First Person

How mindfulness improves testing days for me — and for my students

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty

Last week, when I asked fourth and fifth graders at my school how they felt when they thought about the test, they responded, “stressed,” “pressured,” “anxious,” “angry,” “butterflies in my stomach,” “fear of the unknown,” and “really, really, really, really nervous.”

So I was grateful that we were about to engage in mindfulness — the evidence-based practice that has helped me access calm, resilience, and joy during the hectic work day. I first came to mindfulness out of curiosity, and immediately noticed a drastic decrease in my own stress levels. After undergoing a yearlong training with the organization Mindful Schools, I started bringing the practices to my students. Three years ago, I adapted the practices specifically for state testing for the first time.

Research suggests that students who practice mindfulness show increases in attention, focus, and emotional regulation — all of which can be elusive in our frenetic world. A few years ago, my library was filled with students reacting to the large space and the absence of their regular teacher by running and screaming. After integrating mindfulness, I would see kids draped quietly over chairs, with their faces, minds, and imaginations lost in books. The same students (from the same challenging backgrounds) have more learning-ready brains that it is clear they are putting to use. I have transferred to a new school this year, and have been delighted to see the impacts of mindfulness on my new students.

But as educators know, even the most carefully calibrated classroom environment can fall apart when state testing rolls around. I could feel the tension in the room when I even so much as used the word “test” last week. By the time we got through the lesson, and with the skills they’ve built up through the past several months, I felt confident that my students would have the tools to get through these challenging weeks.

Testing weeks are hard for teachers, too. In a world where we are hyper-connected, and where it’s incredibly rare to spend several hours without access to devices or human interaction, the proctoring protocols are strict — and challenging.

Proctoring can be extremely boring, especially compared to regular patterns of constant interaction with very active young people. Mandated guidelines for teachers are similar to those for students: no talking, no reading, no electronics, and no sitting. So in addition to guiding my students through a pre-test activity to release tension and increase calm (which I will be sharing over the announcements in the mornings for all of our test-takers!), I developed the following mindful strategies to cope with, and ultimately benefit from, the mind-numbing protocols of proctoring.

Here’s what I did — and what I’ll be doing this week as my students start yet another round of English and math exams.

  1. Bringing full attention to the feet. Every time I found myself becoming bored, I would redirect my attention to my feet. While my eyes gazed upon my students, I directed all of my internal sensory attention to what the ground felt like, what the inside of my shoes felt like, to the varying levels of pressure that different parts of my feet felt. Fully feeling the ground beneath me — in most people this leads to a pleasant, tingling sensation in the feet (but not always). This grounding activity takes the attention out of the mind and into the body. For me, this significantly decreases boredom and increases feelings of pleasantness.
  2. Scanning the room. As I slowly scanned the room, I took in as much detail as I could as I swept my eyes from side to side. (My kids would call this using your mindful eyes.) It may take as much as 20 or 30 seconds to pan the room. Part of this scanning is taking in the details of the students as well, noticing, noticing, noticing, going to the deepest level of detail possible. Similar to using the feet to anchor the attention, this technique anchors the attention in the visual field and allows the brain to find nuance and novelty in a situation where it is definitely not generally expected.
  3. Walking mindfully. As I walk around, I do “mindful walking” — one breath per step, nice and slow. And then slower than that. I pick up one foot and inhale, place it down and exhale, pick up the other foot and inhale, place it down and exhale. I find that this feels extremely calming and pleasant to the nervous system, especially after the hours of pacing on testing days. This is more than just walking slowly — it is placing a deeper attention on the mechanics of walking.
  4. “Sending thoughts” to the students. One of my favorite aspects of being the school librarian is that I have no idea about every single student’s academic standing, so I get to believe in all of them. I spent several sweeps of the room looking at each kid and thinking “I believe in you!”; “You can do it!” and “You’ve got this.” This game doesn’t get old. I also told them before we started the test that if they catch me looking at them, that I’m thinking about how much I believe in them. (And while it may not make an actual difference in their scores, who can’t use a little extra believe-in in their lives?)
  5. Shared breathing. Before the test I told the students that every time I changed the “time remaining” on the board, if they wanted, they could take a mindful breath with me and then keep going (a school-friendly version of one of my mindfulness teachers’ “I love you, keep going”). It got to the point where, in their isolated you-must-do-this-by-yourself worlds, we repeated this sound sequence again and again: eraser on chalkboard, chalk on chalkboard, one big deep together-breath whispering through the room. It was nice to be in that “together” with them, under conditions that otherwise preclude connection. Now that the tests are untimed, this technique could be used with a simple updating of the “Time Now” on the board.
  6. Modeling the focused mind. There are such things as “mirror neurons,” so what we project is totally picked up by sensitive test-taking nervous systems. I looked at it as my job to not allow boredom, anxiety, restlessness, or frustration to sneak into my own mind. Instead I let myself be as engaged, calm, and focused as I wanted my students to be. When my mind would wander, or I’d feel it shift onto a course I didn’t want it to go (perhaps a very familiar thought merry-go-round), I’d take a deep breath, go back to focusing on my feet, and be as steady and stable as possible. It’s totally a challenge, but totally doable.

