To Be A Teacher, Be A Student. To Be A Student, Teach.

To be a teacher, you have to understand what being a student means, which means understanding learning. You have to understand your particular students, what interests them and how they learn. You have to study your own mind. But being a student also means being a teacher. For students to learn, they must be given the opportunity and responsibility to teach their peers as well as teach themselves. Education works best when teacher and student work together, are partners in solving problems and answering questions. To teach, be a student. To be a student, teach.

 

What do you do when you think students aren’t learning what you think they should? Or they aren’t behaving appropriately? These situations arise frequently and often overlap. If a student is frustrated with instruction or doesn’t feel personally respected or feels that the material is not meaningful, he or she will let you know it one way or another. Everything that happens in the classroom is a “teachable moment.” Education is primarily about learning how to learn. It is or should be primarily about how you approach each moment of your life and uncover meaning in it.

 

And everything that happens in a classroom arises out of the relationships established in and around it; with the larger school community, the teacher with students, students with each other, etc. These relationships must be respectful, engaging, and caring, for both student and teacher.  To feel cared for begins with caring. Everything depends on the awareness and feeling you bring to the moment-by-moment living of your life.

 

Especially considering the very stressful situation most teachers find themselves in today, it is so easy for a teacher to berate him or herself, or to attack students for being this or that. When you attack yourself, you become more rigid, less adaptive and perceptive. When you attack or distance yourself from students, your relationship is distorted. You can’t teach a subject or person you reject and won’t look at. If you want to teach about racism, you must first know how it works and look at it directly, in yourself, in the society around you. If you want to fight hate, you must first locate it in yourself and study how it works. Only by looking at it can you see it and bring it to an end. You can’t teach a student if you blame her for not learning from you. You can’t teach a student if you blame yourself for his not-learning. Blame is separation. It is closing the door

 

To teach how to learn, model how to treat life as an opportunity to learn.  When something comes up in the classroom, notice, breathe, consider (nbc); notice what you’re feeling, take a few breaths, and then consider what the student’s actions are saying and what would be an appropriate response. You must first hold the person and your image of him or her carefully in your heart and mind in order to feel out where you can meet. By holding, you care; you are open. This is the first step.  You might go home and, in a quiet moment, close your eyes and allow thoughts and images of the student to come up for you. Ask yourself: what exactly did she or he say? How was she standing or sitting? What might he be feeling or thinking? What was behind the behavior? Let go of sitting in judgment; instead, just sit with the student in mind. Then study how the student learns or approaches learning in your classroom and create the best lesson you can within the limits of your teaching situation.

 

And you don’t do this one or ten times. All of us have been “carefully taught” to objectify and blame. Learning to stop the blame game and be empathetic, to hear and feel what you and your students say and experience, being kind to yourself and your students, requires constant care. When you hear or feel the blame arising within you, this isn’t a message telling you how to act; it is a message telling you to open up more deeply. When you hear yourself saying, “such behavior should not occur in a classroom,” this is the moment you recognize what is going on so you can stop it. You can find the best way you can in that moment to learn from it and respond appropriately.

 

In a classroom discussion, I remember one student saying that he couldn’t be open to whatever came up in his mind. “What if I was facing evil? How could I be open to evil? I want to fight evil, not feel it.” But to identify as a fighter of evil, you need to keep evil alive.  It is difficult to face what hurts. But it’s even more difficult to let go of what is unseen.

 

Teaching is most satisfying for me when I am not fighting myself and am able to think of whatever occurs as simply my life, teaching as one aspect of living. Writing blogs analyzing attacks on education or how to improve my teaching is not interfering with my life; it is living my life. Responding to a student in pain can be painful, but it is why I became a teacher. It is an opportunity not only to help others and do something constructive, but to strengthen myself, to strengthen my ability to live fully and with feeling. And that is truly gratifying.

Did You Ever…

Did you ever walk into a bookstore, or any store, and there, on a display table, was exactly what you were looking for? You might not have even known what you were looking for until you found it. But there it was.  And you knew it. Or, you go into a bookstore and you have a question in the back of your mind. You open a book—and there, on that page, is the answer to your question. You can tell that I like bookstores.

 

Or, I wake up and know I have to work on writing my blog. And I pick up some essay or book that feels meaningful or appropriate to what I’m writing. I’ll read three of four pages—and suddenly I have an insight or idea to write about. Or I drive into town, thinking I need to ask someone a question or I worry about how someone is feeling. I park my car and walk a few blocks and there she is, coming right toward me. You know these experiences, right? They don’t happen often, but when they do, life seems just right.

