One of the metaphors I like best about teaching mindfulness to students is that it is really like planting seeds. As the teacher, you provide the materials, a healthy environment, and quality input. Then, you see what emerges and you continue to do what you can to help your students grow and learn.
If you had a garden this summer with vegetables or flowers, some grew fast and thrived right away. Others you had to coax along, maybe give a little extra nutrition, in order for them to grow. Maybe you thought certain plants were never going to make it, but then all of a sudden, they flourished.
Teaching mindfulness, and really all teaching, has a very similar process. Oh sure, sometimes you know right away that a lesson resonated or that kids really “got it.” But, more often than not, teaching is a path of daily offering the best you can, planting ideas, and not always seeing immediate results. I have learned to really take the long view in this profession. If you are after instant gratification and perfectly finished products, teaching human beings will be frustrating to you.
Two years ago, I had a student in my class we’ll call Anita for this story. She was strong-willed, bright, and had conflicts with other students frequently at first. We had to draw a lot of boundaries with her even as we loved and nurtured her. It was challenging, and it wasn’t a linear process of growth. We’d have wonderful days and really challenging days with her. We persisted, and she continued to grow and evolve.
Anita didn’t ever hesitate to let you know when she thought a lesson was fun and wonderful, and she also had no problem informing you when your lesson was the most excruciatingly boring and stupid thing she had ever experienced in her life.
In particular, Anita disliked mindfulness lessons and doing anything related to mindfulness in the classroom. I take a light touch with mindfulness in the classroom. I try to demonstrate what it is more than anything with how I operate as a teacher. And, when I do teach specific mindfulness techniques, it is always an offering, something they can try and check out and see if it might help them. I never force kids to sit a certain way or demand that they do the breathing exercises with me. I do ask that if they don’t want to do it, they are still quiet and respectful during mindfulness time, so that others who want to participate can do it without distractions.
Anita struggled with this respect. When we did anything connected to mindfulness, she would sigh loudly with exasperation and say things like, “This is so stupid! I hate this!” She’d try to get others to be disruptive with her. I continued to remind her that she didn’t need to do the practice, but she did need to be respectful. I stayed positive and continued with purpose and confidence, knowing that maybe the lesson would not connect and resonate with every student.
Anita and I ended up having a close relationship, even if she still hated mindfulness. The following year, when she wasn’t my student anymore, she would come visit me regularly in the morning and between classes- sometimes just to chat and sometimes to ask for help with academics or advice with something else.
One morning, she came to me, and her excitement was palpable. She said, “Ms. Lenz!!! This morning, these boys were bothering me on the bus. I wanted to hit them. I wanted to yell at them and use bad words. But, I didn’t. I used Mindful Breathing and it really helped me!!!! I calmed down, and I just ignored them.”
I was absolutely stunned that these words were coming out of her mouth. I congratulated her, and she then went on to say that she didn’t really get what mindful body and mindful breathing were all about last year, but that now she gets it. She really understands how she can use it in her life to give her space to make good choices.
This is one of those moments as an educator that I will never forget. I hold it close to my heart, and I return to it when I wonder if I am having any impact. We have to keep planting seeds, and we have to keep at it. You never really know what is sinking in, and when that learning may be revealed.
Now, Anita talks to me all the time, and in about half of our conversations, she references mindfulness in some way. At the end of last year, she was part of a video I made of students talking about how mindfulness helps them. In the video, she comments, “Mindfulness is good for everyone. Everyone should learn it.” The biggest critic had indeed become the biggest advocate and supporter. Mindfulness was making a real difference in her life.
Change can be slow, and learning can take time to set in. That runs counter to a lot of what our culture promotes. In a time of instant gratification, constant distraction, and frenetic technology and social media, watching seeds grow can take more patience than a lot of us have.
Change happens in shifts, over time, and almost imperceptibly. In my experience, most things worth doing are hard and they also take time and persistence.
I’ll keep planting seeds while I teach mindfulness and while I teach other things. I’ll watch for the small buds and the growth. And, every now and then, if I’m lucky, I’ll see a big, spectacular bloom like the experience I had with Anita.