Anger, Resentment, and Gratitude

I think some of us can remember hearing the following: “I didn’t choose to be here. My parents chose to have sex; I didn’t choose to be born. I am forced to go to school; I didn’t choose to go to school.” We either said this ourselves or heard some of our students or children saying it. There are many ways to argue with these statements, but for now, let’s just listen to them and take them in. What is going on in us or in any person who has similar thoughts or feelings? What is our response to such statements? They’re not unusual but they are powerful. It’s not just a teenager being a teenager. There is real confusion, anger and/or pain being expressed.


So, what do you do when you hear these thoughts in your own mind or when your students voice them? Here are a few suggestions. You could re-direct attention. The thoughts arise from something repeating itself over and over again in your mind.  You can’t tell anyone to stop thinking something. But you can give yourself or your students something else to do or think about. You could read something inspiring, a story of courage or achievement or social justice, or a poem that reaches deep into the heart. Or you could organize an activity together, something physical or in nature.


If you have practiced mindfulness, you could lead the class in a meditation to quiet the mind, recognize the sensations that go with the thoughts, and let them go.


Another approach is to understand the emotion behind the thoughts by going directly into it and explore all of its components. What emotion are you feeling? What triggered the feeling? What sensations do you feel, where? What images arise? What actions do you feel driven to take?  For many people, the emotion arises from not wanting to go along with the status quo, the present reality, political, social or otherwise. It is pushing back against the world. It is a feeling of rebellion. And there is much to rebel against. I wish more of us were rebelling, or fighting to change elements of our human world.


It can be disappointment or anger. The anger might be at a hurt you have suffered. Or you might not realize it, but the anger might be from feeling that your life is not meaningful enough. Especially teenagers, whose brains are growing at such a pace that they want a challenge, they want to save the world and make grand discoveries. Anger or resentment can be a cry for depth and meaning.


However, when the thought, “I don’t want to be here,” is rampaging through your mind, it can block out anything positive. It can make the world itself a threat that you must guard against. You need some clarity to determine how much of your thinking that the world is awful or needs changing is based on a real understanding of the situation. And, how much is based on your attitude or not being able to let go of something in the past?


So, if students can’t find clarity, you can help them explore their own mind with an inquiry practice. First, they need some calm or quiet. You can start off with a meditative technique like focusing attention on the breath. Or you could just have them close their eyes and take 3 slow, full, deep breaths. Then try one of the following practices. If the sun is shining, you could ask them to: focus on the feeling of the warmth of the sun on your face. If it’s cold, you could say: imagine being wrapped in a beautiful quilt. Imagine the warmth and how comforting that could be, how safe it can feel. (Pause.)


Then: Legally, you have to be educated in a manner approved by the state. But you can ask: “What do I want from my schooling? How can I participate in that education so it best serves my deepest needs? What are those deep needs?”  Imagine participating in your education so it serves your needs. What would you do differently? What initial steps would you take?


Or: What would it be like to transform resentment or anger by changing your life or the world for the better? How would it feel to have a sense of purpose or meaning? Right now, what instance of suffering or injustice would you like to lessen, what situation would you like to change? What first step can you take to make that improvement and make your life more meaningful or purposeful through your actions?


Or, you could explore a mind-state very different from anger or resentment, like gratitude. In school, I sometimes ask students: What does gratitude mean to you? What would happen if you felt gratitude for what you’re learning? How does that differ, emotionally, from being bored, indifferent, resentful, or angry? Which attitude helps you learn better? Which gives you more of a sense of power?


I teach Karate to middle and high school students. One part of class is learning Katas, which are prearranged series of movements, each of which has a meaning in self-defense. Before each practice of a Kata, you bow. Some students have trouble seeing the meaning in this bow or understand why they must repeat the movements so many times. I then explain that each of the Katas we learn were created by real people, masters of the art, and can go back a hundred years or more. They are like books of great depth that can be read again and again to find new meaning. We bow in respect and gratitude not just to the teacher leading the class, but to the teacher in the Kata or to the teachings embedded in the Kata. I ask them: How does it change your attitude when you think of the master creating the Kata? When you think of its depth and age? When you think that practicing it might somehow give you the ability to save your life or the life of someone you cared about? What is that worth? What is it like to feel that you are learning something that can save lives?


When you feel resentful, you can feel your life is not worthwhile. You are saying “no” to a moment. We all want our lives to have a sense of worth and meaning and deserve the chance to create such a life. Anger wants a target to attack. It can point you towards something that needs changing or it can set you against yourself. Gratitude can take you directly into your own experience. It opens you up to the world. What you feel gratitude for, you value. You feel that your life in this very moment is valuable. So, what is it that you feel gratitude for? For your ability to be aware of your own thoughts and sensations? For the clarity of your breath? For the fact that there is something meaningful that you could work on? What is that worth to you?

