This past year, I served as a co-principal of Tindley Preparatory Academy, an all-boys charter school in Indianapolis. If you have ever worked in a school, you understand how boys can be. Also, anyone who has worked in a middle school knows how difficult middle school can be. Imagine having both middle school and boys. Oh, did I also mention that I was a first-year principal? There were a lot of stressful, anxious days until I found mindfulness.
The first time I took an online course on mindfulness, I knew this was something that I needed to practice more often. Sometimes I would practice my anchor words, word tracing, and work on controlling my breathing. Then there would be days where I would just stop, sit, pause, and reflect and be in tune with the emotions I was feeling. This was the informal practice of mindfulness. It was that training that allowed me to change the course of the school year for one of my most challenging students, whom I’ll call Terrance.
Everything that Terrance did that year somehow got underneath my skin. I prided myself on being the principal that did not yell because yelling was a sign of losing control and many of the boys grew up in a household where yelling was common practice. But, Terrance had a way of causing me to yell. He was a bright kid who seemed to make friends easily and was a decent student, whose grades were a reflection of how much effort he wanted to put into the work. But he was also smart and sneaky, and he always seemed to try to manipulate the systems and play adults against one another. Every time he would get in trouble, he would have an elaborate story on why he did what he did. He was the only student that I actually yelled at.
I called Terrance down to my office one day. This office visit for Terrance would be different from the other office visits. This would be the first time that I’d try out the training and techniques I had learned from mindfulness to see if I could get a breakthrough with Terrance. He came in wondering what he had done. I mean it was 8:30 am, and we had just dismissed from breakfast. I found myself talking to Terrance differently than before; in the process, I learned a few things. Terrance lived with his dad who won custody and never got to see his mom, and he longed for that attention. All through school he had been labeled as a “bad child” so he decided to live up to the name. His dad worked a lot, so he was home alone a lot. Terrance’s actions began to make sense.
After this meeting, my relationship with Terrance changed. I no longer yelled at him. I decided that when I became upset or felt myself about to yell, I would stop and remember the conversation about what Terrance had going on in his life. That was my informal mindfulness. If the informal training did not work, I would go to my office and close my eyes and do my word tracing. I would trace the word “calm” while breathing in and breathing out. Calm became our word the word we both used anytime we felt frustrated or upset. We both felt that there were many situations that year that could have turned out a lot better had we just remained calm.
There were times that year that Terrance did his usual things to get underneath my skin. However, he no longer saw me yell at him or get so enraged with his behaviors. As a result, Terrance behavior changed. He began to get in less trouble, and when he would get into trouble, he began to take more responsibility for his actions. When he got in trouble, and I did not yell at him, it seemed that he reacted differently to me. The most important difference that I saw in him was his approach to school He seems to care about school a lot more, which in turn I saw a vast improvement in his grades.
This June, as part of our annual showcase for Teach Plus Indianapolis, my colleagues and I will be working with educators from around the city on mindfulness and how it can be used to support students suffering from ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences). Many of us, who teach in Title I schools in Indianapolis, have students who’ve experienced trauma and tragedy and so we need these techniques to help ourselves and the kids we teach.
My colleagues and I are looking to pilot mindfulness practices in schools in hopes of offering educators best practices on fostering social and emotional learning (SEL). These pilot programs will focus on the self-awareness and emotional well-being. The programs will also benefit educators to help them address specific aspects of their own social-emotional competence.
David McGuire is a school principal in Indianapolis. He wrote this piece for Indy Ed.