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’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to [email protected]

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.