Emily Saunders, MSW, took a dramatic career step in moving from Brooklyn, New York, to Ajo, Arizona. Ajo is a very small town on the border between the United States and Mexico where many families have networks that span the border. Of her geographical migration, Emily observes, “ It’s normal for discomfort to arise when we approach a boundary, an edge, or a border. This is as true in the incredibly dense community of New York City as in the sprawling US-Mexico borderlands. I’m hopeful about the potential for mindfulness tools to soften our reactions to discomfort, allow us to acknowledge emotion in ourselves and one another, and prepare the ground for compassion.” Here’s Emily’s snapshot of one day’s lesson, learned the hard way, for both teacher and students.
I might have noticed tightness in my jaw if I’d shifted my attention inward. Twenty-five wiggling second graders chatted on the rug in front of me. The class had recently moved into a phase called: “We know you Ms. Emily and we know the routine and tomorrow is Friday so we’re going to start pushing boundaries a little bit.”
I had my own agenda, called: “I’m tired and it’s not even Friday so can you please just act the way I think you should?” Ideally, I would have noticed the gridlock ahead, climbed up the awareness ladder, gained a vantage point of the chaos below, and recognized that (rising blood pressure or not) the situation was actually NOT that serious.
Instead, I snapped.
“Girls, cut it out!” I blasted. Two unlucky students froze in their rug spots and the room got quiet. Just like I wanted. But now it contained 25 nervous second graders and a little less trust.
We continued through our mindfulness lesson, my chest growing heavy with regret. I recognized the bittersweet taste of control that can come with a position of authority. I recalled some of my privileges: white skin, US citizenship, English-speaking, literate, graduate degree, adult. I thought of the parents of these children, their siblings, their grandparents—all of them my neighbors. Chances were high that we had waited in line together at the grocery store, at the café, or even at the border crossing. We were all intertwined.
I took responsibility for the tension that filled the room. “I was angry and disappointed but it wasn’t okay to scare you or embarrass you,” I said, “I’ll try not to do it again.”
You shoulda seen them breathe.
Mindful teaching is many things. I think it can, and should, put our power and privilege to work in the service of our young people and local communities. It should help us to hold, non-judgmentally, the ten thousand daily emotions, expectations, and wounds that enter a classroom. Complicated, yes. But what an incredible vantage point (if we choose it) from which to see the interdependent responsibility and restorative potential of our schools.