What Happens When Teachers Get Too Attached?

Exploring Engaged Mindfulness

In my previous post on compassion fatigue, I talked about the fairly common ailment of teacher burn out, when teachers enter a cycle of apathy and weariness, usually following an intense period of supporting students with countless needs. In that post, I challenged the notion of using mindfulness meditation to detach ourselves from student outcomes, and find happiness in teaching, regardless. Being attached to outcomes is a complex and important topic. So is being attached to our students. I have spent the last week contemplating on attachment and how we should mentor and support teachers who experience mixed emotions about what healthy attachment is and isn’t, especially when painful experiences arise, like apathy and fatigue.

teacherandstudentPerhaps you have heard of engaged mindfulness? This term is used to describe the practice of mindfulness so that we are in a better position to help and respond to the needs of others, so that we are more connected to others and to our commitment to the happiness of all beings. I have been going around in circles wondering if it is possible for us to respond to the needs of others in education with care and compassion without attachment, without making ourselves vulnerable, without allowing ourselves to experience the debilitating blow of failure, the sting of loss in spite of doing everything, the despair of watching high hopes descend into ordinary, harsh reality.

When we talk about attachment in the context of schools, we are talking about the deep and enduring affectionate bond that connects one person to another across time and space. We are talking about trust, safety and security, the knowing that there is a person out there that is deeply concerned and invested in our personal well-being and development. Attachment is not encouraging dependency, but rather, it is communicating that you are not alone; that even as you explore the world, take risks, grow and learn— you are being seen, loved and guided gently. How can we teach without attachment, in this sense of the word? How can we expect our students to trust us without our attachment, without our willingness to be vulnerable to this intimate, loving connection with another human being?

In my previous post, I suggested that teachers who experience compassion fatigue should use their meditation practice to cultivate self-acceptance. As a follow up, I would also suggest that teachers spend some time contemplating what it means to build bonds and healthy attachment with their students in the school setting, knowing that authentic relationships lead to an open and tender heart, pain and sadness, failure and other vulnerabilities. Mindful meditation practice can help us to know ourselves and accept our limitations, and it can also prepare us to absorb and transmute heavy emotions into a healing energy that can be applied to how we teach.

To transmute means to change the state of being. In Native American medicine, the snake represents transmutation because snakes shed their skin. Snake medicine is the knowledge that all things are equal in creation, and that those things which might be experienced as poison can be eaten, ingested, and transmuted if one has the proper state of mind. How can mindfulness meditation transmute pain, suffering, sadness, failure and vulnerability?

When we sit in quiet acceptance of the truth, and allow it to be exactly what it is, we begin to see how the pain we experience also contains the pathway to freedom. In my experiments in the practice of meditation, I have discovered four states of being that can be associated with transmuting painful experiences:

  1. Bearing Witness: Our experience of suffering is real, a natural part of life and universal
  2. Anticipation: Each situation that arises involves some kind of suffering and all suffering is impermanent
  3. Gathering Energy: Relaxation and meditation relieve suffering and lead to clarity
  4. Application: We can relieve suffering for ourself and others by applying specific behaviors and cultivating dispositions

It is only natural for teachers at the start of their career to shy away from getting too close to students or getting too attached to outcomes which can result in painful experiences, especially when we work in distressed areas with chronic failure due to inequities in society. However, when we are ready to embrace our noble profession for what it really is, and for what it requires, we realize that teaching involves cultivating authentic relationships with students. This makes us open, vulnerable and deeply attached to their hopes and dreams, their pain and suffering, their sanity and insanity, their struggle and achievements.  Only in this way do teachers become master teachers, or change agents for an enlightened society.

