How it came to be: A principal’s story

Todd’s story.

“During the school year of 2010-11, something that had been simmering and roiling under the surface rose to where I could see it.  Or perhaps my awareness merely awakened to something I’d been missing all along.  Two examples among dozens:

  • A young man in trouble in conference with me and his father, flipped out in the office.  He was beside himself, outside of himself, with anger and hopelessness.  What did we care what he did, he demanded to know.  Who gives a thought to what I think or do?  The trouble he was in in school was the barest echo of the chaos and pain inside him.
  • A young woman in 4 AP classes, a straight A student through sheer grit, was out of school for two weeks for a true medical issue and found, when she returned to school, that she couldn’t catch back up.  Too much work had been completed in her absence and she was defeated by the mountain in front of her.  She would cut class and go to the library, or hide in the bathroom all day.  She had no resources, nowhere, as she thought, to turn.  She wound up in a psychiatric hospital: school had propelled her from health issue to mental health issue.

Bullet points.  Kids.  Human beings.

Then, in what felt at the time like a cruel curse but wound up being the crystal in the supersaturated solution, my wife’s panic attacks worsened to the degree that we were making terrifying middle-of-the-night visits to the ER.  She paced, her heart pounding, her palms sweating, convinced she was dying.  I had a front row seat on this particular form of suffering, in someone I love and know intimately.  Absent whatever professional distance I had from the kids, I could see two things with clarity:  first, anxiety is anguish; second, it arises in the mind of the sufferer, unrelated to outer reality, yet it constitutes a reality of its own.

And as you see the world in a drop of rain suspended from a blade of grass, I saw a horrifying truth about our schools and indeed our culture.  We teach intellects.  We prize results.  We disregard the emotional ground which is the foundation for all achievement.  We fail to teach and foster human beings.  Test scores, academic performance, decreasing drop-out rates, college acceptances—these all matter, but they are merely the leaves on the tree.  Where are the roots?  Some—many– of our kids struggle perishingly close to rootlessness.  We fail our kids if we deny the reality that they need to set down roots in truth and peace, roots from which they can draw sustenance when the winds blow and the storms rage, as they surely will.

So I went to Guidance.  What is going on?  They didn’t know, but we settled on a strategy:  focus groups in a private setting.

Which made everything considerably worse.  Kids told tales of abuse, neglect, drugs, cutting:  the whole gamut.  And I am a mandated reporter.  And all the other kids in the group now know the secrets. Now I have a kid in my office saying to her mother, “What do you care what I do?” feeling betrayed, in a hateful, destructive fury, and still we have nothing to offer for the immediate suffering.  No answer to my question:  how do we help these kids get through the day right now?  The kids are under such pressure that if you open the valve, they’re going to blow.  I am not a therapist.

I began doing yoga and thought, “That’s it!”  Guidance said, yeah, right.  So there are just two problems:  I’m on my own, and I don’t know how to do yoga.  Let’s face it:  there are problems with doing yoga with young people.  .  .

Along came a book from the hands of someone who did not read it:  Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness by Deborah Schoeberlein.  I flipped through it, got a sense of some of it, but now I had a word:  mindfulness.  I Googled it and found Jon Kabat-Zinn.  Here was something with a 40 year track record, that was not therapy, that was experiential, that could be taught and learned, that involved no talking and no divulging of secrets, that worked with what was happening right now.

More Googling and I found Diane Reibel and the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Jefferson University in Philadelphia, practically our back yard.  I reached out to Diane and proposed working on a program to bring to kids.

Meanwhile, I’m researching grants for another project, which involved a board of mental health professionals.  I proposed the idea of funding a mindfulness program and they leapt at it—barely wanted to look at the original project.  They gave us $10,000.

Now with a little money I could sound out Diane once more.  She did not have a wealth of experience with adolescents, but knew someone who did:  Trish Broderick, author of Learning To Breathe, a curriculum specifically for teens.

Together we crafted a program that was part MBSR and part ideas for teachers to use with students.  We did our eight week course and then all participants elected to do a two day training with Trish in L2B.

Teachers were enthusiastic, open, even thrilled.  Kids, for the most part, were receptive.  Above all, now we had something to offer the ones who were frayed and in pain.

From our administrators, the attitude was tolerant and perhaps somewhat amused at first.  There was a little joking, a little eye-rolling, but our superintendent held a psychology degree and had a close friend who embraced a mindfulness practice, so the door was open to us.  One year in, administrators have begun to notice and forward articles in the professional literature about mindfulness in other academic settings.  It is a cautious, curious wait-and-see—which is all the opening it needs.

We have been very careful to be clear in communication with parents.  Mindfulness is not religious, nor does it interfere with families’ religious practice.  Teachers are clear, when they lead a body scan or short sitting mindfulness practice, to allow students who choose not to participate the freedom to opt out without judgment.  We have presented to parents about mindfulness on Back To School Night and hope to run an eight week session for them in the near future.  So far, parents have been intrigued and supportive.  Some are thrilled.  None has objected.

Cultural change involves harnessing the willing but inchoate.  Most people who have any involvement with public school know that kids can be stressed, pressured, and miserable.  Mindfulness is universal prevention, arming students to confront stress, relieve the pressure, and embrace their present-moment being.  And not incidentally, it allows them to learn more fully, more deeply.  Because mindfulness involves the cultivation of attention, kids can focus on their work.

Ultimately, it comes to this:  how often do we tell our kids to calm down, chill out, take it easy, relax, pay attention?  And how often do we teach them how to do it?”

(written by K.Semisch)


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