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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Author Meena Srinivasan

Once in a while, a resource comes along that is so invaluable to our work as educators that I have to share it with you. Meena Srinivasan's new book, Teach, Breathe, Learn: Mindfulness In and Out of the Classroom, is such a resource. It speaks to a yearning I hear across our country: a desire to teach and work in a way that is anchored in joy, emerging from compassion, and that is more humane and slower than the way we work now.

What Meena honestly and graciously offers in this easy-to-read book is a roadmap for this desire. She introduces a variety of mindfulness practices and then offers a wealth of resources for how to integrate these into our lives and classrooms. Anyone interested in implementing mindfulness in schools must read this book.

While the lesson plans could be very useful and the quotes from students bring their perspective into this discussion, it's Meena's story as an educator, embedded in this text, that I found most inspiring and that makes this book unique. From one of the first anecdotes she shares about how she realized that her mood was affecting her students, I was hooked. I could relate. I wanted to know what had happened to her, how she shifted that very common experience of being a stretched-too-thin, overwhelmed teacher into being something different. I wanted to know her story and the tools she had used. You'll have to read the book to find out what they were.

In the meantime, I want to give you a taste of who Meena is and what her book is about through this interview I did with her. I'm hoping that it'll further entice you into reading Teach, Breathe, Learn.

Elena Aguilar: Who did you write this book for? Who do you hope will read it?

Meena Srinivasan: This book is an offering of my heart and my hope is that it will provide tools, resources, and inspiration for anyone interested in bringing mindfulness into their life and the lives of young people. The book is filled with anecdotes and practices that illustrate both the power and the accessibility of the transformational practice of mindfulness. While the book is written from my point of view as an educator, its contents will be useful for anyone especially teachers, caregivers, and those working in educational settings.

How do you think mindfulness could be helpful to teachers and administrators?

The more we practice coming back to the present with kind awareness, the easier it actually is to be present -- a vital quality for educators. Except for perhaps surgeons, teachers make more decisions during the course of the work day, and the demands of the classroom require us to be able to have simultaneously both expansive and focused attention.

Mindfulness enables us to connect deeply with ourselves so in turn we can authentically connect with others. Being a principal or a school leader can be a very lonely job and a mindfulness practice can be incredibly helpful with developing the strong relationships needed to successfully lead a school.

The concept of interdependence is foundational to how mindfulness is introduced in my book. Over the years I've found it very helpful to reflect on interdependence when working with teachers and colleagues to help us see that our school can only work with all of its multiple parts working smoothly. If one part of the system functions poorly, the whole body of the school is affected. Sometimes there can be challenges between different entities within schools, but if we can remember that without the administration, parents, staff, and students, our schools would not be able to function. We can approach our interactions with others in our community with more gratitude and understanding.

Tell me a story about the role mindfulness has played in your personal or professional life.

Mindfulness enables us to be more responsive and less reactive. My very first classroom moment was very powerful where I said, "Wow, this mindfulness stuff really works!" I was teaching an academic support class at an international middle school in New Delhi, India. My class had students from all over the world. They all had varying special needs and I was charged with supporting them all.

When I shared with my students that we were hiring an instructional assistant to help provide more support for our class, one of my beautiful American boys yelled, "I hope it's not an Indian!" In that moment my heart sank. I was one of the few teachers of color at the international school and the only expat of Indian origin. I felt extremely hurt by his comment, and feelings of anger and sadness bubbled inside of me.

The pre-mindfulness me would have snapped at him that his comment was unacceptable, but now, because of my mindfulness practice, I engaged in emotional self-regulation. Recognizing my feelings as they arose within me, I paused and took a breath, and instead of shutting my student down I politely asked him why he didn't want an Indian instructional assistant.

He explained that he found it very difficult to understand Indian accents and this made it hard for him to learn. As he spoke, I realized he had no intention of hurting my feelings as someone with an Indian heritage; instead I saw a young boy who had difficulty learning, a boy who hadn't chosen to be in India, a boy who was brought there because of his father's job -- a boy who felt frustrated and needed my love and acknowledgment of his feelings. From that moment forward, I made it my policy to always engage my students in dialogue in order to really understand them. I realized that only when I understood them could I truly teach them.

Sometimes mindfulness in schools is discussed as a method to help kids focus so that they can be stronger students, as a way to have stronger academic skills. I've heard of teachers using what they call "mindfulness" to help kids prepare for taking tests. What do you think of this approach? Does it resonate with what you suggest in your book?