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References:

Thich Naht Hanh, Good Citizens: Creating Enlightened Society, Parallax Press, 2012

Attachment in the Classroom by Christi Bergen and David Bergen, Educational Psychology Review, June 2009

Medicine Cards: The Discovery of Power Through the Ways of Animals, Jamie Sams and David Carson, Bear and Company, 1988

Why Do Teachers Experience Compassion Fatigue?

apathy-1940202_960_720Towards the end of a Tibetan Buddhism meditation lecture on compassion, a woman in the back row raised her hand and asked, what about compassion fatigue? Before the instructor could reply, the woman added, I am a teacher. I do my best. I care for my students, but it gets to the point when I can’t anymore. I feel empty and useless. I was in the front row and couldn’t see her face, but I felt the heaviness as if she were right beside me. The instructor explained that compassion fatigue is a result of being attached to outcomes. When things don’t turn out the way we expect, we feel disappointed which can lead to apathy and fatigue. She encouraged the woman to use her meditation practice to explore whether her happiness was dependent on the outcomes of her students or if she found joy in teaching them, regardless.

I left the session deep in thought. I appreciated how the instructor used the question as an opportunity to introduce the topic of detachment, the stripping away of one’s ego and the delusion of acting for the sake of self-aggrandizement, but I felt uncomfortable suggesting to a teacher that she detach herself from outcomes and focus on her happiness. So many educators, myself included, have turned to contemplative practices to find peace. Often we work in challenging environments where the best, most dedicated teachers are driven by outcomes. Outcomes tell us if we are doing our job correctly, if we are having an impact on the lives of students. When supporting teachers who are burnt out and suffering, we need to consider a different approach when they turn to mindfulness meditation training.

Teachers typically go into the teaching profession for altruistic reasons. They want to help students and make a difference in the world through the process of education. This is the seed of compassion. In reality, it is only a seed because compassion needs to be cultivated through mindfulness and pedagogical training. Oftentimes, our best intentions don’t translate into the world in the way we would like. Compassion involves listening deeply and bearing witness to suffering and also, helping to relieve that suffering. How does one listen deeply and bear witness? How does one know what is needed in any given situation?

Compassion is associated with the heart chakra. When there is an imbalance in our heart chakra, we begin to experience insensitivity and apathy for others; what would normally be heartbreaking, suddenly means nothing. The heart chakra is associated with love, relationships, and kindheartedness, but it also pertains to self-acceptance. Self-acceptance is often forgotten. It is arguably the most important aspect of how we cultivate our ability to be compassionate. Self-acceptance involves understanding who you are, knowing your strengths and your weaknesses, and recognizing your limits. Without self-acceptance, we cannot be compassionate without burning out, and losing clarity.

Let us consider an example of compassionate behavior in a school setting. A teacher walks down the hall, busy and late. She passes a student who is crying so she stops everything. She takes the time to fix the situation by getting a band-aid or walking him to the guidance office. This is a very simple scenario, but in most cases, it is unrealistic. What about the classroom full of rowdy students who would be left alone without supervision? Or the principal who would be left waiting in her office scowling? Teachers work in complex, often chaotic environments characterized by countless demands and a wide range of social, emotional, and academic needs. It can be difficult to make choices. It can be difficult to be compassionate all the time. For the newest teachers, still figuring out the curriculum, they are unaware of what may be going on below the surface. Why is Fran’s head down? Is she tired, confused, or hungry? Why did Tomás refuse to answer the question? Is he shy or does he not know the vocabulary? Why didn’t half the parents show up to the parent teacher conference? Was it timing or cultural insensitivity?

Contemplative practices, and meditation in particular, can help us develop compassion starting with self-acceptance. We learn to appreciate ourselves and our basic goodness. We gain insight into our strengths and limitations. When we meditate, we become aware that there is a consciousness separate from our thoughts, and that we have the power to look upon ourselves, and our thoughts with compassion and forgiveness. This discernment is so important when many teachers experience an internal battle with their thoughts having been socialized to believe that they can and should be able to fix countless social problems through the practice of education in spite of inadequate support, training and resources.

Compassion fatigue does not mean you are too attached to outcomes, but rather, you are not spending enough time getting to know and appreciate yourself, your humanity, your own suffering, your boundaries. It means you are trying to help others without first taking care of your own needs. Think about being on an airplane. When there is an unexpected change in air pressure, the air masks drop and in spite of the fact that the steward warns you to put the oxygen mask on yourself first, you start to help others. Within moments, it is only natural that you lose your ability to see straight, get disoriented and eventually lose consciousness entirely.