These six ideas have helped me to enjoy the proctoring more (and in fact, to sometimes walk away with my nervous system so calm, I felt euphoric). Students have told me that the “taking a breath together” really helped them to focus and not be as scared. Additionally, I provided a script and audio-recording for the pre-test calming to each teacher in the school, and other students came up to me and told me how much it had helped them focus and “chase away all the butterflies” before the test. Kids who didn’t get the pre-test calming script were begging for it.

I am looking forward to sharing these techniques in my new school this week — and with truly open curiosity, we’ll see how it goes. As one educator, I can’t change the tests, but I can do my part to influence how students experience them. It has been tremendously rewarding to witness the impact of mindfulness on emotional regulation in the face of a highly stressful situation.

First Person

If teachers aren’t equipped to help trauma victims, students suffer. Learn from my story.

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

It took one of my kindergarten students, Andrew, to help me figure out how to handle my toughest teaching challenge.

My classroom wall was full of pictures that Andrew had drawn for me. He often greeted me at the door with a smile. But Andrew would also scream, act out, and even hurt himself in my class.

For quite some time, I thought that if I could find a different way to ask him to get back on task, maybe he would not become so aggressive, not bang his head on the floor. But regardless of how tactfully I approached keeping him engaged or redirected his behavior, Andrew would implode. And with little to no support, I quickly grew weary and helpless.

Eventually, I did learn how to help students like Andrew. I also eventually realized that when you teach students who have been impacted by trauma, you have to balance ownership and the reality that you cannot solve every problem. But the trial and error that it took to reach that point as a teacher was exhausting.

I hope we, as a profession, can do better for new Memphis teachers. In the meantime, maybe you can learn from my story.

I grew up in a trauma-filled household, where I learned to mask my hurt and behave like a “good girl” to not bring attention to myself. It wasn’t until a high school teacher noticed how hard I flinched at being touched and privately expressed concerns that I got help. After extensive investigations and professional support, I was on the road to recovery.

When I became a teacher myself, and met Andrew and many students like him, I began to see myself within these children. But that didn’t mean I knew how to reach them or best help them learn. All I knew to do when a child was misbehaving was to separate them from the rest of the classroom. I didn’t have the training to see past a student’s bad behavior and help them cope with their feelings.

It took a while to learn not to internalize Andrew’s attacks, even when they became physical. No matter what Andrew did, each day we started over. Each day was a new opportunity to do something better, learn from a mistake, or work on developing a stronger bond.

I learned to never discipline when I am upset and found success charting “trigger behaviors,” using them to anticipate outbursts and cut down on negative behaviors.

Over time, I learned that almost all students are more receptive when they feel they have a real relationship with the teacher. Still, each case must be treated differently. One student may benefit from gentle reminders, private conversations, or “social stories” that underscore the moral of a situation. Another student may respond to firm consequences, consistent routines, or reflection journals.

