There is nothing like a beginning.
Imagine a beginning from your past. First time meeting someone. Building your own home. Starting on a vacation. Doing something new, unknown, exciting; scary yet filled with promise.
To start the school year, or anything, it is obvious that we must make plans. We need to determine where we want to go and what we want to accomplish in order to fulfill those objectives. But we often ignore the emotional side of preparing ourselves.
No matter what you are beginning, take a moment to feel what you feel and notice your thoughts. Only if you notice your thoughts and feelings can you choose how and whether to act on them. If you’re a teacher, start with understanding what beginning the school year means to you and what you need. Then you can better understand what the students need.
Many of us plan our classes so tightly that the realm of what is possible is reduced to what is safe and already known. It’s not a beginning if you emotionally pretend that you’ve already done it. Take time daily to strengthen your awareness of your own mental and emotional state.
Starting the morning
When I arrive at school energized but anxious, I get out of my car, stop, look at the building and trees around me, and take a few breaths. Then I am in my body, present—not driven by thoughts. After greeting myself, I am more prepared to greet students.
Practice SBC: Stop, Breathe, Notice. Periodically stop what you’re doing, close your eyes, take 3 breaths and notice your thoughts and feelings. Notice how it feels after such a break.
You can do this with students to begin each lesson, or in the middle of a heated discussion.
Beginning the first day
Shatter any student fears that you will hurt or distrust them. Students feel freer to be open when you are open to sharing both your excitement and nervousness. When you hide behind a role with a schedule to keep, you feel stiff and nervous. When you trust students this way, you yourself will be trusted.
Start the day with a little mindfulness or a journal, or combine the two with an inquiry practice.
- After greeting students, I might say: My day has been both stressful and exciting. How many of you felt stressed today?” Listen to students. Ask: What helps you feel more confident, ready to learn in school?
- Ask what they know about mindfulness. Develop curiosity. Assign research on the mental, emotional, and physical benefits of mindfulness. Do you just want to talk, or do you want to experience it?
- If they are in favor of experience, say you could introduce them to a short practice. Ask: Close your eyes partly or fully, place your attention on the air passing over your upper lip as you breathe, and take 3 calming breaths.
- Then ask one of the following:
*What do you think I need to know about you to help me work with you?
*Imagine a time you had a wonderful learning experience in school. Where was it? What made it wonderful?
Ask students to open their eyes and write what they imagined. Allow them to share with you or the class if they want to do so.
Teaching course material
Combine mindfulness, inquiry and imagination as you did above to teach material by asking students in an English class to visualize a character and his or her motivation for a particular action. Or in a history class, visualize a street in ancient Rome. Or simply start the year or class by asking a question. The school year or the lesson then becomes the process of answering the question.
What do you think is the biggest problem we humans face today?
Which is more important: living a long life or a meaningful one?
Muriel Rukeyser said: “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” What does she mean? Is there a way this can be true?
What responsibilities, if any, do citizens have in a democracy to make the system work?
With the political climate of today, where both truth and critical thinking is distorted, it is crucially important to teach questioning both of what you hear and read as well as what you believe.
What is truth? Fact? Opinion? Theory?
How do you verify what you think is real?
What questions do you think we need to ask and answer in order to understand…?
Such questions challenge assumptions. The Greek philosopher, Plato, said: “Philosophy begins in wonder,” the wonder from which real questions arise and which they evoke. Can wonder be allowed into the classroom?
What you especially want to uncover are the student’s own questions related to the course, as well as the student’s awareness of their own internal state. So ask one of the following:
How does the material from this class relate to your own life?
What questions about … have you always wanted to ask?
How can you help others when they’re anxious? When you feel anxious, where do you feel it?
Such questions naturally engage students because they connect their real lives to the curriculum. They feel empowered to face whatever life presents to them. The classroom becomes a place where mysteries are revealed and solved, and meaning is created.
Ask students to focus on their breath. Then:
Picture in your mind one person in the class you don’t know so well or you need to work with on a project. Imagine this person has feelings, thoughts, very much alike, yet also somewhat different, from your own. Imagine that this other person wants to know what you think just as you want to know about her or him. What does it feel like to know another student values what you think? Just sit for a moment with that feeling.
You can do this yourself when you are having trouble with a student. It will help your thinking clear and your feelings calm. You model awareness, of your own inner state as well as of other people there with you. This is the ultimate end you want to teach from the beginning, how to be a compassionate, clear thinking human being.
What stressed me out when I began a school year was the idea that I had a whole year to face. All that work, all that time. But if I planned enough so I was clear about what I was doing and why and I developed my awareness with mindfulness and compassion, then instead of facing the idea of a whole year, I faced only an individual moment.
I was prepared. I could trust myself and be spontaneous. One moment at a time—I could do that.
And this changed the whole quality of my teaching and of my life. My teaching and my life were one.
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Originally Published on irarabois.com
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