to control my temper, be a better father, husband, educator, and person. I have often feared the inevitable end we all must someday face and looked for ways to get the most out of life, be the best I could be, and ultimately slow the marching of time that seems to speed as my age increases.

Self help books litter my library, including many on eastern philosophy, meditation and mindfulness. I often tried meditation, but found it impossible to hold the attention of my speeding mind and restless body still for any length of time. Then I found 8 minute meditation by Victor Davish. The author detailed the benefits of meditating, even in the very doable eight minutes he suggested. This book lead to semi consistent, formal meditation practice for a few years. I felt better when I meditated, felt calmer, more clear, better able to enjoy the moment and prioritize my work.

Yet human nature is finiky, even though we know something is good for us and will make our life better, we have a hard time putting it into our daily routine, even if it is just for eight minutes a day. After awhile my practice faded away.

I became reinvigorated in meditation after reading 10% Happier by Dan Harris. Dan is an ambitious news reporter who investigated meditation after an on air panic attack left him searching for answers. Harris’s book spoke to me; he presented the case for meditation in a practical, logical way, not as something that is done in a sanctuary with incense burning and robe on. Here was a respected investigative reporter who revealed the benefits of consistent practice backed by research, and lived it, resulting in improved contentment, happiness, and career advancement.

Shortly after reading 10% Happier, my friend Phil turned me on to the APP Headspace. The soothing voice provides a wide variety of guided meditation sessions on topics such as focus, patience, eating, sleep, and work to name a few.  

Phil told me the APP would change my life and, in fact, it did. It led to 10 minutes of meditation almost every day for the last two years.  Making meditation part of daily routine helped me to be better at work, better at home and overall a happier person. In fact, I am not sure there would be “The Teacher and The Admin” blog if not for Headspace. Realizing the benefits I was experiencing from mindfulness encouraged me to explore how mindfulness may help my students and teachers. It was eye opening to see how much information there was on mindfulness in schools and how many educators were exploring it as a means to address the social emotional well being of their students.

Some pioneers in my District have become experts on the topic and more and more are becoming interested in exploring the benefits. In fact, Reyna (AKA Ruby Sneakers) was formally trained by Little Flower Yoga.  This is an amazing organization that is making a difference in our field.  Even more amazing was the fact that Reyna immediately connected with her trainer, a young lady with a welcoming presence and perpetual smile.  That in and of itself is not that amazing, but the fact that Abby was a student of mine some 20 years ago in upstate NY made me think that maybe the Universe was trying to tell me something.

That is a brief overview of how a hotheaded, intense Physical Education teacher/coach turned Assistant Superintendent of Instruction ended up in Rhinebeck New York with no shoes, being inspired to bring mindfulness to my District by some of the most influential names in the field such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, Daniel Rechtschaffen and Linda Lantieri.  

It was one of the best learning experiences I have had, and as much as I was inspired by the big names in mindfulness, I was even more inspired by the educators I attended the conference with our “Omega Crew”.  

We have all continued to learn and share.  I am not sure if it was the topic, the timing, or the peaceful venue, but the connection I experienced with these educators is a connection that will last, a connection I want our students to have with one another and with their teachers.  

Bringing mindfulness to your District, school, classroom, or even your home does not have to be some grand gesture. It does not have to be a formal program; it does not have to be an investment of money. It can simply be some basic techniques that can help teach your students how to better pay attention, regulate their emotions more effectively, and to be more aware of the world around them.

Mindfulness is not about religion; it is not about some weird new age voodoo. It is just about focusing on the task at hand, training your mind to be able to pay attention, about keeping things in perspective, to be aware. It is a tool that can help our students get more out of school and life. It can help educators regulate stress, teach without judgement, accept students for who they are, and instruct them based on  where they are academically and emotionally because as Jon Kabat-Zinn says “ No Matter Where You Go, There You Are.”

Here are a few simple steps you can take to make the educational experience a bit more mindful for your students.  I suspect the more you put these practices in place the more you will want to explore.

Breathing Exercises

You can use these examples to start a lesson, a faculty meeting or PD session.This practice can help your audience get in the right mindframe to learn.  You can also use as a break or after a transition such as after recess.

4 Square Breathing

Students trace a square on their hand. Up breathing in, to a count of four, across,hold for four, down, out to a count of four, across, to a count of four. Repeat four times.  

Hand Trace

Breath in as you trace up your finger, out as you trace down. Continue through all of your fingers and then repeat in the other direction.

3 Breath

Commit to stopping three times everyday and take three breaths. Focus only on your breath and your surroundings. Try to be present rather than thinking about what you need to do.