 

Some people, like Carl Jung, have called these experiences “synchronicity” or an “acausal connection through meaning.” According to a book by physicist Victor Mansfield, synchronicity is a correlation between outer and inner events that is meaningful to the person (or persons) involved, but one event doesn’t cause the other. My thinking about the person doesn’t cause her to appear, yet there she is, and it feels meaningful and even mysterious to me.

 

Can a similar thing happen even in a conversation? You don’t know, at least not consciously, what it is you want to say to the other person. But suddenly, it’s there for you. Maybe you even know you had to say something to a friend and you couldn’t figure out how to say it. You fretted, worried, and imagined all sorts of negative results. But then, you are with this person. And your heart opens and you just say it and it’s perfect. Is this the same as what happened in the bookstore? The first examples are, apparently, a synchronicity between internal and external events. In the second, it seems to be all “internal.” Is it?

 

All I know is that sometimes my attention is awakened. I feel more alive and clear headed. And then I know what to say or do more than at other times. Does meditation assist this? Practicing compassion and empathy? I think so. Or is it just luck, whatever that is?

 

It’s valuable that teachers and parents talk with their students and children about how they experience their lives. This includes not only thoughts, emotions, and ethical quandaries, but more subtle experiences like synchronicity. Why? Because it happens, and it’s one of those moments to savor. There are so many inexplicable moments in life. Savor this and other mysteries might be revealed, other questions answered. And by doing so, teachers and parents communicate to children the value of their lives, the value of being aware of their experience, and the value of sharing and examining one’s own experiences with others.

Awareness Is Political

I woke up this morning about 6 am. It was still dark. I got out of bed, walked around and almost stepped on my 7 month old kitten, Milo. Instead of being freaked out, I was happy, not only that I didn’t step on him but that I could see him, or just see, period. Maybe because of now being a “senior citizen” I am more aware of what someday I will lose. There was fear at the opposite side of the joy, fear of losing sight and my other senses. And hurt. I felt what I imagined Milo might feel if I stepped on him. He would not know why I hurt him.

 

Perception is not just about information. My seeing makes it possible to step around and reach out to pet him. As I sense him, a feeling of approach or avoidance arises, then like, dislike or indifference. Then memories, of how he rolls over to get my attention or how he chases our other cats. There is relationship.

 

Our perceptions and emotions link us to others and our world, a world from which we are never, even for an instance, separate. Yet, do we always feel this? Of course not. We can lose the sense of connection even more easily than we lose the sense of sight. Never forget that sensing connection is a sense. And we pay an enormous price for its’ loss. We pay with violence. We pay with suffering. Once painful emotions are aroused, it is easier to enact them on others. Feeling disconnected or isolated hurts and makes it easier to get angry, blame and hurt others. Thinking gets confused. Manipulation is easy. A population that is hurting is easily manipulated.

 

Empathy is the heart of connection, love and ethical action. It can take different forms. According to Paul Ekman, there is recognizing what another being thinks or feels. There’s feeling with or caring about others, and lastly, being ready to act for their welfare. I feel the pain I could cause Milo and thus shudder at the imagined hurt. Because I experience his pain, I am more careful. Some argue that such empathy will not stop violence or hurt. People often hurt themselves. Others hurt the ones they love even more frequently than those they don’t care about. If empathy doesn’t protect us from hurting those we love, when will it protect us?

 

But examine the hurt that arises with the emotion of love. To love is obviously a highly complex state that comes in all sizes and shapes. Feeling love is feeling the edge between two strong polarities. You feel entirely open and vulnerable, “connected.” You care. You feel joyous and valued. You say “yes” to the world. On the other side, you feel the possibility of loss. With love, you feel alive; you feel the moment strongly, which means you feel its impermanence. From there, it is easy to fear loss, hurt, the world saying “no” to you. You desire security, continuity, even control. When you hurt the one you love, you are trying to stop the fear. But that is the same as stopping the vulnerability, which is to stop the love. You try to protect love by ending it. It is not love that causes the hurt. It is the fear that you can’t love. Living on the edge of a sword is a highly prized skill. When you hurt yourself, instead of feeling too much, you feel too little. You hurt yourself because feeling something, even pain, is preferable to feeling nothing or feeling dead.  There is danger in feeling too little or too much.

 

So, to educate love, empathy and connection, awareness of thoughts and emotions, is a politically and socially responsible act. It makes us better citizens and neighbors. It is difficult to manipulate those who are emotionally and socially aware. It is revolutionary. I wish schools would teach it more. In the late 1960s, the slogan “the personal is political” helped rally the student and women’s movements. Maybe “awareness is political” will rally each of us today.