When we consider mindfulness meditation practice in the context of schooling—schools being just like airplanes with levels of air pressure that can change suddenly— we need to view it as the gateway to getting acquainted with ourselves, learning our limitations, understanding that we don’t always see things clearly, that we are human after all, with limited energy. In this way, we begin to develop wisdom that can guide our greatest intention to be compassionate in schools.

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If you are interested in continuing this conversation, please find my contact information here. I am always open to dialogue. You can also add your thoughts by leaving a comment which I will open up to readers. I am looking forward to the release of my forthcoming book, Mindful Practice for Social Justice: A Guide for Educators and Professional Learning Communities which will be available this April. In this guide, I offer numerous strategies and tools to help teachers and professional learning communities explore the notion of compassion and fatigue, and learn to recognize the personal, social and transpersonal dynamics of our work, especially as they apply to our commitment to social justice and shared responsibility.

Teaching Freedom with Limits

The Vietnamese monk and master teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote: “It is an illusion that we are free…”

Koan: A statement, a saying, an act or gesture that can bring to an understanding of the truth. Also, a tool used to educate a disciple.

In my early morning sleep, I had this dream. I had arrived ten minutes late to my lecture and found two students entwined on a chair. They were in love. One had a shaven head, torn denim jeans and scruff. Their posture didn’t alarm me, but I had to think quickly how to untangle them. I knew that if I mishandled the situation, they would not engage fully in the lesson. With a light but firm voice, I told one to get off, and I gestured to a nearby chair. I said, setting limits defines you, gives you character and identity. It does not mean you do not love or that you are not free; it simply reveals who you are and how you express your individuality. Let me show you, I said.

I walked to the front of the room and found a large, piece of white construction paper and a pair of scissors. By this point, the young man had moved to his own chair and was listening intently. I held the construction paper up for everyone to see. This paper is blank and free of any writing or drawing, I said. It is completely open to possibility. It is beautiful, yes, to look at a blank sheet of paper like this, like a canvas with infinite, creative potential? Now, let us see what happens.

With the scissors, I began to cut into the paper. Slowly and with great care and precision, I carved out a figure of a man, with long arms and legs and broad shoulders. When I was done, I held up the cutout for the whole room to see. He too is beautiful, isn’t he? A unique and curious character has been born, and he is looking for a name to call himself. You see what I have done here? Without the limits I have imposed upon this blank sheet, carving out form with precise snips, this bold, young man would not exist. He would remain invisible and unnoticed.

It is right to experience freedom without limits in meditation. That is why the practice is essential. In the real world, however, in the material world, we define ourselves, and make our mark. In other words, we learn we are ‘cut out’ to give meaning and definition to human existence. Invisibility is good, yes, and so is partaking with others. Setting limits and applying discipline help us share spaces and adapt to social situations. When we do it mindfully, with consciousness, we are not losing freedom, or authenticity. We are still very much beautiful and simple, like that open canvas. We are just sharing it with others. In this way, we can learn from them. In this way, we discover happiness.

In order to explore this concept of Freedom with Limits further, I encourage you to try this activity with a small, professional learning community.

Shared Freedom Activity
Purpose: To explore the notion of freedom with limits; to increase awareness of how we adapt ourselves in group situations
Overview: A group of three people simultaneously cut out an image of themselves onto one piece of paper
  1. You will need a large piece of construction paper, scissors for each person, a timer and a group of three people
    • Sit comfortably in a circle, close enough for each person to hold the paper
  2. Have someone volunteer to be the timekeeper, and go over the instructions
    • Each person will cut out a full-length image of themselves, working at the same time
    • Do not let the cut-outs fall out of the paper. In other words, there should be one whole paper design holding the figures in place at the end
  3. Before starting, take a few minutes to contemplate the intention of the activity: Shared Freedom. Set the timer for 3 min
    • An intention directs your attention and energy to an outcome. The outcome is typically a disposition, virtue or state of being
    • Sometimes, we connect an intention to a particular problem we want to solve, such as how to resolve a conflict with a student, boss or colleague. An intention of this nature would take the form of a statement such as “By contemplating shared freedom, I can learn how to work more effectively with my team.”
  4. Each person picks up the scissors at the same time and starts cutting. Set the timer for 10 min.
  5. After the timer goes off, reflect individually in writing, or discuss with the group the following questions:
    • How did it feel to engage in this activity?
    • What challenges did you encounter?
    • How did you negotiate with each other?
    • How did the end product turn out?
    • What did you learn about the nature of freedom with limits?