Still other students sit in our classrooms each and every day and are overlooked due to their mild-mannered demeanor or their “cooperativeness.” My childhood experiences made me aware of how students mask trauma in ways very unlike Andrew. They also made me realize how imperative it is for teachers to know that overachieving students can need just as much help as a child that physically acts out.

I keep a watchful eye on students that are chronically fatigued or overly sensitive to noise or touch, jumping for minor reasons. I encourage teachers to pay close attention to students that have intense hygiene issues, as their incontinence could be acting as a defense mechanism, and I never ignore a child who is chronically withdrawn from their peers or acting out of character.

All of this took time in the classroom and effort processing my own experiences as a student with trauma. However, many teachers in Memphis aren’t coming from a similar background and haven’t been trained to see past a student’s disruptive behavior.

It’s time to change the way we support teachers and give educators intense trauma training. Often, compassionate teachers want to help students but don’t know how. Good training would help educators develop the skills they need to reach students and to take care of themselves, since working with students that have been impacted by trauma can be incredibly taxing.

Trial and error aren’t enough: If teachers are not equipped to help trauma victims, the quality of students’ education will suffer.

Candace Hines teaches kindergarten for the Achievement School District, and previously taught kindergarten for six years with Shelby County Schools. She also is an EdReports content reviewer and a coach and facilitator for Teach Plus Memphis. Hines serves as a fellow for Collaborative for Student Success and a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow.

First Person

As historians and New York City educators, here’s what we hope teachers hear in the city’s new anti-bias training

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza and Mayor Bill de Blasio just committed $23 million over the next four years to support anti-bias education for the city’s teachers. After a year in which a white teacher stepped on a student during a lesson on slavery and white parents used blackface images in their PTA publicity, it’s a necessary first step.

But what exactly will the $23 million pay for? The devil is in the details.

As current and former New York City teachers, and as historians and educators working in the city today, we call for the education department to base its anti-bias program in an understanding of the history of racism in the nation and in this city. We also hope that the program recognizes and builds upon the work of the city’s anti-racist teachers.

Chancellor Carranza has promised that the program will emphasize training on “implicit bias” and “culturally responsive pedagogy.” These are valuable, but insufficient. Workshops on implicit bias may help educators evaluate and change split-second, yet consequential, decisions they make every day. They may help teachers interrogate, for example, what decisions lead to disproportionately high rates of suspension for black children as early as pre-K, or lower rates of referrals to gifted programs for black students by white teachers.

But U.S. racism is not only split-second and individual. It is centuries deep, collective, and institutional. Done poorly, implicit bias training might shift disproportionate blame for unequal educational resources and outcomes onto the shoulders of classroom teachers.

Anti-bias education should lead teachers not only to address racism as an individual matter, but to perceive and struggle against its institutional and structural forms. Structural racism shapes the lives of students, families, and communities, and the classrooms in which teachers work: whether teachers find sufficient resources in their classrooms, how segregated their schools are, how often their students are stopped by police, and how much wealth the families they serve hold. Without attending to the history that has created these inequities, anti-bias education might continue the long American tradition of pretending that racism rooted in capitalism and institutional power can be solved by adjusting individual attitudes and behaviors.

We have experienced teacher professional development that takes this approach. Before moving to New York, Adam taught in Portland, Oregon and participated in several anti-bias trainings that presented racism as a problem to be solved through individual reflection and behaviors within the classroom. While many anti-racist teachers initially approached these meetings excited to discuss the larger forces that shape teaching students of color in the whitest city in America, they grew increasingly frustrated as they were encouraged to focus only on “what they could control.”

Similarly, at his very first professional development meeting as a first-year teacher of sixth grade in Harlem, Brian remembers being told by his principal that neither the conditions of students’ home lives nor conditions of the school in which he worked were within teachers’ power to change, and were therefore off-limits for discussion. The only thing he could control, the principal said, was his attitude towards his students.

