By Ashley Baer
I have a belief that everything happens as it should, and my life and career have been a beautiful example of that. Reflecting on my own school experience, the first thing that comes to mind is hunger, and the second is anxiety, trauma, and depression. I literally starved and faked my way through school, and no one knew because I came from a “good home.” In fact, I lived a very privileged life on one of the Golden Isles off the coast of Georgia. I attended private school, had two parents, but the life I was living inside of my family was far from privileged and was filled with all forms of abuse, dysfunction, trauma and neglect. Eventually I ended up in foster care.
I was just eight years old and in the second grade when I learned the valuable lesson that life is temporary when my mother, Linda, took her own life. As a result, I was not available to learn because I was caught up in the grief and later the trauma from the abuse of my caretakers. I often told my teachers that my stomach hurt. I know now that emotions show up in the body first and I was trying to express my anxiety and fear, but I did not have the words. I learned to cope in unhealthy ways such as cutting, acting out, and escaping through substances. I had been told to put a smile on my face, so I smiled while I privately suffered in silence for the next forty years with crippling anxiety, depression, and unaddressed grief until I found the practice of mindfulness.
Through increased awareness, everything in my life began to make sense. Twenty years earlier I had entered the teaching profession for lack of knowing what else I could do. Learning mindfulness I finally understood why I had become a teacher. It was part of my path and my gifts. I knew that I was meant to bring this practice to kids to help them calm their minds and give them a skill to navigate life. The universe aligned, and I was given the opportunity by our superintendent to create a mindfulness program within our district. He knew that kids needed more than what we were offering, and this was before Covid-19.
Our second year of the pilot finished just as Covid hit, exactly when people needed strategies more than ever. I see Covid as a gift that showed the world how unwell we were, and we were forced to stop and take stock of what was important, and for me, that is our mental health. If kids are caught up in their emotions and trauma, they are unavailable to learn. Many are struggling just to be here. When we came back into the buildings, we came back with mindfully trained teachers and we started teaching mindfulness as a life skill. I had trained over one hundred teachers in mindfulness for the classroom. As they began teaching, I also began teaching mindfulness all over our district with classes in five different elementary schools, various high schools, and with staff often reaching over twelve-hundred students a week.
For the first time in my life, I did not question what I was doing. It just unfolded with purpose.
As an educator, I often ask myself, “What is the one thing that if you get it right, you did your job?” For me, it’s not the standard or the grade, but the child. Children reaffirm this for me every day when they share their insights such as, “I feel so loving to myself. I feel in my body that I can handle whatever comes my way.” Isn’t that what we want?
What we are doing as educators doing this work is changing not only a school system, but we are transforming lives as we change a system, and it starts with the adults. We are not just teaching the lessons, we ARE the lesson. We must embody that which we want to see.
Recently, I said goodbye to students I have visited and taught all year. One first grade girl whispered to me, “I wanted to let you know that you helped me with my anger.” Each day children teach me and remind me that children, like adults, are doing the best they can to cope with what life brings. I know that my painful past was planting the seeds for my growth, and what I consider to be my purpose. I had heard our purpose is hidden within our wounds, and I fully believe that as now I teach students how to breathe and to manage difficult emotions such as stress and anxiety. It was no coincidence that the first class I ever taught mindfulness in was a second grade class, exactly the age I was when I suffered my first trauma. I am still learning and growing each day through this life-affirming practice and through the students I am gifted the opportunity to interact with each day.
One day after our practice, I asked kids to check in and notice their emotions; one student said, “My dad died,” and in that moment when she fell apart and crawled into my lap, I was able to guide her to breathe, to let it go, and to feel it. I realized I had come full circle and I was the teacher I once needed. I shared with her that I had lost my mother too when I was just her age and we breathed together as the whole class held space for her, for us. As I recounted the story to my sister, she was silent for a moment and then said, “Wow, imagine if a teacher had done that for us. It could have changed everything.”
Yes, imagine. Had a teacher been able to give me the language and teach me how to use my breath to calm my nervous system, to stay here in this moment, and that everything would be okay, my whole life could have been different. But we come to our lessons when we are meant to learn them. That experience I lived drives me to do this work, today and every day, in this moment, and this one, and this one.
Ashley Baer is an educator and healer with a degree in Sociology and a Master’s Degree in Education. She has been a full-time Special Education teacher for almost two decades. Currently, she is in the role of Facilitator of Mindfulness Instruction in Student Supports where she teaches mindfulness, meditation, and movement to both staff and students, and trains teachers how to use mindfulness as SEL and attention building across all curriculums. Prior to this role, she conducted a two-year Mindfulness Pilot Program in a public school system in partnership with the School of Public Health, at Georgia State University. In addition to certifications in Mindfulness and Meditation, Ashley is a 500 RYT, a Health & Wellness Coach, and is currently teaching meditation on the app Insight Timer. Follow this link to her meditations and visit her website www.mindfulnesswithashley.com. Hear more of her personal journey at coolchangepodcast.com/podcast/ashley-baer.