Living and Teaching In This Age of Anxiety and Threat
How do you teach when so many people feel and are threatened and the federal government is controlled by people who do not have your well-being in mind? How would growing up in this age, with this minority-elected President, influence your children? If you’re a parent, you might be thinking about this question too often. If you’re a child in a public school, a person of color, a recent immigrant, an LGBT, Muslim or a Jewish person, female, a person who believes in civil rights, a free press, or a democrat—the list of who might be threatened is almost endless. How do you teach?
What children will primarily learn from today’s political situation is more dependent on the understanding, creativity, and empathy shown by a teacher’s response, by all of our responses, than by the situation itself. Your response educates the child in what is possible, in what it means to be a human being. A person becomes a bully, not a clown or a desperate person, not only by his or her actions but how others respond to their actions. Your response is your freedom. Schools can begin with programs against bullying and increasing the understanding and practice of empathy; teach social-emotional skills.
In November of 2015, I wrote a blog about facing terror. In a way, what I said then is relevant now. I asked: “How do you talk with your children, or if you are a teacher, with your students, about… any acts of terror and violence, [or the new administration] or whenever something dreadful happens and you feel frightened or pissed off? You might feel numb, scared, mute. You might want to cry out for revenge, or cry out to stop the killing. All understandable. All emotion is understandable. But what do you do with it? And how do you teach your children or students about it?”
“This is a complex question and I think answering it needs to be part of the discussion in families and in the curriculum. There are at least two directions this can take. One is teaching children how to face emergencies. The other dimension is helping students learn about the situation and learn about the attacks, what led to them and what might be done to prevent further violence.”
“First, I suggest starting by feeling and hearing what is going on in yourself. You have to be honest and willing to face uncomfortable feelings and look deeply into your own ways of thinking. To get out of the way of a thrown object you have to first see it. Then you need to hear from students. What do you feel? What responses to the violence have you heard or seen? [Or what do you feel about the administration?] By listening, you say to yourself and your students, ‘you are strong enough to face this and I care enough to listen.’ You teach empathy and emotional awareness.”
Ask students: How can you feel more comfortable and less anxious here, in the classroom? Work together with students to make explicit what you and the students need in order to create a supportive, caring atmosphere—that is within your power. Ask the children open-ended questions followed with more explicit ones. For example, What does caring look like to you? Is being kind important? What about being heard? What about feeling the discussion is relevant to your life?
If you can, lead the students in imaginative inquiry practices using questions based on student responses. For example, if they pick out kindness as one characteristic of a supportive classroom, ask them to close their eyes and answer in their own mind the following questions: What does ‘kindness’ mean to you? What words come to mind when you hear the word ‘kindness’? What does it look like? How do you feel when someone is kind to you? Who could you be kind to today and how would you do it? Then ask them to record and then share with the class what came to mind.
Once you share what you and the students think about kindness or caring, and what is necessary to create the supportive community children say they need, pledge to each other that you will do all you can to act accordingly.
The next lesson is on facing adversity. Ask students: How do you face what is difficult? Deconstruct what happens when you feel stressed, threatened, or anxious. If you notice the sensations of fear and anxiety before they get too strong, you can act in ways that utilize their energy without them dominating you. You learn from them and let them go. You can’t always control what arises in your life, or mind, but you can determine your response.
Ask: What happens to your breathing when stressed? When stressed, your breathing gets more shallow and quick. When you notice this, deliberately take one–three longer, deeper breaths before you consider what actions to take.
What about your thoughts? We often turn away from what is uncomfortable and treat it as abnormal, or wrong. If you respond to feelings of discomfort, or of being challenged as if no normal life would be touched by them, you greet such sensations with fear and anxiety. The novelist, G. K. Chesterton said, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.” A challenge is just normal life.
The more aware you are of your own mental and emotional processes, the more freedom you have in your actions and the more readily you learn. To teach this, you could have mindful moments in your classroom, where you ask students to close their eyes for a moment, and allow themselves to be aware of their breathing. Or start a class with a moment of silence. Or, if you practice mindfulness, start the day with a mindfulness practice. Always practice on your own before you do it with students. If you haven’t already done so, study how to lead students in such practices.
Say to students: Sit back in your chairs with your backs relatively straight and at ease, and either close your eyes partly or fully, or let them rest on a blank surface in front of you. Can you feel your breath? Feel yourself take a gentle breath in. Then feel it go out. Do that again; focus on your breathing in—and then breathing out. No hurry.
Then ask students to: notice any sensations that arise. Do it as you would if you were on the shore of a stream and were seeing and hearing the sounds of the water, noticing any stones in the bed of the stream. Notice where the sensations are, how they begin and end. They are like the water flowing and bends in the course of the stream. You might focus on your shoulders. Simply notice your shoulders rise as you breathe in. And relax, settle down, as you breathe out. Then go to another place in the body. Notice how you body expands as you breathe in, and lets go, settles down as you breathe out. Notice also any thoughts. They are part of the water flowing. If your mind drifts away, or you lose focus on the breath, simply notice it. When you notice something, it means you are found. Right now, you are aware. Take joy in that. Just notice what arises with the inhalation, and let it go with the exhalation.
Take another, deep breath, open your eyes, and return your awareness to the classroom. Ask them to: look round and notice how you feel now. And then write in a journal or share how the experience was for them. Did they notice their thoughts or sensations? Do they feel more relaxed now then they did before?
You could ask students: What actions can you take to change their community or the nation to be a better place? How could they help others? By taking action, students feel empowered.
If physical exercise isn’t part of the school day or your day, add it somehow. It grounds you. Fear closes you off, divides you. When you engage both the mind and body, you feel whole, more patient, confident and you think more clearly. Take a walk in the woods, study history and social justice movements and go deeply into the question of “Who are we humans?” I’d discuss with students, “What does it mean to be a citizen in a democracy?” I’d add media literacy to the curriculum so students learn to spot bias. And compassion: we need to dig deeply into what compassion is, for ourselves and for others. But these topics are for another day.
What are you doing, if you’re a teacher, to help your students? If you’re a parent, to help your children? If you’re in a relationship, to help your partner? If you’re feeling anxious yourself—what are you doing to help you face adversity with as clear a mind as you can bring to the task?
**This blog was also published by the Bad Ass Teachers Blogspot.