Breathing into Back-to-School

Many teachers anticipate the return of students in August with some trepidation. We worry about how to handle the kids who push our buttons, and how to reach those who don’t participate. I can’t think of a better time to look at our minds, which is what we did at the Mindful Educator Resilience Retreat I hosted in August.

Practicing mindfulness outside the classroom, when things are relatively calm, helps us strengthen our ability to model self-regulation on the spot for our students in class.

Learning how our minds work is key to unraveling stress, so we began with an experiment. Imagining our minds as blank screens, we took a few minutes to look at the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that make an appearance on that screen and later disappear. The results were revealing. Regrets about the past and worries about the future can dominate our thinking. Disturbing emotions such as anger and sadness can haunt us. But if we can become aware of the passing nature of everything that plays on our own personal screens and cultivate healthy thoughts, we can relieve a great deal of tension in our daily lives.

Like us, our students also suffer from the bully between their ears. When compounded by trauma, these students can seem virtually impossible to reach. To provide some context on trauma and increase our compassion, I shared part of a talk by Dr. Sam Himmelstein, a psychologist who works with adolescents in juvenile hall. He shared the example of trauma victims seeing a coiled garden hose as a rattlesnake to demonstrate their hyper-vigilance. As teachers, we may feel certain we are perfectly innocuous, but our students may see us differently. He went on to explain that traumatic adaptations in the classroom can range anywhere from disassociation to aggression, to even being crowned the class clown.

Afterwards, I asked the group to write about a time when they were triggered in class, and reflect on whether pausing to look at their minds could have helped. When one of the participants shared about a student’s inappropriate sexual comment, another asked, “Did you respond or did you react?” This insightful question was met with an honest answer — “I reacted.” Just like our students, when we are triggered, our brains automatically shift into the fight, flight, freeze response. We rely on habit and instinct. To change the pattern, I suggested something I’ve done, which is to walk to the back of the classroom, put ours backs against the wall and take three breaths. It sounds simple, but as we all know, learning to pause and take a few breaths is anything but easy when triggered. Practicing mindfulness outside the classroom, when things are relatively calm, helps us strengthen our ability to model self-regulation on the spot for our students in class.

In the afternoon I shared a writing exercise based on the poem “So Much Happiness” by Naomi Shihab Nye. In it she writes about choosing an optimistic outlook despite challenges — “Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree house / and now live over a quarry of noise and dust / cannot make you unhappy.” The participants filled in their own blanks with joyful memories and current challenges. One teacher wrote, “Even the fact that you once travelled the world and now don’t even own a car cannot make you unhappy.” She shared that the writing exercise filled her with self-compassion and gratitude. I have found it to be very effective in helping me to learn about students’ lives outside of school and grow my empathy.

To stop and look at our wild minds is to be brave. My hope is that the teachers who attended the retreat will take time to practice together and support each other emotionally. Only in this way can they find the strength to model vulnerability and responsiveness with their students and encourage them to do the same.