A Focus on Learning

Neena Barreto teaches fourth grade and serves as the TK-5 mindfulness coach at Pioneer Elementary School in Union City, California.

Our annual district requirement at Pioneer Elementary is to come up with a school wide focus to elevate student learning around a particular subject area. This year our staff decided to have all students work on one of California Common Core’s reading comprehension standards, understanding the main idea and key details of informational texts. We carefully selected assessments to measure students’ progress, provided graphic organizers, anchor charts, and sent home rubric-scored writing for parents to see.

When it was time for the district to evaluate us, administrators and teachers from other schools walked through most of the classrooms. They observed transitional kindergarteners using sentence stems to talk about what a shark looks like, and fifth graders bringing up issues like discrimination and perseverance as key concepts about one of the first female Olympians.

Our observers provided appropriate feedback, measuring things like equity, teacher voice, and student collaboration. But what they really noticed had nothing to do with reading comprehension: they noticed something unique about our school culture.

A math coach remarked, “The teacher stayed with her reading group for a long time. She really listened to them and was present.”

A principal reflected, “There was a sense of calm throughout the classrooms.”

A literacy consultant added, ”I can’t believe how the teacher didn’t react when that first grader was angry and wouldn’t do his work. She stayed calm, and just kept offering him options.”

An administrator asked, “How can what I saw be at every school in the district?”

A first grade teacher summed it up with, “The teaching felt organic and authentic.”

The district team had picked up on the foundation of mindfulness strengthening these aspects of learning. This all started when I shyly asked my principal if I could take a Mindful Schools class a few years ago. As I took more courses, I began to  teach the curriculum in other classes, provide coaching sessions, and even offer daylong retreats during school breaks.Neena Barreto sits with her students.

Since then, twenty nine staff members have taken or are taking Mindfulness Fundamentals, and six teachers have been inspired to go further with Mindfulness Educator Essentials. Our quick adoption has been a result of strong administrative support, excellent training provided by the Mindful Schools courses, and my own unusual role of school mindfulness coach.

Now, the effects seem to be rippling out at Pioneer: students engaged, teachers present, all of us working through the hard moments as needed. The rigor of the 21st-century classroom has been softened by moments of pause to let it all sink in. Our integration of mindfulness into the school day has been felt clearly as a shift in the school culture, and was seen in the moment when that first grader was met with patience, then eventually calmed down and simply did his work.

Neena graduated from the Year-Long Certification Course in 2015; to learn more about her work, check her profile on our Certified Instructors Directory.

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