How Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Transformed My Relationships with Young Learners
Voices from the Field | Practice 24 April 2019
By Aaron Grimm, Minnesota New Country School
I heard fellow teachers excuse my mindset saying, “There are always those students.” Although this feedback was meant to alleviate my stress and heartache, it didn’t feel right.
During my career as an educator and my life as a human being, I have tried many interventions to alleviate the everyday stresses of life. As an educator, I struggled finding the healthiest ways to act around students who, in my own head, I blamed for causing me stress. More importantly, I struggled with identifying how I should view my students on a daily basis. Should I simply use behavior as a predictor of the student’s success and give up on them? Should I try to come off as a dictator when things got chaotic and run my classroom like prison guard? There was no clear answer. However, ten years into my career, I knew I needed to stop trying and start changing.
In 2016, I had a student named Todd (name changed) who continuously displayed behaviors like inattentiveness, being unfocused, and not being able to keep his hands to himself. He would provoke tit for tat conflicts with peers that usually ended with him and another student getting punched or kicked.
Todd’s behavior drove me crazy inside, leaving me with a profound sense of frustration. I would see him kicking or running around the room out of the corner of my eye, and I would react in ways I am not proud of—namely, raising my voice and singling him out in front of his peers. I took his behavior personally. So much so that I would wake up in the middle of the night ruminating, “How am I going to make this kid learn what he needs to?”
This led to a horrible cycle of feeling unrested, on edge, and more likely to overreact the next time around. It got so bad, in fact, that Todd’s mom reached out to my colleagues informing them how my treatment of her son was affecting his home life—causing him stress and anxiety about being at school.
I thought my disposition to students was normal, as I saw colleagues let student behavior frustrate and anger them.
Todd felt like I didn’t like him, and he had no reason to think otherwise. After his mom spoke with my colleagues, I sat down with her, Todd’s grandparents, and two members of our Personnel team. I was completely ignorant to the impact I was having on Todd’s mental health. I felt a sense of guilt and shame, but my eyes were opened.
Up to this point in my career, I always had a “Todd” who got under my skin. One Todd repeatedly ignored the simple expectations of Quiet Time, while another would repeatedly get into physical altercations on the playground with peers. In the end, I had little to no patience for any of it. I was convinced these Todd’s were somehow flawed, and it wasn’t possible to help them grow and develop. I even heard fellow teachers excuse my mindset saying, “There are always those students.” Although this feedback was meant to alleviate my stress and heartache, it didn’t feel right.
I thought my disposition to students was normal, as I saw colleagues let student behavior frustrate and anger them. A colleague and friend, Jim, was famous for his scowl and finger motion (come here) when he witnessed a student in his Advisory not meeting expected behavior. I would famously mock Jim during staff meetings by imitating him. During the fall and winter of the 2016 school year, I witnessed a dramatic change in Jim. He seemed less stressed out, and the emotional load he often carried around with him was all but gone. To put it simply, he was calm. I needed to figure out what was going on.
I remember being alone with my mind and just wondering “Am I doing this right?” or saying to myself “This doesn’t do anything for me.”
Jim told me about a course he had taken through the Mayo Clinic called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Through multiple conversations, Jim told me about trying not to take things so personally, that he was doing breathing exercises before school, and how he was slowly changing how he was taking in his daily environment. Seeing a friend and colleague—who struggled through stresses similar to my own—completely transform made me feel like I had nothing to lose and might as well give MBSR a try. I wasn’t the only one who noticed Jim’s transformation. Once I decided to sign up for the course, seven other staff members did the same, and we convinced our school to provide an inducement and pay for 75% of the course fees.
Admittedly, when I signed up for the MBSR course, I was looking for a quick fix. I wanted to do little more than attend the classes and be transformed when it was all said and done. Naturally, the course was a small piece of the puzzle. We had required reading, including Jon Kabatt Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living, and assigned mindful practices, including yoga, body scans, heartfulness, breathing exercises, and walking meditations. Making time for all of this “homework” was immensely difficult, which I can laugh about now. I remember being alone with my mind and just wondering “Am I doing this right?” or saying to myself “This doesn’t do anything for me.”
Eventually, I developed a routine of getting up early every morning and meditating before school. For a long while, I used the app Insight Timer—a tool that allowed me to choose the style of meditation I needed to practice based on whatever mood or mental need I had at the time. I got a bit obsessive in the beginning—meditating 165 days in a row. I also used this app to breath out the stresses of the day and put my day in perspective. This tool helped me sleep better, and I stopped waking up in the middle of the night with obsessive thoughts.
The Unanticipated Benefits MBSR Had on My Personal Life
I explored MBSR thanks to the transformation I saw in a professional colleague and my individual need for professional transformation. However, the changes MBSR has made in my personal life has been profound.
I began scrutinizing and challenging my daily routines—specifically, my social media use, drinking, and relationships. While I still have accounts on Twitter and LinkedIn, I used to check Facebook and Instagram hourly. It would be the first thing I did when I got up the last thing I did before I went to bed. I would see political debates, friends exotic adventures, and become obsessed by topics, even when I knew better than to comment. I used the privacy concerns of Facebook as the penultimate reason to delete my account, but Facebook overall just seemed to complicate and take up space in my brain that I wanted to get back.