I Am So Calm

I learned this technique from Ruby Sneakers a while back and it has worked wonders for me and students who have been in an emotional crisis.  You simple touch your thumb to your fingers saying “I am so calm” in your head, changing the fingers that tap your thumb on each word.  Repeat as many times as you can.

I first used this when I was visiting my father while he was recovering in a nursing home. One of the patients, an elderly lady who was obviously suffering from some form of dementia, was screaming and had the look of panic in her eye. The nurses didn’t seem fazed, but the teacher in me couldn’t ignore her so I asked if could help her.  She just looked at me and said “please help me.” We did “I am so calm” together and after 90 seconds or so she was calm and a subtle smile crept on her experienced face.

Calming Areas

At the SAANYS conference in Lake Placid this weekend I had the pleasure of seeing two excellent educators Jen Olds and Sherri Spina speak enthusiastically of how they taught their students to be mindful. One of the practices implemented was to have calming areas in their rooms where students could self direct themselves to go to when they needed a brain break. These areas had homemade zen gardens, sparkle jars, and puzzle like activities.  Allowing students the freedom to go to these spaces when they needed a break has lead to a better classroom environment for all.

This point was emphasized when a 3rd grader they had videotaped clearly articulated the benefits of noticing her mood and when she needed to step away. I could see these spaces modified for older students by having poems to read, art supplies, headphones with calming music, or interesting scenes to explore.

Silent Reflection Time

When facilitating sessions for adults or students for that matter I often find myself trying to get as much “in” as I can. I now realize the importance of processing what we hear, what we learn. It is not how much we “cover” rather it is how much our learners actually learn and understand.  I have begun asking participants to sit silently and reflect on a question or information presented rather than immediately talking about, writing about, or doing something with the content. The first thing we have noticed is that two minutes of silence in a room of 30 people seems like a long time!  We are now noticing how effective this brief amount of time to reflect has been on our learning.

A Different Approach Reflection Room

I remember my first year at Fieldstone Middle School. I created a timeout room in the back of the library, hidden.  The room had no heat, a problem I solved by setting up an electric heater despite the ire of the fire inspector. Large bookshelves were set up to section off the various punishment spaces. I foolishly thought that if I made the space uncomfortable enough it would deter students from misbehaving, or at very least they would get the consequences they deserve for their discretion.

I now realize the purpose of these spaces, especially at the Elementary level, is to mentally get students to a place where they can rejoin the class and back to learning.  Reflection rooms should be calming spaces where students can speak to adults, practice relaxation techniques, listen to soothing music, stretch, manipulate playdough or just sit in silence.  My old self may have said if we make it too inviting, students will want to go there. The present day version of myself confidently answers “good, it is not about a pound of flesh. Rather, it is instruction and getting kids ready to learn. If you want kids to stay in classrooms, make lessons more engaging, your classrooms more inviting. Make students feel so cared about and so inspired that they will only want to leave when they truly need to.”

Gratitude

Take a minute or two each day to practice gratitude. This can be facilitated by teachers in the classroom, over the morning announcements, or as part of a learning center.  Giving a gratitude topic of the day( food, nature, people, smells, books, movies etc..) can help to get students started. The research behind the benefits of expressing gratitude is undeniable.  The time spent seems to be well worth it.

Notice walks

Going on a notice walk can be an excellent way to practice mindfulness, increase creative thinking, and build learning connections.  Take your class, your faculty, your principals on a notice walk. These walks should be silent expeditions around the school, on the grounds, or simple around the room.  Direct them to notice things such as interactions between people, how tree grows, how many colors they can see in the hallways, the oldest object they can find, or whatever else you can think of that will support learning.  

Dark Listening

Read to your students and ask them to close their eyes while you read.  I first saw this done by a principal as he read a passage from a professional book to his staff.  I experienced it with the faculty and noticed how much more engaged with the text I was with my eyes closed.  I have since used it in PD sessions and have been happy with the reaction and engagement I have been getting from the participants.  

I am by no means an expert of mindfulness or on mindful practices in schools, but I am convinced of the benefits. In a time where school violence is a real fear, student suicide on the rise, distracted driving the norm, our students need to be instructed on how to be present, how to pay attention, and  ways to deal with boredom other than stuffing faces in phones. And not just kids, as adults we need it just as much if not more.

Mindfulness is not some hippy practice that should be mocked.  It is a practice that should be explored and implemented. I truly believe our profession, our students, our education will be better off for it, and someday mindful schools will be the norm rather than the exception.  

If you are interested in learning more here are some excellent resources:

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