*A portion of this post, as well as the format, was adapted from my forthcoming book, Mindful Practice for Social Justice: A Guide for Educators and Professional Learning Communities, Routledge, April, 2019.

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References

Deshimaru, T. (1996) Sit: Zen Teachings of Master Taisen Deshimaru, Hohm Press, p. 317

Thich Nhat Hanh, The Four Layers of Consciousness, The Lions Roar, Dec. 26, 2018 https://www.lionsroar.com/the-four-layers-of-consciousness/

On Music, Mindfulness and Cultural Appreciation

“All his life he had done nothing but talk, write, lecture, concoct sentences, search for formulations and amend them, so in the end no words were precise, their meanings were obliterated, their content lost, they turned into trash, chaff, dust, sand; prowling through his brain, tearing at his head, they were his insomnia, his illness. And what he yearned for at the moment, vaguely but with all his might, was unbounded music, powering, window-rattling din to engulf, once and for all, the pain, the futility, the vanity of words.” 

~The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera

Music

Music detaches us from the intellect and shifts us into right brain mode where we see things as they are: in relationship, out of time and space. We are lost in music and then transported to some unknown place: part imagination, part the world of the artist. This warping of our senses invites us to become aware of the vast wonders of originality and simultaneously, the universality of all human experience.

Exquisite music, the kind that is unbounded, is artistic expression that is certainly influenced by culture, language, identity and mastery but also genius. When we close our eyes and allow such music to penetrate our being, we are merging with a vision of an artist who may live far away or speak a different language but who is able to transmit the essence of longing or suffering identical to our own. What does it matter from where or by whom, with the eyes closed?

If we were to be lectured about such an out of body experience, or any notion of invisibility through music, we would likely want to defend rational thought and objectivism as a matter of freedom. And yet, when we are in the presence of music, or any enduring art form, we are liberated from the rational mind, and only then, can we breathe in the sweet, infinite nature of our humanity.

A spiritual master once told me that the purpose of all knowledge is to move from the visible to the invisible.

 

 

 

 

The Gift of Freedom for the Holidays

Every year, my family and I engage in a back and forth, group chat style discussion via email about how we want to celebrate our holiday. This year, like the last, I began to notice new, challenging behaviors and a bit of a strain. I’ve been thinking a lot about how what is going on in my family is also going on in society. Traditions and social norms are being examined every day and many are being confronted. It seems to me we have always relied on certain customs, rituals and symbols to bring us together, so I can’t help wonder how these emerging developments will transmute our society in the future.

freedom symbols

Rituals are a set of behaviors, a series of actions and the handling of certain objects designed to produce feelings of joy, gratitude, appreciation, honor or tribute. A ritual can be very personal like lighting a candle before prayer, or it can be shared like singing carols in a circle. These activities can enrich our lives by creating a sacred space, honoring a shared history or cultivating bonds, but they can also work against us, making us feel trapped into outdated modes of behavior or make us feel like we have to pay tribute to values we no longer hold dear. How can we honor our history, hold onto togetherness and continue to build relationships while at the same time creating a safe space and freedom to explore new ways of being and doing?

It takes courage to say no to a long standing tradition. Whether in a family unit or a school environment, rituals were designed to build community and preserve important values. How do we know when it’s time to disengage and how do we communicate a desire to change in a thoughtful way? Any challenge or adjustment to group norms can threaten our sense of security. Standing out, or standing up for something new can produce fear and suspicion. The human spirit yearns for belonging and authentic relationships. We are instinctively drawn to each other like insects to light. Yet, some rituals, traditions and symbols have become problematic. Some things have lost their purpose. Isn’t it normal to wonder whether our actions, our behavior and our attachment to certain symbols reflect who we are, right now, at present? Haven’t you ever experienced the pang of unrest or detachment? Partaking in rituals merely out of habit, obligation or fear of negative consequences can cause distress and suffering for individuals and even whole communities when the ritual represents a past injustice or no longer serves a higher purpose.