But his students were extremely eager to talk about those conditions. For example, the process of gentrification in Harlem emerged repeatedly in classroom conversations. Even if teachers can’t immediately stop a process like gentrification, surely it is essential for both teachers and their students to learn to think about conditions they see around them as products of history — and therefore as something that can change.

While conversations about individual attitudes and classroom practices are important, they are insufficient to tackle racism. Particularly in one of the most segregated school districts in America, taking a historical perspective matters.

How do public school teachers understand the growth of racial and financial inequality in New York City? Consciously or otherwise, do they lean on tired but still powerful ideas that poverty reflects a failure of individual will, or a cultural deficit? Encountering the history of state-sponsored racism and inequality makes those ideas untenable.

Every New York City teacher should understand what a redlining map is. These maps helped the federal government subsidize mid-twentieth century white suburbanization while barring African American families from the suburbs and the wealth they helped generate. These maps helped shape the city, the metropolitan region, and its schools – including the wealth or poverty of students that teachers see in their classrooms. This is but one example of how history can help educators ground their understanding of their schools and students in fact rather than (often racist) mythology.

And how well do New York City educators know and teach the histories of the communities they serve? Those histories are rich sources of narratives about how New Yorkers have imagined their freedom and struggled for it, often by advocating for education. Every New York City teacher should know that the largest protest of the Civil Rights Movement took place not in Washington D.C., not in the deep South, but right here. On February 3, 1964, nearly half a million students stayed out of school and marched through the city’s streets, demanding desegregation and fully funded public schools. Every New York City teacher should know about Evelina Antonetty, a Puerto Rico-born, East Harlem-raised advocate who organized her fellow Bronx parents to press for some of the city’s first attempts at bilingual education and just treatment for language minority students in school.

Even if they don’t teach history or social studies, educators can see in the 1964 boycott and in Antonetty’s story prompts to approach parents as allies, to see communities as funds of knowledge and energy to connect to and build from. The chancellor’s initiative can be an opportunity to help teachers uncover and reflect on these histories.

Ansley first taught at a small high school in central Harlem, in a building that earlier housed Junior High School 136. J.H.S. 136 was one of three Harlem schools where in 1958 black parents protested segregation and inequality by withdrawing their children from school – risking imprisonment for violating truancy laws. The protest helped build momentum for later educational activism – and demonstrated black Harlem mothers’ deep commitment to securing powerful education for their children.

Although she taught in the same school – perhaps even the same classroom – where boycotting students had studied, Ansley didn’t know about this history until a few years after she left the school. Since learning about it, she has often reflected on the missed opportunities. How could the story of this “Harlem Nine” boycott have helped her students learn about their community’s history and interrogate the inequalities that still shaped their school? What could this story of parent activism have meant for how Ansley thought about and worked with her students’ parents?

Today, teaching future teachers, Ansley strives to convey the value of local and community history in her classes. One new teacher, now working in the Bronx, commented that her own learning about local history “taught me that we should not only think of schools as places of learning. They also are important places of community.”

The history of racism and of freedom struggles needs to be part of any New York City students’ learning as well as that of their teachers. Some of the $23 million should support the work of local anti-racist educators, such as those who spearheaded the Black Lives Matter Week of Action last February, in developing materials that help teach about this history. These efforts align with the chancellor’s pledge for culturally responsive education. And they offer ways to recognize and build on the knowledge of New York City’s community organizations and anti-racist education networks.

Attitudes matter, and educators – like everyone – can learn from the psychology of bias and stereotype. But historical ignorance or misrepresentation has fed racism, and history can be a tool in its undoing.

That would be a good $23 million investment for New York and all of its children.

Ansley Erickson is an associate professor of history and education at Teachers College, Columbia University and a former New York City high school teacher.

Brian Jones is the associate director of education at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library and a former New York City elementary school teacher.

Adam Sanchez is a teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City and an organizer and curriculum writer with the Zinn Education Project.