Being Present in Tumultuous Times: Mindfulness Work in and out of the Classroom

By Daniel Boster

Dan BosterLike most of the English teachers I’ve talked to in my career, I went into the profession because I believed in the power of the written word, the ways literature and writing could inspire me.  I loved reading from a young age, grew to like writing as I realized how powerful it could be, and eventually found my way as a literature and writing teacher. Over the past twenty years, I’ve experienced a great deal of joy and a real sense of accomplishment from teaching, and I hope that my students have had the same sense while working with me. I’ve learned a lot and have had a really good time on many, many days of my career. I’ve received compliments from students, former students, parents, colleagues, and administrators. I love teaching and many, many things that go with it.

But, of course, there has also been frustration and stress, emotional turmoil, and many late nights. As almost any English teacher would tell you, it is exhausting; the workload—planning, reading and grading papers, responsibilities to the school and to family, the feelings of never being “caught up”—can be overwhelming. With a certain brand of dark humor reserved for empty hallways on Friday afternoons, English teachers speak of dreading the weekend and then start loading up sets of student papers into their bags to simply give them a ride around town knowing that there will not be enough time to get to them, that they may very well go neglected. I often think of Frank McCourt’s description of “the life of the high school English teacher” in Teacher Man and, especially, his experience carrying home student papers in a “fake brown leather bag” that “sat in a corner by the kitchen, never far from sight or mind, an animal, a dog waiting for attention” (187-188). Every English teacher I know has this bag sitting in the corner of their cars, their kitchens, their home offices, their minds.

Now, having stayed at one school for more than fifteen years—unusual for teachers today—I find myself in a leadership position. As department chair, I have worked with my colleagues on all kinds of projects. In recent years, due to relatively poor performance on state assessments, we, as a department, have spent a lot of time and energy on preparing teaching ideas to help students improve their performance, especially on the state writing assessment. On one hand, I’m proud of the improvement in our students’ scores but I am also somewhat concerned, even ashamed, by some of the teaching we’ve done to lead to this improvement. I wonder sometimes if we’ve fallen into the trap of teaching “formulas” and of privileging this type of writing over the types of writing that we know and feel are actually more important and relevant to students after high school. I was often responsible for promoting the implementation of ideas in classrooms that I wasn’t always quite sure about, that I didn’t have time to consider fully. My fellow English teachers and I would be asked to write standardized test preparation materials at the last minute or be forced to teach to the test in our classes. In retrospect, some of what we prepared, while sometimes even effective in raising scores, didn’t seem all that all authentic or very likely to be all that rewarding for our students. In short, I often felt, and feel, conflicted and guilty about some of the things that are a part of my job.

During all of this time working with the teachers in my department and school, I have worked closely with colleagues outside of my school and my district. Much of this work has been done with the Nebraska Writing Project (NeWP) and the National Writing Project (NWP), and the teachers who make up these networks of dedicated professionals have inspired me to think about and rethink how I do my work as a literacy teacher. One of the core values of both NeWP and NWP is the idea that teachers should be active in their professional development through working with and conversing with other teachers. This principle appeals to me a great deal and has inspired me to be in continuing conversation with teachers in my district, in my community, and throughout the country.

In these conversations, I learned that many writing teachers struggle with what to teach students and how to teach students. The teaching of writing has always been incredibly complicated, and I don’t even think it’s possible for one teacher to fully grasp all of the complexities. It has been further complicated by the the accountability agenda that demands student “proficiency” on certain writing skills during their time in K-12 educational settings, and these skills are often different from what they need in college and in the workplace. But, as I’ve talked to writing teachers all over the country, I learned a great deal from my colleagues, and, even, developed some methods for coping with these demands. However, I continued to hear the frustrations about the time-consuming, emotionally demanding, even draining, nature of the work. Added to this was another recurring strain that ran through a lot of these conversations. Despite all this work, students “still can’t write.” We are working ourselves to exhaustion, and many teachers will say things like, “It doesn’t even seem to make any difference.” While I don’t necessarily agree with all of these sentiments—I’ve seen students grow dramatically as  writers–there was no denying that business leaders complain to the colleges that students can’t write. Colleges complain about high school teachers not preparing students for writing in college. High school teachers blame middle school teachers. And so on. I also work with a lot of high school and college students who, indeed, struggle with their writing a great deal. All of this, inevitably, can lead to a supreme sense of frustration, burnout. I feared the desire to quit would be next. It was this context that led me to focus on mindfulness practice in my own teaching life and eventually to writing a grant to bring local English and writing teachers together to explore ways to come to grips with the lived reality of our profession and try to restore some humanity and authenticity to what we do in our classrooms.