Value-Added Models in Education and the Value of Terminology

One way to improve education recommended by many “reformers” is the use of “value-added models” or criteria to evaluate teacher performance. If you’re not familiar with the concept of value-added models in education, it means, in practical terms, that teachers are judged by how much their teaching improves a student’s scores on a standardized test from the beginning to the end of a year. Certainly, it is fairer to judge a teacher by comparing the scores of a particular class of students over time than simply comparing end of year scores for all students across all classes of a certain grade and different schools without a baseline. The composition of classes, the level of student prior knowledge or even familiarity with the English language, and so many other factors may vary greatly from class or school to school. This makes it extremely difficult to actually assess how much one class of students has learned in the course of a school year compared to another, and even more difficult to determine how much the teacher is responsible for that learning. Many supporters of value-added models argue for their position by correlating a student’s potential increase in test scores with an increase in future earnings. But think for a minute about just the terminology. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who finds it totally offensive to speak of “adding value” to students. As if you could (or should) monetize a person’s worth, like you monetize a piece of merchandise. We all know, I hope, what happens when we think of people as merchandise.


As educators, you can’t say, “I didn’t mean it like that.” Whether you mean it like that or not, the imagery of “value-added” turns students into items of production with a dollar value at the end. And I think the imagery anyone uses is not random; it reveals the perspective a person is taking on an issue.


A teacher’s attitude towards a child’s ability influences how well that child will learn in the classroom.  Likewise, how a culture thinks about and acts towards it’s young people will influence not only how well they learn and develop as teenagers but how they will think of themselves throughout their lives.  What does a child feel when treated as merchandise by “its” culture? How does a “product“ treat a “product”? I don’t think I’d want to walk down a street filled with people who think of themselves and others primarily in terms of monetary value. It would be too dangerous.


Some may argue, “Ok, the terminology is bad, but the reality is helpful. Even you admit that value-added evaluations are better than the alternative of not using a baseline.” It’s better than the alternative but it’s not good enough, especially if we want the goal to be educating students to be clear thinkers able to participate successfully and ethically, even compassionately, in their communities as citizens, workers, friends and neighbors. Value-added tests are not effective assessments, and in terms of educational practice they have too many negative side effects.  Any dependence on a standardized test as the central vehicle to judge learning or evaluate a teacher is flawed, even when the terminology used to describe the value of the tests is not offensive.


Value-added models are derived from business practices. For a business, it might be considered good procedure to fire a third of the workers when the business is not making a profit. It might also be good financially to fire the lowest performing students and teachers to raise the “efficiency” of a school system. I’d like to say that this won’t occur, but isn’t that one of the purposes of value-added models? Teachers adding the least “value” to their students are being threatened with losing their jobs; and if the claim by Diane Ravitch and others is correct, the most “problematic” students in some non-public schools, are also being “fired” or pushed out.


I’m heartened by the outcry against the use of standardized tests to assess students and hold teachers accountable, but where is the outcry against the dehumanizing mentality of “adding value” to students?

Adolescence and Mindfulness: Two Books To Begin Reading Before School Starts

I’ve been reading two books lately. The first is Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, by Daniel Siegel. The second is Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening, by Joseph Goldstein.


Adolescence has commonly been described as a transition period from dependence on adults to independence, marked by raging hormones and an immaturity that has to be endured until we grow out of it. I think this viewpoint reveals a very mixed attitude towards teenagers. We fear “them” as well as dream of “their” youthfulness. Siegel uses the latest neuroscience to characterize the common viewpoint as a set of harmful myths.  Adolescence is generally defined now as ages 12 – 24. He says it is a time when skills and approaches to life that are of enormous importance to the continuance and growth of society are developed. It is less a time to be endured and more a time to be appreciated and encouraged. It is a time of emotional intensity and social engagement, of great brain growth leading to the breaking of boundaries and creative exploration, of seeing the world anew. It is a time where someone can move not from dependence on adults to independence, but from dependence to mutual support or interdependence.


As Siegel points out, a teacher’s attitude towards a child’s ability influences how well that child will learn in the classroom. Likewise, how a culture acts towards it’s young people will influence not only how well they learn and develop as teenagers but how they will think of themselves throughout their lives. Siegel’s gift to us in this book is a transformed way to view not only teenagers but ourselves. He provides not only an analysis, but mindfulness exercises and reflections so we can transform adolescents, adults, and our society from the “inside out.”


In many descriptions of mindfulness for schools, business, medicine, law enforcement, etc., the full context and potential of the practice of mindfulness is not presented or even hinted at. Mindfulness is not just stress reduction or the ability to let things go so you can concentrate on your work. It is moment-to-moment awareness that is open to whatever arises in the mind or occurs in one’s environment, with no added commentary. This awareness is both ordinary and of startling depths. The question that the common description of mindfulness does not answer is: how do you get to those depths?


One source for an understanding of, and a path to, those depths is Buddhism. Mindfulness is one element of the Buddhist 8 Fold Path, a larger practice that includes wisdom, or clear knowing, ethical behavior and compassion, and concentration. Goldstein’s book leads us in a study of The Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha’s discourse on the “four foundations of mindfulness.”  Sutta is a Pali word (the Indian language spoken by the Buddha; sutra is the Sanskrit word) whose root means to sew (as in suture). Suttas are texts, originally oral teachings, sewn to hold things together.  The four foundations are of the body, including your breath and activities, of feelings and sense perceptions, of mind and thought, and of what is true or real (dhammas in Pali). The book, and the sutta, is extensive. I usually read only two or three pages at a time and then think about and practice what was discussed.


Both of these books provide insights and practices which might make the transition from summer to the new school year less stressful and more inspiring.