By Sally Albright Green
In 2014, as an 8th grade ELA teacher in suburban Chicago, I began sneak-teaching mindfulness to my students. Back then, only small pockets of educators were dabbling in mindfulness, and it hadn’t come close to being included in regular teacher training. My personal practice had reached the point where I knew I had to try it with my students. There was no fancy curriculum or fanfare, I just tried it one day, and lo and behold, it was the first step! My students responded with positivity and improved health and well being beyond my wildest dreams, and soon I began pushing into my colleague’s classrooms during my planning time just to see what would happen. The results were the same, and teachers gained awareness and skill as well. It was a win win.
During the time since, I have had a chance to witness numerous situations in dozens of scenarios where teachers are attempting to lead mindful sits during their jammed packed school days. In the end, the simple truth is, becoming more mindful involves a major paradigm shift for most adults and it happens very gradually. Despite what some educational leaders would have us believe, it is not a strategy teachers can pick up at a one hour training session and use in their classroom the next day. The students need to sync to the regulated nervous systems of the teachers. Of course we all know, the programs that endure and improve outcomes are those where adult learning comes first.
Results vary, but as I began to notice, when I’d ask students about the impact of their mindful practice, they’d say that it just makes them feel “so calm.” I remember wondering, calm? Huh? Like after a glass of wine, or a massage? Calm? Is that the goal? I began to get curious and investigated my own reaction to seeing student after student and program after program boasting about how CALM everyone is because they practice mindfulness. I figured out that I was longing for them to be able to articulate the magical superpower they harness by learning to welcome and manage their ability to sit in extended silence. Witnessing this kind of student response usually leads me to wonder, how are we really talking to them about mindfulness? What goals are we setting and how do the kids track their achievement? Lots of times teachers will say ”You know, they really need to calm down after recess - can you come and sit with them then?” Sadly - all of this leads me to conclude, we have work to do. Mindfulness is not a strategy to use tomorrow in your classroom - but rather - an approach taught by careful modeling of a menu of behaviors associated with present moment awareness.
Right now, as an instructional coach in suburban Chicago, I have the good fortune of teaching introductory sessions that I am creating week by week, with inspired teams of K-5 teachers. From the very beginning I have found myself insisting the students remember the important difference between feeling calm, and actually understanding the routines that result in greater emotional regulation. This shift in focus from achieving some momentary and often fleeting sense of calm, to tangible agency over their lives, ends up being a game changer. Over time, they notice the state of relaxed awareness that becomes their natural state, and how it leads to so many other positive outcomes like an improved ability to listen, focus and quite frankly - think more clearly, not to mention how adept they become at releasing the large doses of negativity most of them marinate in all day. The tool we give them, when we teach them these things, is the true ability to respond to all of the very UNcalm things that happen to them everyday. Once students recognize how they can observe and name their mental activity, question untrue thoughts, improve their ability to extend loving kindness, first to themselves and then to those around them. they recognize how good it makes them feel and their practice becomes something they choose.
So - just feeling calm is not the goal, and in fact, when we brush across the surface of the work we do, reading scripted sits to zoom rooms full of unengaged kids, we are checking some mindfulness box, but we may be missing the opportunity to prepare them to figure things out on their own.
So it is on us. If our practice is grounded and we have a deep knowing about our own mental activity, how to monitor it and be present to ourselves without judgement, we are not only practicing powerful self-care routines, but we will be well on our way to becoming the kind of educators who naturally teach the complexity behind the calm. I trust everyone in the COSEM community is working towards that goal. The kids we teach deserve this. Everyone will benefit.
Sally Albright-Green (she/her) is an instructional coach, and mindfulness practitioner and trainer. She has her MEd in Curriculum and Instruction, is a Certified Teacher Evaluator in the state of Illinois, and sits on the board of the Coalition of Schools Educating Mindfully. She spent fourteen years in suburban Chicago teaching 8th grade ELA in a large ethnically diverse middle school, and is now in her third year as an Instructional Coach. She is also a content creator and facilitator as a member of the Racial Healing Allies Trio, and does private DEI coaching focusing on needs in schools. She has taken courses provided by Mindful Schools, The Mindsight Institute, Mindful Leadership and UCSD Center for Mindfulness. She began studying her racial identity almost twenty years ago, and has worked to incorporate her sensitivities about race into her day to day life in and out of school. Sally understands the idea that teachers and students will thrive, when stakeholders work to correct the impact systemic whiteness has on curriculum, grading practices, and classroom climates all over the country.