How I Saved My Teaching Career: Step 6: Meditate

This is the seventh post in a series on how to overcome burnout and love teaching again.   See the end of this post for previous entries.

I have a confession to make.  I’m a bad meditator.

Meditation is incredibly boring.  Everything in me resists doing it, and I can avoid it for months.  If I don’t meditate first thing in the morning, I won’t do it at all.  When I wake up, however, meditation is at the absolute bottom of the list of things I want to do.  (Second from the bottom is going for a run; if I have to choose, the run wins.)

Nevertheless, if I hadn’t started practicing meditation, I doubt I’d still be a teacher.

I’m probably not the only person in the world who spends a lot of time in mental conversation with people who aren’t there.  (I might be unusual in that I also have these conversations out loud, with nobody, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.)  When, for example, a student is driving me crazy, I spend a lot of time talking to him even though he’s not around.  I lie awake at night having furious arguments with him.  I practice, over and over, how I’m going to react the next time he does whatever he did this morning.

This can have positive results; I sometimes come to solutions by wrestling with problems this way.  My methods, however, usually outweigh their usefulness.

My anxiety about things that aren’t happening right now used to be even more intense than it is now.  I often found myself knotted up about something a student had done three years before, a student whose whereabouts were unknown to me now.  I projected all sorts of catastrophes onto the coming semester, and the projection could be self-fulfilling: I walked into the classroom tense and defensive, and this caused problems.

Then I began to meditate.

The central principle in Buddhist meditation is “dwelling in the present moment.”  The practice goes like this: you sit in a (relatively) comfortable, erect position on a cushion or chair.  You half-close your eyes, drawing your gaze close to you.  You place your attention on your breath: you breathe in with the awareness that you are breathing in, and breathe out knowing you are breathing out.  You do this for ten minutes, forty minutes, an hour, or as many hours as you are told to.

Inevitably, your mind wanders.  You start making a grocery list, arguing with someone who irritated you earlier that day, or fantasizing about the good-looking person sitting on the cushion in front of you.  When you notice that your mind has wandered off this way, you gently label your mental activity by saying “thinking” to yourself (silently), and then you draw your attention back to your breath.  Until it wanders off again.

There are many other, more advanced, meditation practices, but this is the basic one.  It’s incredibly simple, and yet incredibly difficult.

I read a few books on meditation, and took some courses at my local Shambhala centre.  At first, I had trouble fitting my sitting practice into my daily routine.  Then, during one of my meditation courses, a teacher said that meditating for ten minutes every day is better that not meditating at all.

When I heard that, I committed to sitting for ten minutes every morning before I left the house.  For ten minutes, I practiced paying close attention to the only thing that was happening: my breath going in, and my breath going out.

And then, something remarkable happened.  Just as I focused attention on my breath when I was sitting, I found myself focusing attention on the actions of students and my emotional responses when they were happening.  Instead of brooding and scheming, I cultivated my curiosity.  “Look what just happened!  I wonder what will happen next?”

If a student was making me crazy by talking in class, my natural tendency was to freeze, to second-guess myself, to hesitate.  What if I told her to stop, and she got angry?  What if she still talked and I had to do something further, and then she hated me, and said something rude in response?  Would it prove once and for all that I was a bad teacher?

As I practiced meditating, though, I found myself able to say, “Jennie, your continual talking is making me furious.  If you can’t stop talking, you’ll need to leave the class.”  I simply responded in the moment, and waited to see what the consequences were, and responded to them when they arrived.  “Look at that!” I would think.  “Farid just said something rude.  What does one do when a student says something rude?  Let’s try saying, ‘Farid, that was a rude thing to say.  Did you intend to be rude, or were you just not thinking?’  And then let’s see what happens.”

Through practicing meditation, I’m learning to experience the world and my students much more directly, with a fresh, inquisitive perspective.  A lot of exciting stuff has started to happen as a result, including a lot of learning.  Mine and theirs.

In the past couple of years, my meditation practice has become spotty: I tend to turn to it when my anxiety is spinning out of control, instead of maintaining a steady practice.  I’d like to ease myself back into it.  Meditating makes me a better teacher, and a better person.  And the world and the classroom are very interesting places when you experience them moment by moment, exactly as they are.

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Leave a comment!  In what ways have your spiritual/contemplative/religious practices helped you in your job?  I’d love to hear from you.

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Previous posts in this series:

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The series “How I Saved My Teaching Career” was originally published on the TimesOnline’s education blog, School Gate, in 2009.  Thanks to School Gate’s editor, Sarah Ebner, for her permission to repost.

Image by Penny Matthews

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23 responses

  1. For me, when I leaved my country and I moved to UK to change my life and see around the worlds , I get Huge support from Positive thinking!! like Never let youself down or think negavitve , very hard to control your mind and thinking. I am looking my all days like a new and last days !!
    Jas

    • Jasmine:
      I am what is called a “defensive pessimist” – I tend to prepare for the worst by worrying, because I’d rather be worried beforehand than be disappointed later. However, I think sometimes my life would be easier if I could be more positive!

  2. I do not meditate. But, I do talk to myself. quietly.
    the past is gone, so i erase immediately. Sometimes that isn’t possible.
    Self hypnosis helps me to relax. I can repeat words over and over, and it helps.

    Music, dancing, hobby….church…

    good blog.
    charlie

  3. I totally relate to this and I know lots of other teachers who have those kinds of imaginary arguments with students. You have inspired me to give meditation a go. I think that in the past I would have dismissed the idea as something that was not for me.

    • John: It was only when I realized how effective meditation is that I started to take it seriously. I think a lot of us dismiss unfamiliar practices as mumbo-jumbo without giving them a fair shot. There is a lot of scientific support for the positive effects of meditation – one doesn’t need to be a Buddhist to benefit!

