Creating Sustainable Fuel: A Dad’s Mindful Life

We caught up with Charlie Litten, who just concluded 17 years as a Resource Specialist at Foothill Middle School. Charlie came to mindfulness because he was burning out as a teacher – his unending zeal and high standards were firm but the challenges in Special Education were draining his joy and confidence.

Now he’s found a sustainable way to be present with his students and his family; he continues to take risks and find inspiration as a life-long learner who meets the inevitable resistances he finds in his day with more patience and more practice. 

Name:  Charlie Litten
Cohort:  Mindful Teacher Certification Program, Class of 2016
My work with kids:  Resource Specialist in 8th Grade Math, English and History
School:  Foothill Middle School
Location:  Walnut Creek, CA
Connect with me:  Facebook

How does your mindfulness practice affect your “job” as teacher, dad and husband?

Mindfulness has allowed me to have sustainable fuel to burn as an educator. It allows me to reach my students beyond academics and explore who they are as humans. Mindfulness gives them a tool to use, if they choose, in their own life.

The practice has also helped me connect with my daughters and be more present with them in our daily lives. I am far from perfect! But the practice allows me the space to recognize when I am becoming frustrated or picking battles that ultimately will lead nowhere. There is such a daily grind in our house, going to sports practice to homework to an inhaled dinner, that it feels like there is less time to really “be” with my children.

At night when I lie in bed and talk with my girls, I always have a moment, take a breath, and feel the gratitude that moment brings. I am grateful more often, at anytime, anywhere and just now appreciate life as it unfolds.

When I am not the parent and husband that I want to be, I can tell my wife and daughters what I am experiencing and why. These thoughts and feelings are just “thoughts and feelings” – they will pass. One of the greatest gifts of mindfulness is to be able to share my struggles – what I am working on as a person – with my eldest daughter, who’s a lot like me.

Who was your first mentor as a teacher?

My mom! She was a 30+ year teacher and a Resource Specialist. When I first started teaching, I worked alongside my mother, the first person who believed in me.

We were a great team and I learned a lot from her, but I also saw how Special Education was eating her up emotionally. If you have never worked in Special Education, it may be hard for you to understand the daily stress and challenges. There is no formula for how to create a space for these students to have success and believe in themselves; it takes tremendous effort and energy to sustain that success.

My mother’s light shone brightest of all; she had a positive impact on everyone around her. She would give and give and give, to her students, friends, and colleagues.

When she was diagnosed with cancer in December 2003, I took over her classes for the remainder of the school year. She died in July 2004, just before I got married to my wife Liz. Then we had our two daughters, Elleanor and Evelyn, born in 2005 and 2009.

These changes had an enormous impact on my life. I was able to sustain my teaching, but was becoming short tempered at home. During the 2012- 2013 school year I started to realize that I wasn’t proud of the work I was doing. From the outside people would still say I was a good teacher but I realized that the fuel I was burning to get through the day was unsustainable. I had all of the systems in place to get students to pass their classes and make progress on their goals, but it seemed to never be enough. I was burning out, and wasn’t being the teacher, parent or husband I wanted to be.

“From the outside people would still say I was a good teacher but I realized that the fuel I was burning to get through the day was unsustainable… I was burning out, and wasn’t being the teacher, parent or husband I wanted to be.”

Just as I was saying, “something has to change, I cannot keep this up any longer,” I saw the Mindfulness Fundamentals course in my Facebook feed. And without much thought I signed up. It all connected for me; I promptly continued on with the Mindful Educators Essentials and started to teach mindfulness to my students the next fall. I was nervous and it was pretty rough in the beginning. But I dedicated time to practice everyday, was invited to try out the material in my colleagues’ rooms, and even started to give small in-services to my staff after the first year.

Then I was admitted to the Mindful Teacher year-long program, and that is still the best decision I have ever made, period. It has had a positive impact on me as a father, husband teacher, friend in ways that I will forever be grateful for.

When I arrived at my first retreat with Mindful Schools, I had been trying to get mindfulness started at my school but was unsure of the process and felt alone. But surrounded by like-minded educators, I felt a sense of community that was warm, welcoming and vindicating. I’ll never forget Vinny Ferraro coming up to me when we came out of silent practice. We looked each other in the eyes, and he said, “Welcome Home.” Then I knew I could do this work, this work that felt like home. I got new energy for my teaching and the confidence that I could make a difference beyond the academics in a student’s life.

“The Mindful Teacher year-long program is still the best decision I have ever made, period… It gave me experiences of taking risks with a contemplative viewpoint and the confidence to want to drive forward a vision of a more mindful learning environment throughout a school.”

As soon as I became a Certified Instructor with Mindful Schools, I entered an administrative credentialing program to become a Middle School VP. I never thought I’d have this ambition. But the Mindful Teacher program gave me experiences of taking risks with a contemplative viewpoint and the confidence to want to drive forward a vision of a more mindful learning environment throughout a school.

What’s your favorite lesson?

My favorite lesson is about how emotions are like surfing or playing in the waves of the ocean. The waves come and sometimes there is one that overwhelms and knocks you on the beach. It can take time to recover from it.

When I taught my daughter to surf, she tried to go over the wave instead of under and through it. It was like a yard sale – her hair was everywhere, filled with sand and seaweed. This is just like the practice of noticing strong emotions and letting them pass through.

When students meet the lesson with resistance, those are the times that my personal practice comes into use the most: I am able to let the strong emotions pass through me.

Once, Brandon, the biggest kid in the class, actually walked out of the room when we practiced, staring at me and daring me to stop him. I allowed him to leave, but kept hoping he would join. One day I showed the class a clip of the Golden State Warriors core values: Competition, Joy, Compassion and Mindfulness. Brandon said, “You mean to tell me that the Warriors practice Mindfulness?” With that he sat down, closed his eyes, and started to practice.

When do you find time to practice?

I generally go to bed early these days, so I can wake up around 5 and go mountain biking in the hills behind my house. My morning rides is a mindfulness practice. I am very aware of my thoughts and try to just stay in the moment and notice my surroundings in the hills as I begin my day. This helps ground me before I grab a cup of coffee and head into work.

After school I find a place to get in a 15 minute mindfulness practice to decompress. I find the energy again – my nervous system re-calibrates. Then I can be present to coach my daughter’s sports teams, help them with homework and get through the madness of our nightly lives. I find that when I practice before the second half of my day, I tend to have way more patience and energy around the house.

I end the day with one more practice, usually 20 minutes, before I go to bed.

Thanks Charlie for sharing your story!

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