Scrabbling for the Stone: Reprise

My meditation practice has fallen dormant in the last couple of years, but, as the semester begins slowly winding to a close, I feel that rejuvenating it would be wise.  Students are panicking, and all kinds of unpleasant behaviours result.  What’s more, I’m tired and busy, and so I’m not always nice.

A couple of years ago, the end of semester was particularly hard, and meditation helped.

What do you do when it all seems a bit too much?

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It’s been a rough week.

I got a couple of shrieking emails from Lia on Tuesday.  I wrote to another student, Janet, on Saturday, to let her know that I wouldn’t be grading her essay rewrite, because I’d found it on my office floor days after the deadline, with no indication of when it had been submitted.  Janet’s response was neither contrite nor understanding, and, like Lia’s, repeated the word “unfair” several times.

I then received an email from Yannick, whose story I began telling a few weeks ago. He wanted to meet with me.  Yannick, as I detailed in the earlier post, disappeared from my course about a month into the semester and then reappeared three weeks before the end, asking if there was any way he could pass, because if he didn’t, he’d be suspended for a year.  Since then, he’s been showing up for class and doing reasonably good work trying to catch up, but not the exceptional work that would be necessary to compensate for his absences.  I responded as follows.

Yannick, please let me know what the nature of your questions is.  If you’d like to discuss the grade for your blog, for example, I’d like to point out that the grade you received is in fact quite generous, and I won’t be altering it.  You’re welcome to take this up with the Grades Review committee if you really feel there’s a problem.

Unless you have something new to discuss, I feel we’ve talked about your situation quite enough.

I spent Saturday in knots.  I was hyperventilating, I couldn’t concentrate on anything, and finally I gave up trying to mark papers and went to a yoga class.  This helped, but Saturday night I couldn’t sleep.  I lay awake having angry conversations in my head in which I justified my actions to Janet and Yannick.  I was so agitated that at one point I got out of bed, booted up the computer, and began researching education PhD programs at the local universities.  Maybe, I thought, I needed to spend some time thinking about the classroom instead of being in it.

But on Sunday morning, I shook myself awake and dragged myself to the morning session of Nyinthun, the monthly day-long meditation intensive, at the Montreal Shambhala Centre.  As I settled onto my cushion, I set an intention for my meditation practice: I was going to try to release all this anger.  I was going to try to find a place of equanimity.

The first two hours were spent alternately in sitting and walking meditation.  I tried to focus on my constricted, struggling breathing; I often find that hyperventilation helps me stay present in meditation, as it’s very difficult to take my mind off the breath!  It was doing me some good, but I still felt gripped by fear every time my mind wandered to the moment when I’d go home and would have to decide whether to check my email or avoid it for a few more hours.

Near the end of the morning session, one of the instructors, Francesca, stood and said that she would be leading us in an exercise.  The theme of today’s Nyinthun, she explained, was a reflection on the holiday season.  We were going to do a practice to help us contemplate this theme.

“At this time of year,” she said, “things become intensified.  Things begin moving faster.  There is more darkness.  There are a lot of things to do.  All this leads to an intensification of our experience and our emotions.

“In addition, when it comes to the holidays, we all have a desire.  We could have many desires, but often one desire is dominant.  It could be a desire for a material thing.  It could be a desire for something we want to happen, or not happen.  I’d like you to think about what your desire is for this holiday time.”

It didn’t take me long.  My desire, I thought, is for my semester to be over.  Really over.  I want the grades to be in; I want the emails from students to stop; I want to put everything about the term behind me except a few good memories, and to move into a brief space of a few weeks when I’m not a teacher.  I want to meditate, cook good food, read novels, clean my house, and not think about teaching at all.  I want to be released.

Francesca picked a smooth, large stone up from the altar and held it up.  “I want you to think of this stone,” she said, “as the object of your desire.  Look at this stone and, in it, see your desire.”  Then she asked us to clear the mediation cushions away from a small space in the middle of the room.  She placed a little table in the centre of the space, and set the stone on top of it.  Then she used cushions to create a tight perimeter around the table, and asked us, the dozen or so participants, to stand within the perimeter.

“When I give the signal,” she said, “I want you to walk randomly around this small space, and as often as possible, I want you to touch this object of your desire.  Don’t move in a circle as you would in walking meditation.  Just walk back and forth, and try to cover the whole space, coming back to touch the stone as often as you can.  At a certain point, I’ll begin to clap my hands.  As I speed up my clapping, speed up your walking.”