The time has come, the walrus said! to reflect and take notice of the rituals and traditions in your midst. Do they feel authentic? How do others feel about the customs we take for granted? As uncertain as it may feel at times, we must dare to look through the cracks to see a brave new world emerge. Maybe the best gift we can give ourselves and each other this season is freedom; freedom to dare, to look, to pause, to reflect, to reimagine what it means to live an undivided life, and to come together as ‘one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Common Mistakes When Approaching Race in Schools… What Should We Do Instead?

Race is one aspect of human identity that changes reflecting the politics and science of the times. Now more than ever students are identifying as mixed-race or do not identify with any race category at all. The latter is especially true for Hispanics, according to a recent Census bureau research. Racial categories, which have been included on every U.S. census since the first one in 1790 have changed from decade to decade. The biggest mistake teachers make when trying to approach the topic of race is not to recognize that race is a social construct. The actual genetic difference between individual human beings is only about 0.1%. The second mistake teachers make is not seeing variation within racialized groups. Teachers do their best when they design learning experiences that reveal the multifaceted and complex nature of human identity and offer ample opportunities for students to teach others about their unique cultural experience.

According to Sonia Nieto, a leading scholar on this topic, culture is extremely dynamic, multifaceted, embedded in context, influenced by social, economic and political factors, socially constructed, learned and dialectical. Further, she suggests that culture is not a given, but a human creation, dependent on particular geographical, temporal and socio-political contexts and therefore vulnerable to issues of power and control.[i] Understanding the interrelationship between culture, learning and how students construct knowledge is important, especially now when we fall into the trap of reducing students to fixed, racialized identities when in fact, a student’s culture is the total expression of his or her humanity—that which includes race, ethnicity, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation but that which also includes other parts of who we are that are not always apparent, such as how we express ourselves through language and art, what religion we identify with if at all, how we communicate love, how we understand relationships and power in society and how we perceive, interpret and integrate historical events.

Culture and learning are connected, however fluid. Advances in the modern learning sciences have revealed that our brains are constantly shaped and reshaped by the interaction with the surrounding environment.[ii] Social experiences and human interactions that engender fear, trauma, stress, hate, shame, embarrassment, low self-esteem impact brain functioning and cognition. These experiences are endemic and indicative of oppression. Our country grapples with a long history of racism and inequality, therefore it is important for teachers to learn to pay attention to their own mindset and behavior. The goal is to reduce stress, build trust and create an inclusive environment with love and acceptance so learning can occur. In order to do this work artfully, proactive teachers adopt a practice to foster critical consciousness. Critical consciousness is awareness of the intersection of factors that contribute to a person’s identity, a person’s sense of well-being and their readiness to learn.

Three strategies to develop critical consciousness are a) take time for self-reflection and meditation, b) engage in intergroup dialogues on culture and class c) analyze human rights movements and d) participate in imagery-based learning activities to strengthen your brain’s ability to see the world with novelty (Siegel, 2007).

In my forthcoming book, Mindfulness and Social Justice in Practice: A Guide for Educators and Professional Learning Communities (Routledge, May, 2019), I provide teachers and school leaders with numerous strategies and tools for developing critical consciousness infusing mindfulness and social justice pedagogy.

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[i] Nieto, S. (2008) Culture and education. In Yearbook for the National Society for the Study of Education. Blackwell Publishing

[ii] Rose, D et al. (2011/12) The Universal Design for Learning Framework to Support Culturally Diverse Learners, Journal of Education

Learning from Immigrant Perspectives

“What preoccupies me is immediate: the separation I endure with my parents in loss. This is what matters to me: the story of the scholarship boy who returns home one summer from college to discover bewildering silence, facing his parents. This is my story. An American story.”

~Richard Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory, 1982

 

When my grandmother arrived to New York City from Puerto Rico in 1939, New York was one of the main recipients of immigrants from Puerto Rico. At that time, expectations for Puerto Rican achievement were dismal. In 1935, the New York State Chamber of Commerce’s Special Committee on Immigration and Naturalization commissioned a study on the IQ of 240 Puerto Rican schoolchildren in East Harlem. The poor results stigmatized Puerto Ricans as being intellectually deficient. Puerto Rican advocates argued that the children lacked English skills, but it didn’t matter. Reactions to Puerto Rican immigration became toxic.