Thought Distortions and the Negativity Bias

How often do you teach a class or do something, do anything, and afterwards all you can think about is what you might have messed up? I recently led a ninety-minute workshop on different teaching strategies for a group of teachers. After the workshop and the thank yous and other compliments were over, I had a few minutes of being on my own, excited and happy about what I had done. And then, wham; I started thinking about one of the few things I didn’t do so well. All sorts of imagined negative judgments from people in the workshop jumped into my mind. It’s good that I’m fairly proficient at letting things go. But why did my mind jump to the negative?

 

There’s a so-called “negativity bias,” which causes humans to remember negative memories before positive ones. As described by Dr. Julie Haizlip et al, “humans are more attentive to and are more influenced by the negative aspects of their environment than by the positive.” I understand that this bias has great survival value. If we’re ultrasensitive to what might hurt us, then we will be ready to fight it off. The negativity is just the face of the fight-flight-freeze response. But this negativity jumps in even when the threat is imagined, when it’s social, not physical, or even when there’s just a small chance of being true. It is almost as if the mind creates the negative to fend off something even worse.

 

This bias interferes not only with clear thinking but clear perception. So, in a way, it can make us more, not less, susceptible to being hurt, and the primary hurt is self-generated.

 

Let’s say you’re a teacher in a class and the students are giving you a hard time. Young people can zero in on your vulnerabilities extremely well. Your frustration builds until it becomes anger and you’re about to explode, or “lose it.” What are you losing? It’s not “control” so much as awareness. You are afraid and angry at your own fear, which you then direct to the students. They are the threat and your response is a classic flight-flight-freeze response. Your thinking gets narrowed and only takes in what reinforces the sense of being attacked. You don’t notice how you create a narrative in your mind. You call yourself all sorts of names and imagine other people saying all sorts of things about you. And how does your narrative portray you? As a successful teacher? I don’t think so. You want to attack, escape, or hide and just get it over with.

 

This, too, is the negativity bias. We interpret reality as a threat, our thinking obscures and narrows and we lose awareness of our mental process. I remember another incident where this happened to me. It was in a middle school class near the beginning of the school year. One of the students asked what I interpreted as a facetious question. At first, I thought he was just trying to push my buttons. Then my mind quieted and I realized that maybe he needed to see someone face a challenge without anger and fear. Maybe he needed me to be someone different from what he knew at home. I realized that this situation was exactly why I was a teacher. This was what I was meant to deal with. I asked him if he was being facetious. He said he didn’t know the word so we looked up the meaning. I said I would never be facetious with the class, and asked what had teachers done in the past that was most helpful to them. And then I told a story from my own life about being threatened by a gang and how I dealt with it. The whole atmosphere in the room changed. Instead of joining the student mood of attack, I was present and kind. Teaching does not often conform to our images of what we’d like it be, and we can’t always conform to our images of who we think we should be. I chose awareness even when the object of awareness was painful. Kindness, taking a larger perspective, and awareness are powerful teaching tools.

 

This insight can help teachers with students who think everything they do must be “perfect.” Possibly all teachers know of students whose perfectionism is so extreme that they can barely turn in an assignment. A perfectionist wraps her or himself in a tight circle guarded by very strong narratives, and won’t step out of that circle for fear of reprisal.

 

Actually, I think we need to re-think the “negativity bias.” The bias arises as a component of a certain way of interpreting and responding to the world. It has to do with how I create a sense of myself. Notice how, after the workshop that I taught, I went from feeling really good to feeling bad. When I felt good, my self-image was glorious. When I felt attacked, my image was awful. When we feel ourselves as a thing enclosed in a bubble of skin, which separates us from the world, then we easily feel threatened, alien, insecure. A bubble easily bursts. Any good feelings must of necessity soon be followed by ones of threat.

 

So, what can we do? We can learn and teach the basics of cognitive therapy or how to identify and talk back to thought distortions like overgeneralizing, personalizing, jumping to conclusions. This is tremendously empowering. We need to learn and teach how to stay with awareness, to hear the comments we make in our mind and recognize the physical sensations of fear and threat. When we do so, the fear does not take hold of us because we do not turn away. Our attention is on noticing and not on living the narrative. This is mindfulness practice, learning to be continuously aware not only of what we are giving our attention to, but how. It develops empathy and kindness. When students exercise empathy for others, they can apply it to themselves. Being kind to others relaxes the borders of their circle. And if they can learn how to see their own thoughts and behavior from a variety of perspectives, not just one, then they will be more likely to let go of the narratives of threat.

 

Responding to noise with quiet, to a lack of awareness with awareness, or to someone else’s fear and anger with kindness and empathy, can make a tough day into a remarkable one.