We began to walk, touching the stone, walking away, returning to touch the stone again, bumping and jostling each other as we tried to manoeuvre the constricted space.  As Francesca clapped her hands more and more quickly, we found ourselves tripping over one another to get to the stone.  At one point she stopped, pushed the cushion perimeter even closer to the table, and had us do the exercise again.

I was doing my best to take this all in good spirits, but I could feel my irritation rise with every nudge and bump.  I’d come here to sit and walk in silence – Nyinthuns, after all, are supposed to be mostly silent retreats, where we eat lunch without speaking and hold talks and discussions only at the end of the day.  I’d been looking forward to a morning of this silence, but here I was, still a bag of nerves, fighting with a bunch of strangers to touch a rock.

Then Francesca brought us all to a halt.  “Now,” she said, “I want you to let go of the stone.  Forget about it.  I want you to walk through this space again, and speed up as I clap, in just the same way.  But instead of looking at the stone – instead of looking at the object of your desire – I want you to look at the others, the people.  As you meet them, look at them.  Go.”

We began walking around again.  As we encountered one another, we looked each other in the eye.  It was embarrassing, and uncomfortable, and it wasn’t long before everyone was smiling awkwardly.  And then smiling broadly, grinning at one another as we passed.  Francesca clapped more and more quickly, and we slid by each other more and more rapidly, but there were only a few bumps and jostles.  There was mostly just smiling, and even a bit of laughter.  When the clapping stopped and we slowed to a halt, we just stood there beaming at one another.

“Do you see?” Francesca asked.  “Do you see what I mean?”

We returned the cushions to their places, and as I settled back onto my crossed legs, I felt like I might melt into the floor.

My fixation, my obsession, with the object of my desire – the end of my semester, the resolution of all the semester’s problems, the elusive peace that I would supposedly feel when it was all done – had blinkered me.  The students who were pestering me – Lia, Janet, Yannick – were not obstacles between me and the stone, hurdles to be climbed over or knocked down. They were people.

They were responding to their lives in the same way that I was, scrabbling to get at the stone: the good grade, or the passing grade, or the sense of pride that comes when a teacher respects and validates you.  I was angry because they were getting in my way.  They were angry with me for the same reason.  If I could see them, not as frustrating roadblocks, but as people, then maybe I could stop fighting them, and start looking them in the eye.  I needed to understand that the stone is not the point.  They are.

The morning session was almost done.  We sat for a few more minutes, and then scattered for lunch.  I couldn’t stay for the afternoon, but I stopped Francesca to tell her that the exercise had meant a lot to me.

As I made my way to the metro, my mind no longer simmering, a couple of quiet revelations emerged: a memory of a gesture I’d made a week ago but forgotten, and an inspiration for another one.

That evening, I wrote a message to Janet.

After sending you that last note, I realized that I had in fact agreed to look over the rewrite of one of your classmates, and give it a small bonus, even though it arrived late.  This is because the student contacted me IMMEDIATELY about the problem.  You did not take that step, but because I did this for him, I will do it for you as well.  I hope you will thank him in your heart for his responsibility and common sense.

And to Yannick, I wrote the following:

You have been extremely respectful and reasonable throughout this whole process, and I appreciate this. As I emphasized to you in our last meeting, I am not going to give you extra work or any other special privileges; I will not be giving you any opportunities that I did not give to everyone in the class.  I do, however, have a suggestion for you.  I think you should go see the dean of your program and explain your situation to him/her.  I would be more than happy to send your dean an email or letter attesting to the fact that, although you were not able to pass my course, you made a good effort at the end, and that I expect that if you are re-admitted to the college next semester, you will try harder.  This might make a difference, and at the very least, your dean might have some advice that could help you.

After sending these messages, I read them over several times.  I still wasn’t sure that I was doing the right thing, or that I was doing it for the right reasons.   But I went to bed, and I slept very well.

Image by Armin Hanisch

One Minute of Solitude: Reprise

solitude

We are six weeks into the semester, and I’m starting to pinpoint small classroom management issues and think about appropriate responses.  Nothing major has arisen so far (fingers crossed), but whenever I am confronted with hints of passive-aggressiveness, defiance or rudeness, I start evaluating what I need to do: ignore? Confront? Defuse in some other manner?

This always makes me think of past experiences, and one class from the autumn of 2009 has been coming to mind.  Here’s an early attempt I made to curb their inappropriate behaviour.  Take a guess: do you imagine this approach was effective?  Do you think it would be effective in one of your difficult classes?

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Two of my three classes this term have been, so far, focused yet energetic, respectful yet lively. The third has been a bit of a pain in the ass.