  4. I tend to hold on to things too, in both my teaching and personal live. I have started to learn, and will probably always be learning, how to let things go more easily. “The Language of Letting Go” is a book that my former therapist recommended and it was wonderful. It comes with affirmation cards that I really enjoy.

  5. Hey! Your first full paragraph described me! Count me in the “I’d absolutely love to meditate, but I find it incredibly boring” camp. I fundamentally agree with the philosophy behind meditation and I know it would make me more clear-headed, but I simply can’t bring myself to do it when I know that work (and coffee) awaits. What helped you get over this hurdle?

    • TE: I’m not entirely over it yet. I try to practice “informal” meditation as much as possible – while lying in bed, for example, or doing my chiropractic exercises – but these days I find it very difficult to get myself to the cushion for sitting meditation. The times I am successful are the times I really, really need it, when my stress is so out of control that sitting and watching my breathing feels like a desperate relief. This is not the best way to practice, but it’s better than nothing!

  6. Interesting ideas that you present here. I’m just a new teacher, and still haven’t found a full-time job, though when I was doing my practicums last year, I found prayer (talking to God) really helpful to me. I find that He talks back, and since He is God, He probably is a whole lot more level headed than me :P So that has helped me through my teaching, and deal with small people.

    • MT: a lot of thinkers connect prayer and meditation, or at least posit that prayer can be meditative. I think prayer is bound to give us a bit of perspective, just as meditation does.

  7. I too carry on conversations (sometimes arguments) in my head. In addition, I find it impossible to meditate as my mind will not, WILL NOT, shut up. I become agitated if I’m not doing several things at once. Boredom when sitting and doing nothing turns to irritation. I find that when I must wait I have to have something to read or I play with my iPhone, snapping pictures or reading email. Back to the topic at hand: I am a veteran teacher of more than 25 years who has been “gifted” with freshmen because of the myth that we need the strongest teachers with the most difficult students. That administrative theory does not take into account the particular strengths and weaknesses of said “strong” teacher … it’s criminal to saddle a 61 year old teacher with out of control gangster freshmen. I have tried to meditate and only end up annoyed, agitated, and irritated, needing to get in my car for the 40 minute drive to attempt to guide my hormonal young teens toward any desire to learn.

    • Mona: does exercise help? Some people I know swear by running as meditation, and I do find that when I run regularly it gives a lot of the same benefits (although I find it impossible to run in silence and so generally listen to podcasts, which means I am not really doing what meditation asks me to do…)

  8. I especially related to the arguments you carry on with students — in your head! I’ve discovered about myself that I tend to always have a villain in my life, in my head, that I rail against. Wouldn’t it be sweeter to have a loving mentor in my head that I sit with, confess to, get quiet with? Oh, no! Not for me… Except, truly, that’s what I want. To cultivate a softness inside. I want to learn to breathe more, listen more, react less. Thank you for reminding me that I want to meditate. This has been my plan for I don’t know how long, and yet I keep forgetting everyday.
    Thank you so much for this series on “burnout.” It’s what I’ve been looking for.

    • 59yroldt: “Wouldn’t it be sweeter to have a loving mentor in my head that I sit with, confess to, get quiet with?” Oh, that would be so sweet. Some days I feel like I can mentor myself that way, whether it means being gentle or stern. Maybe becoming that mentor to ourselves should be our life’s goal!

  9. Im not sure it matters what you call it or whether you set aside time and follow specific instructions to a tee. What is important is the act of introspection. If we dont understand why we do things, how can we hope to set realistic expectations of others? The better we set those expectations, the less likely we are to be unhappy with the actions of others. You seem to be well on your way in this respect. By recognizing the patterns in the behavior of others you can make adjustments to the environment which you share with them to shift their actions in your favor, and that of the rest of your class. This goes deeper than simply reacting to them or anticipating their annoying behavior and having a terse response prepared. It is about controlling the environment so that their behavior is less likely to be triggered in the first place. Too much?

    • BijaPoo:
      “It is about controlling the environment so that their behavior is less likely to be triggered in the first place.” Hmm. I think of it more as controlling my inner environment, so that my unhelpful behaviour is less likely to be triggered by the behaviours around me.

  10. I am glad that you are finding meditation helpful. You have accurately described the nature of it and how it helps bring freshness and interest to your life. That is the ideal.
    I used to meditate morning and evening, for more than a decade. But eventually the tension between how I was growing inwardly and my outer life become unbearable and I had to leave everything and start over. For now, I do not practice the meditation that I did for so long, because it feels (perhaps wrongly) like instead of helping it brought me almost to the point of madness and cost me everything. My new life is much better and I see no need to “improve on the silence” with meditation, but your post reminded me of why I might some day choose to, and for that I am truly grateful to you.
    Namaste dear Siobhan

  11. So glad I found this blog. I have done a lot of taking stock recently and stepped down from a position of responsibility to go back to main scale (UK) in order to try and get my mojo back and my life – I felt like a satellite on the periphery of my own life and knew more about the levels and grades of students in my school than I did about my own kids :( There is so much you can’t control but I think a good starting point is taking stock and facing fears – for me those fears varied from my own children eventually seeing me as a passive participant in their lives too fears about coping with less money and commiting career suicide. Who knows? But I do feel loike I have taken bhack some control.

  12. Sorry my spelling is so bad – the box does not scroll down so if you rant on like me, you eventually can’t see what you are typing or the typos you include!

  13. Siobhan- thank you for writing this great series!! I’m sharing it with my Facebook friends (most are teachers), as you’re giving out real-life, nitty-gritty advice for the real sticky problems in teaching. I’m not sure I can/want to stay in teaching forever, but while I’m here, I pray to be the best teacher I can be, while treating myself with love and care!! Thanks again.

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