As a novice teacher, one of my greatest challenges was dealing with the constant and incessant demands of my kindergarten students. Like a Greek chorus, the children called out: “Ms. Jennings, I can’t find my pencil.” “Suzie took my eraser!” “Teacher, I don’t understand this stuff. I need help.”
This cacophony was so irritating because I had no skills to deal with the problem or with my frustration. Bothered by the unending demands, I would lose patience. Knowing it wasn’t appropriate to snap at my tender young students, I suppressed my feelings and quietly fumed.
I must have looked like one of those teachers I observed much later who was clearly seething on the inside but all smiles and sweetness on the outside. Children are extra sensitive to emotions and they sense a contradiction when there’s a mismatch between the underlying uncomfortable emotional tone and the superficial “positive” expression. In fact, some kids may try to test us, wondering, “Is she really so happy? I’m not so sure.” They need to know what they’re dealing with and can feel insecure when the adult is giving them contradictory messages. To say the least, when kids feel unsure and insecure, they are not in the right mindset to take risks and learn new things.
We now know that suppressing emotional expression (rather than regulating) can lead to emotional exhaustion and depersonalization. Once I was so frustrated with a student that I told another teacher he was “a little monster.” Yikes. That should have been a wake-up call that I was heading toward burnout. The third stage in the “burnout cascade” (see Jennings & Greenberg, 2009) is to lose confidence that we can do the job at all, which further contributes to a dysfunctional classroom dynamic. At this point, we feel like we should give up. If we’re still new to the job and haven’t earned tenure, we’ll probably quit, wasting tens of thousands of dollars—our own and the district’s. If we have tenure, we are more likely to hang in there so we can earn the reward at the end of the poorly paid teaching career—a decent retirement.
So how can mindfulness help us?
I was fortunate to have developed a mindfulness practice before I became a teacher but it took a long time to apply mindfulness to my work. Referring back to the problem of the Greek chorus, I knew I needed to first calm down: I couldn’t go running around helping everyone who called out my name. I needed a system to help me deal with these multiple demands in a calm and measured way.
Speaking to more experienced teachers, I learned a technique that worked wonders. One day I calmly told my students, “When everyone is calling for help, I feel uncomfortable and it’s difficult to teach and it’s disrupting to other students. If you need help, here’s our new classroom system.
“First stop and think about your problem,” I went on, “and see if you can figure out the solution by yourself. If that doesn’t work, see if there is someone nearby who could help you and ask them. Finally, if you really need my help, come to me and ask quietly so we don’t disturb the other students. If I’m busy helping someone else, gently put your hand on my shoulder so I know you need my help and I’ll get to you as soon as I can.”
I made a little poster with pictures of this series of “Helping Steps.” We spent some time role-playing this process so they could embody it. At first it was challenging because the children would forget and call out. When this happened, it was my signal to take a mindful moment and breathe. Because I had a system, I would simply look at them, give them the signal to come to me and put my hand on my shoulder. When a hand touched me, I would always acknowledge it with a touch so they knew I knew they were waiting. Sometimes I would have three or four hands on me at once but everyone was quiet and respectful—I could deal with that.
At moments like that, I would often stop and look at all my lovely students and smile, “I am so lucky to have such wonderful students! Thanks for your patience.”