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

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.