The mind can be a lot like a bad class. Justin sits in the back of the room reading a book, ignoring the lesson on the Ottoman Empire. Jianni is speaking to Alex and not about the Janissaries. Ethan has his head on the desk and is singing the lyrics to a Mumford & Sons song. Denali is looking out the window. No one is on task.
When I was a graduate student in the eighties, I requested teaching an at-risk class. The final project for my teaching license requirement was a filmed lesson. In the middle of the class, one student turned to another and shouted in very colorful language about the need to brush his teeth. I remembered thinking in equally colorful language about my evaluation, and how there were few teaching jobs and that I would have to start all over again in another career.
But that’s not how it turned out. When I told my professor I thought I had failed, he told me that students weren’t perfect, and the tooth-brushing episode was how he knew I could be a teacher. Despite my initial despairing reaction, I had done the right thing. I gave the student with the colorful language a bathroom pass to calm down for a few minutes. I placed the other students in groups to answer reading questions while I talked privately with the student who had been verbally attacked. I was very young and I did not know much about classroom management, but I knew enough to de-escalate the situation and keep the students safe. I even finished the lesson. I can’t say the lesson was great or that I handled it perfectly, but at least I did not make a bad situation worse.
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Having taught for many years, I now realize that the mind is no different than an at-risk class—or any class, for that matter. Whether teaching at-risk or advanced placement students, all class activities are like those of the mind: pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. Some tasks are engaging and fun and require little effort to keep the mind focused. Other activities are neutral: not particularly exciting but expected and necessary. And some activities are downright unpleasant.
When the Buddha spoke of the mind states of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral, he gave his students tools for understanding the nature of mind, parents the nature of parenting, and teachers the nature of teaching. The mind is indeed a strange neighborhood—not a bad neighborhood but a neighborhood that is constantly changing. It is charming but dangerous, quiet, and endless in its variations. What are any of us to do with a mind that is so difficult to corral but not always a bucking bronco—that is sometimes a sleeping cat or a fluffy puppy?
In mindfulness training, the practitioner learns to observe the mind without running away from it by sitting and following the breath. Where is the mind journeying now? How is it that one minute ago there was boredom and now there is bliss and wait—why is fear suddenly here? Classroom management is not any different. Some mind states, such as fear and fantasy, are like spoiled children: they demand a tremendous amount of attention and will act out until noticed. Some students are teacher’s pets; they do exactly what the teacher asks for and relish the rewards of being favorites. Some students are bored regardless of the activity (or at least they appear to be bored). And some students long for attention at any cost. But really within every student, all three states exist.
Like the practitioner of mindfulness, the teacher sees the students as manifestations of different mind states and does not judge or admonish but first acknowledges what is. Yelling at any angry person to stop yelling is always ineffective. The first step is always to identify the mind state, because then the story becomes less important. Rather than judging the mind state and becoming reactive—wanting more of a pleasant state and less of an unpleasant state—there is simply awareness. Then the ego can detach and not take it personally.
The second step is working with the mind state. Mindfulness is about returning to the breath, and not just accepting the state and not running from it. I can breathe and simply be with boredom, not react to it or out of it. It’s not any different in the classroom. I can see that you are bored. Can we work with this boredom and accomplish the same objectives in a different way? Rewriting the essay may suddenly become pleasant. Can we stay with the process? Sometimes the student sees a more effective method for the same outcome; can the teacher give up their ego? Maybe the state of boredom is necessary; can the student give up ego and stay with the task?
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The third step is creating new and better relationships with the mind and the student. Can I accept the mind state and student exactly as they are? If the mind is told to stop being in a certain mind state, the mind becomes more firmly entrenched in that mind state. But if we accept the child as he or she is, the child feels valued and becomes less argumentative and more willing to be a partner in learning.
I was asked recently if I thought I was a different teacher after all of the living that has happened between my first year of teaching and now. I’ve learned a lot about kids by being a teacher and a mother. When I started teaching I was very energetic, but I had no children of my own and expected kids to act like they were older than they were. After all these years, now I know more about what it means to be a freshman or a junior in high school, and that what might be labeled misbehaviors are really just kids being kids. Now, if I am in the supermarket and a toddler is having a meltdown, I think: “Yes, that is what toddlers in supermarkets do. With all of the temptations in every aisle, it is a miracle if a toddler does not have a meltdown. How can you pass all that sugar and be told ‘no’ repeatedly?”
Of course, having a meditation practice also makes a difference. I know that in some ways I am no different from the toddler, drawn from one delightful treat to the other, wanting to have what I want when I want it. The only difference is that, with practice, I have learned to be with my mind state. The wind blows in every direction at some time or another. But your mind doesn’t have to be blown by every wind, every whim, or every thought. Students sometimes misbehave. Teachers sometimes fail to communicate. And sometimes everything is perfect.
We live in a world of contrasts and change, but through identification, acceptance, and transformation of mind states, we can find peace, growth, and even happiness in the midst of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. Like the Buddha, we examine our mind state, accept it, and watch it change. We are transformed simply by being fully in the present moment.
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