Teachers must have the patience of a monk, in a situation opposite to the solitude of a peaceful mountain. I’ve often wondered why monks, and nuns for that matter, get so much credit for taking a vow of silence and spending all that time in prayer or meditation. After a day teaching freshmen, sitting in silence sounds heavenly, and I would gladly exchange my work clothes for a roomy robe. It’s easy to have the patience of a saint when you are left alone with your thoughts, in solitude, in a remote location, instead of in the middle of a three ring circus (aka classroom). Yet teachers are expected, at all times, to have a calm exterior, maintain the decibel of our voice, and keep the eye-rolling to a minimum.
Mid-February is the hardest teaching month in the year for me. The two week Christmas break is past, spring break is still weeks away, state end of course exams are starting to loom, and the mid-year point has just barely passed. The inner monologue starts sounding something like this, “I can’t take this anymore. I know, I can get a job at Starbucks, I need coffee in an IV drip, maybe I can get a discount as an employee.” Or, “I could be a librarian at the public library- what a lovely quiet spot, and all those books to myself.” My favorite is, “Maybe I’ll just walk out the door and keep walking. There’s a park down the road. I’ll just go sit on the bench until my sanity returns, or my husband comes looking for me.”
These unhelpful ruminations were causing me to spiral into a mid-year depression, and I realized meditation practice had drifted out of my daily routine. By the end of the day, after teaching 7 periods of high school freshmen, my resting heart rate is often above 80. I’m not a doctor, but I don’t think a pain in the center of my chest and a rapidly beating heart is a good sign. My conference happens to be the last period of the day, and so instead of calming down from the day, I end up frantically cramming all the next day’s preparation into the following 40 minutes before my own darling children arrive from their respective schools, literally shrieking as they come barreling down the hallway. The feeling of being overwhelmed often renders me briefly immobile- or frantically searching my desk drawers for chocolate or anything containing sugar. For this reason, I have returned to trying to meditate briefly for the first 10 minutes of my conference period. As precious as my time is, 10 minutes seems like a waste of the miniscule bit of preparation time I am allotted, however I read an article that basically said I would be more productive with a brief amount of time to “re-set”. I decided to give it a try, and it gave better results (or at least as good, but better for my waist-line) than a king-sized snickers.
I use a free app called Insight Timer. There are lots of apps out there, and quite a few that promise to train you for an exorbitant fee. This app has many features that I love, and free always makes my teacher-salaried stress level go down. The options are also varied if you are experimenting with what you are comfortable with, or needing for that day. There is a library of guided meditations on every subject to choose from, as well as lengths of time. After listening to one that you particularly enjoy, there is an option to bookmark that particular talk. There is also a timer option with choices of different ambient sounds, as well as opening and closing bell sounds. The timer keeps stats to help you monitor your meditation goals. One of my favorite features, particularly because I live in East Texas, which is not a hot spot for local meditation groups, is the map showing how many people are currently meditating around the world during your meditation (and can even show people in your area). This little bit of comradery is actually very comforting and a sangha of sorts.
After 10 minutes of meditation, my head is much clearer and my heart has slowed from the near stroke-level where it started. Instead of spending my 40 minute conference period staring blankly at the papers or computer in front of me while cramming salty or sugary snacks mindlessly into my mouth to try to fuel just a few more minutes of productivity, I am able to work more efficiently and work down my to-do list at a steady pace. When my own precious children come through the door, I am not pulling my hair out and on the edge of frazzled nerves. I am able to look at them and be mindful that I have not seen them since I dropped them off that morning, nor have they seen me. They had no part in any of the frustrations I was faced with in the past several hours. They are my children, they are the best part of my life, I work in the first place to provide for them, and I recognize that. I have been much better about putting down my work to give them a hug, look them in the eye, and ask about their day.
Not only have I seen improvement in the time immediately during and after meditating, but during the hectic parts of my work day I am better at recognizing the feelings that arise when I am stressed and taking a few deep breaths to keep things in perspective. I am more aware of the need to be mindful when I interact with my students and colleagues, viewing them from a less reactive and frantic mindset. The few minutes of meditation are re-training my mind to be mindful during more than just that short period of time. As a more reflective and mindful person, I am a better, kinder teacher, too.