We've all had students who are time enough for us. No matter the rule, consequence or punishment--we are unable to make headway, unable to 'get' this kid to 'do right'. No technique will work. No strategy delivered by the 'expert' professional developer will do the trick. This is because relationship is required-- the quality of which is attentive, clear-eyed, and mindful.
What we’ve observed in situations where an educator attempts to build a relationship with a student who they dislike, are frustrated with, or who simply gets under their skin, is constraint. Often, an educator attempts to hide his or her feelings, strapping a flimsy seatbelt on a growing impatience brewing within. And, who could blame him or her? The image of the ‘model’ teacher leaves little room for humanity, and too often calls for ‘discipline’ rather than relationship building.
This can lead to tense relationships colored by pre-requisites. Have you ever engaged in conversation with someone who spoke through gritted teeth, but maintained a smile? Or, have you ever entered a relationship with someone and felt they had a checklist and that the outcome of the relationship was dependent on you meeting the demands of that checklist?
When we attempt to build relationships thru constraints and restraints, the foundation is sand. As such, the attempt to build relationship typically ends in one of two ways—
1.) An educator gives up on a student. This can take the form of ignoring the student or telling others to ignore him or her. Giving up, though, is usually about self-preservation or ‘energy preservation’ for the educator, which equates to not knowing what else to do.
2.) The child carries the entire blame for the negativity within the relationship. It is a form of ‘washing one’s hands of’ the child, but it is often one that is perceived as justified and is reinforced by school discipline policies and practices.
In many schools, discipline equates to praise for ‘well-behaved kids’ and punishment for the ‘ones who don’t know how to act’. Punishment can include withdrawal from relationship. But this is counter to any activity that hopes to or cares to keep its humanity intact. Policies, structures and practices are important to school discipline, but equally important is the capacity of each person to build relationships.
We know that capacity does not have a glass ceiling. We are always cultivating either an increased capacity or a deepening capacity to navigate the challenges of our environments and the relationships therein, (or not).
However, we tend to focus on teacher skill, rather than capacity. Skill is pertinent, but we also need practices that do not exhaust us to the point that we can’t keep up the act. Skill tends to be externally focused and technique based, while capacity is internally focused and the building block of skill.
Here is where mindfulness practice comes in. It builds/stretches our internal capacity to be self-aware first, which allows us to respond rather than react.
Mindfulness, even as a beginner, broadens your awareness and clears the space for equitable relationship—what SAGE calls mindful engagement. Through mindfulness, you cultivate the compassion needed for yourself and others. This compassion allows for accountability without embarrassment and supports you when you catch yourself doing and saying things you promised you’d never say or do. Catching yourself is the beginning of self-awareness which greatly impacts social awareness—our impact on others. With mindfulness practice we begin to re-cognize, just how unconscious we can be. Translation? The lightening-fast assigning of blame is slowed down and a space for discovery opens. And, discovery happens in a place of non-judgement.
Let me close with a story.
A decade ago, when I taught high school there was a student in my class who constantly caused disruption. I pulled out all the ‘tricks’ I had: my first response was to try to provide more engaging instruction. Then I realized that was not working, so I shifted to improve to relationship. I greeted this student at the door every morning. Grumbles and still misbehavior in class. I tried ignoring her. I tried punishing her both with ungracious side-eyes and intentionally monotone responses.
Then one day an awareness arose in me. This student thought that I did not like her and responded accordingly. I saw it and I saw her in a different light. I asked her to step outside my classroom door and I looked her directly in her eyes and said, “you think I don’t like you”—there was probably a hint of total misunderstanding in my tone. She shook her head, yes, looked away and then looked back at me. I shook my head and said, “No. It’s not that. I’m just not sure how to reach you and I want to.” I don’t remember words after that. There may not have been any. All I know is that after that conscious moment of connection, everything shifted between us.
We teach mindfulness and stress-relief practices for a slew of reasons, one of which is its potential to build our capacity for more self-awareness. With self-awareness, we are capable of more empathy, more attention, emotional intelligence, compassion, and creativity--ingredients which have been left off the model teacher checklist. These are the strengths educators need not only to thrive, but to survive. Otherwise, our days in the classroom ‘managing’ misbehavior begin to wear us down and out.