Susi Brennan is a Mindful Schools Certified Mindfulness Instructor and plays an integral role in creating and supporting the mindfulness program at her elementary school.
We talked with Susi to learn about her journey as an educator in the immersive Mindful Schools Certification Program and how the program continues to support and inspire her work. Here’s her story.
What are your challenges as an educator?
SB: I was working in as a special education teacher, serving students with learning differences and ADHD at a middle school in San Francisco. I loved my school, I felt a sense of true belonging and was immersed in a supportive, reflective culture.
However, even with an incredibly supportive adult community, I was struggling with my responses to both truly challenging behaviors (i.e. safety issues) and lighter challenging behaviors (non-compliance, repeated disruptions, etc.) on a regular basis.
I had a real intention to improve, but I found myself unable to break my cycle of stimulus → unskillful reaction. When I first transitioned to special education teaching, I thought that working with students in small groups and one-on-one would relieve me of these unproductive cycles, but, in fact, it almost highlighted the frustration and inadequacy I felt as a teacher.
At the same time, my son was diagnosed with ADHD and I found myself dealing with frustrating, unsuccessful interactions both at home and at work.
“Little triumphs made me realize that a mindfulness practice was making a difference in my teaching and parenting.”
Why did mindfulness become an important teaching strategy for you?
I was starting to notice that my work with particularly challenging students was shifting. Instead of reacting unskillfully and impatiently, I found myself pausing, observing, allowing some space before jumping in to correct, redirect, or threaten a consequence. I was trying this with my son at home as well and noticing a small shift in our relationship. These little triumphs made me realize that a mindfulness practice was making a difference in my teaching and parenting.
My goals for the certification program were to get more of the feeling of peace and calm I was starting to have, to keep learning how be kind to myself in hard times, and to strengthen my relationships at home and at work. The seed had been planted, and it felt like the program was a way to deepen my personal practice and see growth in many aspects of my life–teaching, parenting, all of my relationships.
I knew I wanted and needed more instruction as it was all still new, so the certification program seemed like a great place to deepen my practice.
Did you have any reservations about entering the Certification Program?
SB: I was a bit nervous in preparation for the first retreat experience. The program started with a residential retreat and we were going to be in silence for two of the five days, which was completely new to me. Most people I knew laughed at the thought of me being silent for two days!
Everything around me became more alive and poignant during silence. At first, it was difficult–I had no idea how loud it could be in my head. I had to learn to be okay with myself when there were no outside interactions happening.
After listening to my inner voice for a while, I started to befriend it and noticed a shift. I had been so hard on myself as a teacher and parent, so this softening and holding compassion for my struggles was really groundbreaking for me.
“I had been so hard on myself as a teacher and parent, so this softening and holding compassion for my struggles was really groundbreaking for me.”
By the end of the silent part of the retreat, I felt like I was so connected to myself and the people around me even though I had barely met anyone! The education/curriculum part of the retreat was even better than I had expected because it was enhanced by the experience we all shared of being together in silence, doing the difficult and illuminating inner work first. The openness and curiosity of everyone there made for a special experience where we could learn together in a safe space.
What are the most impactful experiences that you took home from the program?
SB: The friendships, connections, and learnings with other participants was one of the most beautiful parts of the retreats. I am not only still in touch with many of my mindful teacher friends after 5 years, but still get together with my dear cohort a few times a year.
During the year of the course, I learned so much. I loved the variety of information that was presented – neuroscience, trauma, what teaching mindfulness looks like in the classroom, mindful communication, and mindful movement. I loved the teachings from Chris, Megan, Vinny and Pam, and the live webinars with Rick Hanson, Dacher Keltner, Oren Sofer, Eve Eckman, to name a few.
“The program really changed the trajectory of my life.”
The program really changed the trajectory of my life from often feeling helplessness and shame in many teaching and parenting situations to relating to what was happening around me in a new and more open way, including letting go a bit more. I think the biggest change was the self-compassion and self-trust I was starting to develop. This really impacted my relationships in a positive way. Instead of beating myself up over the mistakes I was making (and I was still making a lot!), I started to forgive myself and connect to the needs and feelings of others in difficult situations.
Now, I feel like I can walk into a classroom and notice what’s alive in the room and start from there. The combination of building relationships with the same students and having a steady daily practice over many years really impacts the way I relate to things that “pop up” in the classroom. I feel more prepared to take on challenges, I recognize how important my relationships with my students are, and I feel embodied more often!
This program will deepen your relationship with yourself. We can’t teach what we don’t have ourselves first. If we know that students map onto our nervous systems, we must take care of our nervous systems first! This program will open up a whole new world of getting to know yourself better through deepening your mindfulness practice, connecting you with other educators, and transforming your life!