While it is true that mindfulness can create conditions for learning by helping students focus and self-regulate, this was definitely not my approach in sharing mindfulness with young people. Mindfulness is empowering because it helps us see that in every moment we have a choice; we can choose to be more skillful, and there are concrete strategies that can help us bring more peace, love, and joy into our lives.

If a reader was to take one action based on reading your book, what would you hope that would be?

The most valuable thing we can offer others is our own happiness. The action I hope readers will take after reading my book is to develop a personal mindfulness practice so they can cultivate and grow their own happiness. It's not always what you teach but how you teach it, and the love and joy behind your teaching that is perhaps the strongest impression you will leave with your students.

Before we can share mindfulness with our students we need an experiential understanding of mindfulness from our own practice. Once we begin to develop our own practice, we will see how it impacts our classroom and our relationships with others. Mindfulness offers a way to tap into the resilience that is already inside us. We don't need more time in our day to be mindful. Teach, Breathe, Learn is a practical guide for how to bring more awareness, love, and resilience into our daily lives.

If someone is curious about mindfulness and wishes to learn more, aside from reading your book, what do you recommend? Where could they start?

I would highly recommend attending a mindfulness retreat. There are a number of offerings all over the world. I would suggest reaching out to the Mindfulness in Education Network list serve and detail what you are looking for in terms of length and geography and you will be surprised by how many options there are

What are your thoughts and ideas on this post? Please share in the comments section below.

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TODD SENTELL's picture
TODD SENTELL
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

BROOD AND RUIN YOUR MOOD

The time spent driving home from school was long enough to go over the day, every day, and figure out what I could have done better...where I truly screwed up...and sometimes where I did a pretty good job. It was also the best time to grieve, and even weep, for what you saw and experienced that day. I never wore sunglasses while driving until I became a teacher.

I finally got smart and learned that too-many cigars and brooding for way too long every evening at home was not the way to take the edge off what a teacher experiences. It was not the way to refresh. It's exercise--open-mouth breathing, sweat-spewing, body-changing exercise. That's what ultimately does it. I started training for marathons and ran in a bunch of marathons and half-marathons and in those hard-core, military style obstacle course races, one of them with Mr. Warbird leading the charge to not be burned alive, electrocuted, or drown in creeks, lakes, or pools of mud or ice water. I boxed at the local Police Athletic league and got kicked around, but while I changed my body and teacher's mind for the better. Some of my students caught on and asked why in the heck would I subject myself to all that. I never told them the real truth.

But I did let them punch me in my stomach as hard as they wanted and anytime they wanted. You can know your subject and teach it like an expert, but if you want to impress young scholars, let them punch you in your new rock-hard gut and enjoy the satisfaction of being their teacher-hero in the most unconventional way. This used to drive Lurlene crazy and she told me to stop but I never did. Old Burrell thought it was brilliant. At his old school, six or seven hundred years ago, he said he used to kick kids out of class by dragging them into the hall while they were still in their desks. That was back in the good ol' days, he said, and parents thanked him for it.

I got in trouble with Principal Lurlene for something else, too, among one or two million other things. If a guy got in trouble in class, instead of kicking him out, I had him do twenty push-ups. Some of these kids were pretty good athletes and they'd call my bluff. They'd pop off a quick twenty, and then crank their head up and look me right in the eye and ask for twenty more. One of these guys popped me in the gut one day, too. I kept it together for as long as I could, while I think I was lecturing about Abraham Lincoln or somebody, and then excused myself and went to the teacher's bathroom to see if my liver had come out my navel. Actually, my left kidney came out my right ear, too.

This same fellow started hallucinating in class one day. He said there were black spiders all over the top of his desk. Everybody else in class craned their necks to see...nothing. I told him he was free to trot up to the school nurse's office if he wanted to. He wouldn't do it. He said he was going to Marine it out. He did. Classes lasted nearly two hours at this school and he Marined it out. With the thumb and the index finger of his right hand he methodically pinched the heads of about two hundred spiders. Then he was okay.

Join's picture

I agree totally with the author. As a teacher, it has been an important practice to me (throughout my long teaching years) to be able to 'park' my private emotions and problems outside the school gate and switch into the "FRESH-LOOKING, HAPPY ME" mode before entering the school compound. By the end of the day, I stop by at the school gate to pick what I have left there earlier of the day and continue my journey home. Some may think of this practice as troublesome, but I do believe if I am there to inspire the young minds, how would I do that if I were preoccupied with my own moodiness and problems? So, congratulations to Meena; you put into words things that we as educators could not find the ways/words to explain to people...tq!

Martin Diaz Alvarez's picture
Martin Diaz Alvarez
Business Consultant

Many educators are introducing meditation into the classroom as a means of improving kids' attention and emotional regulation.

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