During my research, eight Omaha area teachers–full-time college instructors, high school teachers, and a middle school teacher–met regularly with a meditation teacher from Omaha’s Mindfulness Outreach Initiative. We explored many connections between mindfulness and teaching, and, at the end of our time together, I wrote a dissertation exploring how mindfulness practice and our conversations affected teachers’ perceptions of their work and how they taught writing in their classrooms. We worked to develop a set of pedagogical practices that embodied mindfulness and which, we believed, would be better for students.

However, things got even better after I finished up the Ph.D. Rather than searching for a tenure track position and fleeing high school teaching for the halls of academia, I decided to stay in the K-12 setting and in Omaha. I wanted to use what I had learned during this process and actually bring it to my own classroom. Furthermore, after the necessary post-graduation break, I wanted to work with Johnathan Woodside of the Mindfulness Outreach Initiative to make a permanent intellectual home for teachers interested in meditation and mindfulness and how these ideas intersect with teaching in general and teaching writing specifically. As I had discovered earlier, many teachers long for ways to think and talk about teaching that simply aren’t provided by the professional development structures of their institutions. Our group would be free-flowing, collaboratively directed, and, rather than aim for specific “data” or “goals,” we’d be reading, writing, and having conversations that seemed, to us, more likely to help us in working with our students.

Beginning in February of 2017, we started meeting one time each month for about two hours. Meeting at MOI’s retreat house in Omaha, after brewing some tea, and following a pre-determined agenda, often subject to wandering conversations, we explore our thoughts about mindfulness and teaching. We’ve read poems from the UC San Diego Health Center for Mindfulness, essays about mindfulness and meditation from sources such as Daily Zen and Lion’s Roar and articles about mindfulness in the classroom like this one from The Atlantic. One especially fruitful conversation arose from reading an excerpt from Mary Rose O’Reilly’s Radical Presence about “listening like a cow.” Starting with our June meeting, we plan to begin sharing writing that we are doing and developing mindful ways to responding to one another’s work. The hope is that what we learn in this process can be applied to our work with students.

Our work in this group is a simple and subtle way to be teachers, scholars, and activists in our field. We are not proclaiming that our work will have immediate or dramatic effects on public education in our country. We are not looking to commodify or codify any certain approach to writing, teaching, or teaching writing. We are looking for ways to be more mindful about ourselves and our work. While there is a lot to worry about in our day-to-day teaching lives (large class sizes, frazzled colleagues and administrators, students with troubling emotional needs) and the larger education profession (dwindling funding, a public sometimes hostile to teachers, Betsy DeVos), we are attempting to cultivate mindfulness as Jon Kabat-Zinn describes it: “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”  We know that our students need us to stay in the moment, to see them rather than a conglomeration of memories of students past. Despite the storm around us in our communities and the country, we need to find spaces to pay attention, to listen, to explore ideas authentically and with open minds.

We hope our group evolves into a “sangha” as  Thich Nhat Hanh describes one: “a community of friends practicing the dharma together in order to bring about and to maintain awareness. The essence of a sangha is awareness, understanding, acceptance, harmony and love.” Our practice of the “dharma” here may not necessarily be strictly focused on the Buddhist teachings, but rather connected to the idea of getting to the essential, the elemental parts about teaching while surrounded by an awful lot of noise. We come to see our monthly meeting as a true community where we can discuss ideas about teaching that will make a difference to our students, that allow us to feel connected to our work as teachers even when it’s really tough. For us, it’s this type of active pursuit of understanding that will keep us getting up and going to school each day.

Daniel Boster currently serves as instructional coach and English teacher at Ralston High School in Omaha, Nebraska. He has his B.A. in English from the University of Texas, his M.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and his Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska, where his doctoral work focused on mindfulness and writing pedagogy. In addition, he is the editor of the Rogue Faculty Press 2012 publication What Teaching Means, a collection of creative nonfiction written by educators from all over the country.

Author: darinljensen

I am a writer and a teacher who is interested in issues of class and social justice.

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