First Person

Teachers look to Buddhism to destress

BOULDER – What Angie Mays remembers most about last Thursday’s lunch was not so much how it tasted, but how it sounded.

She and her fellow students in her “Mindful Teacher” class at Naropa University were honing their sensory awareness skills by having a “mindful” lunch together. They ate in silence, carefully chewing and chewing and chewing each bite, noticing the subtle flavors and textures of their foods.

But what struck Mays was the sound. Without the distracting noise of conversation around her, she heard the chewing going on all around her in a way she’d never noticed before.

“I also found I couldn’t really look at anybody, because to look was to want to engage in conversation,” said Mays, an instructional coach and new teacher mentor for Weld County RE-8 school district.

Stressed teachers in need of contemplative practices

Mays acknowledges she’s got a long way to go to become really skilled in this whole mindfulness business. Other than practicing a little yoga, she’s a newbie.

But she’s certain it’s worth doing, and worth sharing with her colleagues in Fort Lupton. That’s why she’s enrolled in a two-year Contemplative Education program at Naropa.

“In my experiences in working with teachers the last few years, I’ve seen a lot of burnout, pressure, stress. There’s something missing,” she said. “This program feels to me like it’s not just the latest fad, but something that can reach people.”

Few groups are more in need of stress relief than the nation’s teachers. Studies consistently show teaching to be one of the most stressful occupations, and the resulting physical and emotional ailments can be debilitating and costly.

Programs such as Naropa’s Master of Arts in Contemplative Education and the Cultivating Awareness and Resilience or CARE program at the Garrison Institute in Garrison, N.Y., aim to arm teachers with the Buddhist-inspired practices of mindfulness and body awareness as a means to counteract the stress of today’s classroom.

$3.5 million federal study underway of stress relief in classrooms

They’ve reached only a minuscule fraction of America’s classroom teachers. There have been about a hundred graduates of the Naropa program over the past decade, and fewer than 500 have taken CARE training.

Tish Jennings

But practitioners believe they eventually will be able to provide empirical data on the success of such practices in keeping teachers healthy. Once they can show school administrators how the training can boost the bottom line, they expect more educators will get serious about getting mindful.

“This is a really new area,” said Tish Jennings, senior director of the Initiative on Contemplation and Education at the Garrison Institute. Jennings was in Denver this spring to share with others involved in contemplative studies some ways to gather evidence about the impact of their work and advance the knowledge base of the field.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Education awarded a $3.5 million grant to fund a four-year randomized controlled trial of the CARE for Teachers program in New York City schools. It will assess not only CARE’s impact on teachers but also on classroom climate and student outcomes.

“I was a teacher for 22 years,” said Jennings. “I found myself dealing with some strong emotions in the classroom. It can be an emotionally demanding profession.”

Jennings also supervised student teachers, and it was through those experiences that she began to see how emotional reactivity not only creates stress, but can impair a teacher’s ability to be effective.

“As teachers get stressed, children get stressed,” she said.

When office workers get stressed, they usually have the option of stepping away for a few minutes, having a cup of coffee, speaking to another adult to help them calm down. But in a classroom, teachers must not only figure out what to do when they’re upset, they must do it in a way that manages the situation and doesn’t derail learning.

“And they’re doing it in front of a lot of children who may be highly critical of them, or not even paying any attention to them,” she said. “It can be incredibly challenging.”

Mindfulness helps teachers regulate emotions

Mindfulness practices can help teachers better regulate their emotions. It helps them to step back, calm themselves, and respond to situations intentionally, not flying off the handle.

Richard Brown began the Contemplative Education program at Naropa after teaching in a Buddhist-inspired school in Boulder in the 1980s.

“It seems like a paradox, but when we psychologically slow down, we can get a lot more done,” Jennings said. “When teachers experience that effectiveness and calming, it’s positive reinforcement for them to continue. It’s very subtle, but it’s really foundational.”

Richard Brown is the founder of the Contemplative Education program at Naropa, and is a co-developer of the CARE program.

“It came to be because of my own experiences in the 1980s teaching most third and fourth grades in a Buddhist-inspired K-12 school in Boulder,” Brown said. “I realized that a lot of insights from Buddhism could be translated to non-sectarian teacher education programs.”

Students in the two-year Contemplative Education program at Naropa do most of their coursework online, taking classes in such subjects as contemplative teaching, compassionate teaching, transforming instruction and curriculum.

But they also spend three and a half weeks together during each summer to form a contemplative learning community. They take classes in mindfulness, embodied wisdom and creating community. Much of that time is spent learning about self-care and body awareness, Brown said.

Teachers learning to take care of themselves first

“Teachers need to take care of themselves first,” he said. “It’s like the notion of putting the air mask on yourself in the airplane before you help your child put theirs on. When teachers develop that kind of emotional maturity, then they can create an atmosphere in the classroom that allows them to better serve the needs of their students.”

Michele Blumberg, an adjunct faculty member at Naropa University in Boulder, leads students in a “Mindful Teacher” class through some relaxing bodywork exercises.

Step one of mindfulness in the classroom is being aware of what’s going on in their own bodies, he said.

“Teachers are constantly in their heads, but their bodies are giving them stress signals,” he said. “Maybe it’s a tightness in the stomach or throat. But they just soldier through rather than noticing that their body is tense, paying attention, and beginning to relax and let go.”

It also means really listening, hearing the sound of a child’s voice rather than just the words the child may be saying.

“When a child says ‘I’m upset,’ a mindful teacher will allow himself a second to hear that,” Brown said. “But if you immediately come up with a solution, the child may not feel heard. And feeling heard is as important as any answer.

“So we spend a lot of time training teachers to listen to the children before they speak. Take a moment to feel it. So if a child says ‘I’m upset,’ if we actually register genuine concern, then that child will trust us more than if we just say ‘Oh, what’s that all about?’”

Understanding the value of just sitting still

Brown instructs teachers in just sitting still, in noticing how they are breathing, in grounding themselves.

“When you are being still, you start to notice the kind of thoughts and feelings you have,” he said. “Things come up. You start to get familiar with how your mind works and how your emotional responses work.”

This week, he had students engage in some mindful reading – reading a descriptive passage very slowly, examining each word and noticing how different words created different emotional reactions in them.

“Before, I could have given you a synopsis of the passage, but when I read it mindfully, it was like savoring each word,” said Teresa Sedano, a Sacramento teacher who works with sign language interpreters. “It was like seeing a newsreel in my mind. And when we got to the word ‘pain,’ it took me to my own pain from an injury.”

Brown nodded his agreement. “When you make that personal connection, you remember it better, and you have a more meaningful experience of learning.”

Michele Blumberg, who is co-teaching the Mindful Teacher class with Brown, does some simple yoga-style bodywork with the students, helping them to relax and to become more aware of their bodies.

After class, Mays expressed her approval of what she’s learning, and how she will use it.

“You know, it’s not just teachers’ belief in their students that will cause them to succeed or get in their way,” she said. “It’s teachers’ belief in themselves that also matters.”

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.