What began as a classroom management gimmick has become one of the most important lessons I teach.
Ten years ago, as an uncertain and impressionable student teacher, I adopted every tip my mentor had to offer, modeling my style of teaching, my classroom policies and my lesson plans -- even my opening letter -- around her example. Included in my flattering imitation was co-opting the concept of Stillness.
At the beginning of each class, I ring chimes three times, instructing students that by the third chime, they should be in their seats, eyes closed, their bodies “internally and externally still.” Over the first two weeks of classes, we build up the practice from 30 seconds to three minutes. At the end of Stillness, I strike a bell and say, “Good morning.”
The gimmick is that my students begin class silently, attentive and focused on me. I don’t need to shout, “Okay, everyone in his/her seat! Class is starting.” I don’t have to compete with their friends’ gossip, their most recent text messages, their scrambling to copy homework. Admittedly, I still appreciate this focusing effect, and my students appreciate it too: by the end of September, they all offer a “good morning” back to me (or delight in correcting me with a “good AFTERNOON”). It’s a civilized way to begin class in what can sometimes be an uncivil environment.
The real benefit, however, comes from the space Stillness provides in our otherwise frenetic and noisy lives. At the beginning of the year, when I explain the concept to students, I focus on what we all can gain from the routine:
We all need some space, some silence to quiet our minds and refocus on English class. I want to be present fully to you, and your classmates need you to be present to them in order for our class to work effectively.I spend very little time teaching them how to do it, aside from tips to avoid snickering (eyes closed – not looking at pals, hands in lap, breathing instead of holding in laughter); I offer some suggestions about focusing on their nostrils or counting to four with each inhalation and exhalation. About once a week, I play calming music, something that has a regular beat or guitar strumming that can help guide their breath. Occasionally – after the first few months of class – I lead them in some visualizations or relaxation techniques.
Say you have a fight with a friend in the hallway. I want you to let that go. Don’t bring it in here to poison your experience. Let’s say I had a particularly frustrating student the period before you all came in? Would you want me to take it out on you, my bad mood bleeding into the next class?
Stillness is your time, your personal time, when no one expects anything of you, when you don’t have to spout information or pretend to be happy or play some role in this high school drama. You can be in your head, or completely out of it. Think about clouds passing, a placid lake, or just breathe and think of nothing at all.
Of course, some students remain dubious. “Mrs. Bernstein, there is no way I can sit still. I have ADD! I just can’t do it!”
I always acknowledge that the practice is difficult, defusing their resistance by admitting that I struggle as well, and encouraging their perseverance by refusing to give up the routine. I do not allow students to hijack Stillness from the rest of us. And somehow it works.
I teach in a public school. You might wonder if the practice has caused controversy. Certainly, my first two years were fraught with worry that a student might misinterpret the practice to his parents, and I doggedly corrected students who called it “karma” or “some weird Buddhist crap.” A number of parents over the years have thanked me for teaching their kids “an important life skill,” and a few offered, preemptively, to defend me should a problem arise.
The school and community have so supported the practice that I was recently awarded a grant through the local Education Foundation to run a meditation group at the high school.
Students have told me repeatedly that they come to depend on Stillness. On days I am particularly rushed, I might launch into some directions, but they always pull me back: “You forgot ‘peace time!” or “What about Stillness, Mrs. B?” or, my favorite, “Can we do 20 minutes today? I really need it.”
In recent years, I’ve broadened our practice, allowing every six weeks or so an extended period of 20 minutes, sometimes silent, sometimes with a guided full-body scan. And as a reward at the end of the year, I’ve invited my sister-in-law, a yoga teacher, to lead each class in some soothing poses.
Students have told me that they use stillness on the bus before football games, in the middle of the lunchroom when someone “said something stupid that made me want to punch him out,” and at night when they can’t sleep. They regularly download the songs I play or make me cds of music they think will work well. They return after graduation to say they’ve taken yoga or mediation classes at college. The biggest compliment I’ve ever received was when a tough guy – you know the type, too cool for school and always ready to challenge authority – re-emerged after a 20-minute session mumbling dreamily, “Mrs. B., you have the best voice.”
His friends razzed him mercifully, but he was stalwart in defending Stillness: “Dude, shut up! I am so chillaxed after that. We should have a whole class of just her talking about that ‘blue healing breath’ or whatever that thing is.”
Camille Napier Bernstein is a high school English teacher in Natick, Massachusetts. She recently completed the UMass Medical School’s eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course, created by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Publicly, she’d like to thank (again) her mentor, Lucile Burt, for teaching her the “gimmick.”