We have made great progress since then. Still, contemporary public schools struggle with how to engage and effectively teach Latino students who come to the classroom with a wide range of academic, social and emotional needs—not to mention varying English language proficiency levels. Latinos represent over 27% of the nation’s 50.4 million K-12 public school students (NCES, 2016) and there is a growing number of vulnerable Latinos systematically failing academically.[1] In spite of this data, there are numerous success stories we can learn from. My grandmother, for example, managed to provide four children with access to a good education even though she hardly spoke English and had little money or social currency. What was her secret ingredient?

indigenouswisdom pullout

Her secret ingredient was a mindset or a set of beliefs shared by many successful immigrant parents. I call it indigenous wisdom. Indigenous wisdom is the totality of insight and understanding gleaned from life experience and knowledge passed down from generation to generation. Not surprisingly, indigenous wisdom often corroborates with research on how we should approach student engagement, especially for students learning English and academic content.

The following are three insights taken from indigenous wisdom that we can apply to how we build inclusive learning environments:

  • Faith- Faith is about trusting a student’s potential and endless possibilities. Faith is not blind. Rather, it comes from a deep awareness of the power of the human spirit to evolve and learn even in the face of adversity. Faith opens our mind to see past the material world, to transcend dominant narratives, popular opinion or daunting statistics that undermine human agency and spirit. One way effective teachers and school leaders demonstrate faith is by providing students with numerous opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge and skill with low-stakes, formative assessments. Informal, low-stakes assessments show progress over time and communicate learning is a process with ebb and flow. Detachment from outcome is a common theme in indigenous wisdom. Educators who have faith detach themselves from outcomes and pour themselves fully into the student-teacher experience.
  • Language as Relationship- Language is how we communicate. It connects our private, inner world to the public domain. Language is the tool by which we build trusting, loving relationships. Indigenous wisdom recognizes love as the most powerful force available to human beings (Arrien, 1993). Similarly, research in learning theory, cognitive sciences, collaborative learning, and engagement all agree that people learn best in community.[2] Immigrant students who are learning English are learning to negotiate new relationships and new terms for community engagement. Teachers need to demonstrate that the classroom is safe and that each student belongs. The safety students experience at home in their native language does not have to conflict with school as long as they know that both have equal value. Teachers can create friendly learning spaces by paying attention to norms for group work and supporting strategic partnerships. ELL students often benefit from working with one partner before moving into larger groups. Language stems for interaction goes a long way in supporting oral language development but also, consider providing students with the choice to remain quiet at times to take a breather, observe, listen and communicate in non-verbal ways.
  • School as Civic Engagement- Indigenous wisdom traditions teach that everything has a purpose. In the Hunger of Memory (1982), Richard Rodriguez recalled how his Mexican born parents taught him that schooling was key to job advancement and a way to ‘ease the path.’ In the school setting, this means explicitly making connections between learning and real world application. Ask, how is this content relevant to the lives of my students? or What life skills are embedded in the activity? The best teachers and school leaders find clever ways to help students and families see how school is a preparation for civic engagement and a pathway to becoming an influential citizen. One way to do this is to teach language and content within a broader, real world context, anchoring units and lessons to universal themes, life situations or social issues. Science and biology, for example, live in a unit on medicine and what to expect when you visit the hospital. Mathematics is taught within a unit on banking and how to open an account.

As we continue to evolve and innovate our school practices to be more responsive to the academic, social and emotional needs of ELL students, it makes perfect sense to tap into the indigenous wisdom of immigrant parents.  By doing so, we not only create inclusive classrooms but we also legitimize the insights of generations immigrants who continue to enrich our lives.

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References 

[1] Issues in Latino Education: Race, School Culture, and the Politics of Academic Success, by Mariella Espinoza-Herold, Ricardo González-Carriedo,

[2] Classroom Community, The Ecology for Learning, Research. Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning, Missouri State, https://www.missouristate.edu/fctl/193962.htm