This class meets from 4-6 in the afternoon – the worst possible time. They’re tired. I’m tired. Their brains are buzzing from a day’s worth of Red Bull and adolescent drama. They’re so done with learning.

What’s more, there’s a little gang of boys who seem to find a lot of stuff funny. I’m not sure, but from a couple of murmured, oblique exchanges that I’ve caught in passing, I’m beginning to think this has something to do with physical attributes of mine that they like.

Also: this is a remedial English class, and so far the work we’ve been doing has foundational (read: pretty easy.) Some of them are bored.

All this makes for a frenetic, nervous and silly atmosphere. After our second meeting, it became clear that this was going to be a continual problem if I didn’t do something to nip it in the bud.

What? I wondered. I stewed about it for a while. Should I throw people out? Should I give a speech? (Past experience suggests that speeches don’t work.) Should I separate the silly boys to the four corners of the room? Should I barrel through material that some students need to focus on so that other students won’t be bored?

And then I remembered a technique that a friend mentioned a while ago.  She said that begins her classes by allowing the students to shuffle around, chatter, etc. for about five minutes. Then she asks them to sit for one minute in complete silence before they take a deep breath and begin.

This, I thought, seems like a way to, if not eradicate the squirms and giggles, at least keep them more or less in check – to start on a calmer ground, so that escalation will be minimal.

So yesterday afternoon, when I was writing the class agenda on the board, I called the first item “One Minute of Solitude.” I then asked the students to make sure their desks were separated into rows and their cell phones were turned off and put out of sight.

“Last class,” I explained, “I was observing you. I noticed that there was a lot of very nervous energy in the room. It’s late in the day, people are tired , it’s hard to focus, people can’t stop laughing. So I want to do an exercise with you that I sometimes do with late classes. I want you to close your eyes. You can put your head down on your desk if you want. I’m going to turn out the light. And I want you to sit silently for 60 seconds. I’m going to time it, and if there are any distractions – if anyone speaks, if anyone’s cell phone goes off, if someone knocks on the door because they’re late – we’re going to start again.”

“Are we do this for a reason?” Khawar asked.

“Yes,” I said. “A nervous, agitated mind is not a good learning mind. Energy and enthusiasm are good; agitation is not. You’ve all been very busy all day, and your minds are busy too. This is a way to settle our minds so we can learn better.”

I turned out the light. I flicked my iPod stopwatch and said, “Go.”

60 seconds of silence is long. At about the 40 second mark, a couple of students shifted impatiently and looked around, but no one made any noise. And when the minute was up, I quietly said, “That’s it,” and turned the lights back on. They lifted their heads blurrily.

“How did that feel?” I asked.

“Calm,” Khawar said.

“Long,” Philippe said.

“We’re going to do this every class,” I said. “For some of you, it might be the only 60 seconds of calm you have all day. I hope maybe you’ll come to enjoy it.”

Did it help? I think it did, a bit. The major failing was that two of the boys who most needed this exercise came late, and so didn’t do it; as soon as they walked in, the energy in the room ramped up again. However, it never quite reached the height of foolishness that it had the class before, and overall, the work got done and the wasted time was minimal.

I’m a bit nervous about starting every class this way, but I’m hoping that, instead of becoming tedious, it really will be a tiny oasis of peace for some of them. And perhaps some of them will learn that if they can’t sit still and quiet for 60 seconds, it’s probably causing them some problems that they should really address…

Image by barunpatro

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

The First Days of School: Then and Now

Today is the beginning of the new school year for me and my colleagues, and many of you will be getting back into the saddle in the next couple of weeks.  As I prepare, my thoughts have returned to three of my past posts that still seem timely.

The first is called “Mean ‘Til Hallowe’een: Classroom Discipline and the First Day of the Semester.” I wrote this in 2007 and return to it at the beginning of every term.  The question: does it help to be strict and unsmiling for the first few weeks?

Another is a commentary on one of my favourite books for educators: Harry and Rosemary Wong’s The First Days of School.  If you have a week or so before you start teaching, run out and get your hands on this book and read it before classes begin.  Even if you’ve already started, the book has many, many valuable insights about knowing yourself as a teacher and being the most effective teacher you can be.

Finally, I am returning to the teaching resolutions I made at the beginning of 2010, and I am renewing those resolutions for the coming semester.  Do you have resolutions for this school year?  I’d love to hear them.

Feel free to leave comments on the posts themselves, or to comment below.  You can also visit my Facebook Page, “Like” it, and leave your thoughts there!

Image by Simona Jakov

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