Mindfulness was pushing me to simplify. I tried to delete the app off of my phone previously but found myself cheating and always finding a way to check the latest status updates. I look back now and know that I was craving connection to others. I have now shifted my actions so that I am working on my connections (sons, partner, family and friends) by making time for them face to face, rather than going to social media as my outlet.
If social media was my crutch for connection, alcohol was my crutch for stress relief. Before MBSR, I remember the feeling at the end of a crazy week thinking to myself, “you deserve a drink to decompress.” Too often, I wasn’t a responsible drinker. I used it as a solution to avoid emotions and give myself a false sense stress relief. MSBR got me thinking about habits that I have had for so long without actually thinking about them. I have been able to actually look at the mindset I have had since I was 18 years old and realize, “Hey, this isn’t actually working for me. Why do you keep doing it?”
As a teacher, my daily meditation practice has reminded me of what I want for my students. Every kid deserves a teacher who brings a consistent, non-judgmental, positive attitude every day.
Finding new and healthier ways to manage my stress and emotions has made my weekends feel longer. Spending most weekends not imbibing has left me clear-headed and more aware of the life happening around me. Every January, I participate in “Dryuary”—31 days of absolutely no drinking. And, I challenge myself to abstain at social events where I once had fears of missing out if I didn’t join in. In my daily life, I have successfully replaced alcohol with tea. Surprisingly, tea has many of the soothing qualities I craved with alcohol, minus the headache or bad decision making.
Shifting my social media and drinking habits were monumental changes for me to make, but the biggest change in my personal life has been with my intimate relationships. I feel much more aware of my habitual thoughts or the automatic assumptions inside my head. I have learned, with a patient partner, that connection comes through communication, and I don’t have to take everything personally. I have had to take ownership of past failures, while also realizing patterns of thinking that do not lead to long-term, loving partnership.
Whether in social media usage, drinking, or being in an intimate relationship, I honestly didn’t know how to be in the moment, as I seemed to always be distracted by thoughts or technology. Mindful practices have helped me learn to monitor my thoughts for reality, breathe through difficult moments, and communicate assumptions—realizing that 90 percent of the time, those assumptions are untrue.
How MBSR Has Impacted My Practice as an Educator
As a teacher, my daily meditation practice has reminded me of what I want for my students. Every kid deserves a teacher who brings a consistent, non-judgmental, positive attitude every day. I have worked a lot on classroom management, working with students to come up with expectations for themselves and how we will operate as a class during all parts of the day. I have a lot of one-on-one communication with students in our classroom, and I try to approach them in a non-judgmental manner, understanding that their perception is their reality. This new approach has helped students understand that I care about them and I want to work together to further their human and academic development. It is my job to build a relationship and understand each kid as a whole being.
I rarely raise my voice these days—those I still have my moments. I’m more curious about understanding what causes student behavior. I inquire with the student, as well as with our Behavior Interventionist and our School Social Worker. I also always have the work of Dr. Ross Greene in my head: “Behavior is communication.” This reminds me to “be curious” about why a student is behaving a certain way. To often I tried modifying behavior by simply telling them what I wanted them to do, while ignoring the underlying cause of the behavior. I have found this new approach more humane, more sustainable, and a better way to preserve a trusting relationship with students and their parents.
Given the dramatic impact MBSR has had on my personal and professional life, I feel extremely lucky to work in a school that has allowed me to share mindful practices with my students. Helping students know themselves and their thinking patterns, as well as giving them techniques in mindfulness, have helped us have a common language in dealing with stress.
What Can MBSR Do For You?
This spring, Todd is finishing up his 9th-grade year. I have since apologized for the way I treated him. I have shared my mindfulness journey with him and expressed how it has shifted my relationship to students. Fortunately for Todd, he now has a teacher who understood his needs from day one and provides the integral balance of being both nurturing and challenging.
In hindsight, I now understand why Todd acted the way he did, and I know it had nothing to do with me. We catch up with each other every now and again about his school work, his passion for racing, and his family. In fact, we plan on catching up soon over a game of cribbage at our local ice cream shop.
Todd had an immense impact on me. It has never been my intention to scar kids emotionally, but my lack of awareness caused such harm. I have two mantras that I repeat to myself now. First, students reflect the mood of their teacher. If teachers can remain calm, model how to deal with stress, see students as human beings, and be in the moment, students will try their best to do the same. Second, I have to take care of myself emotionally and physically while not at school. I have to show up to work every day as the best version of myself because students deserve this from every adult they work with.
I have been on this mindful journey of self-discovery for three years, and I feel like my journey has only just begun. While I am compelled to share how this adventure has changed me as a person, I understand everyone’s adventure will be different. For Jim, his most important shift was to find balance in all of the extra duties he takes on. For another colleague, I remember having a deep heart-to-heart conversation with her about trying to do too much. We both related to taking on too many duties and needing to prioritize based on our strengths. This was necessary to be more present with both work and home life.
Being an educator is not for the faint of heart and all of us owe it to ourselves and our kids to make sure we are able to show up and make a positive impact every single day. I invite you to reflect on your professional and personal habits and consider how MBSR could provide you the space for transformation. I no longer have those students who drive me crazy inside. Not because they have magically disappeared but because I have learned to see them as children who need to be nurtured and fully understood. I feel thankful and blessed to see the beauty of their growth on a daily basis and look forward to seeing them in the near future as happy adults contributing to their community.
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