Mindfulness and SEL for Educators

Educators’ ability to meet the heightened social and emotional needs of their pupils right now are critically dependent upon their own wellness and attention to their own needs.

Here’s a very good webinar shared recently by the Awake Network that explores what that entails and shares some good practical thoughts on how to ensure that educators are addressing these self care needs.

Reviewing 30 Days of Covid-19 Lockdown

covid lockdown

Today is my 30th day of lockdown here in Malaysia, alone unless I’m counting the cat! It’s a surreal experience in many ways – one that I know I’ll never forget. I live in an apartment some way out from the centre of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The first two weeks of MCO (Movement Control Order) started on 18th March, but were then extended to 14th April. Then it was extended again to 28th April. We wait to hear any day whether there will be further extension,  but maybe with slightly relaxed rules (the fasting month of Ramadan will start on Friday).

The rules are pretty clear. Only 10 types of business/ essential services are allowed to operate and people are only permitted to make reasonable steps out of their home for groceries and pharmacy. If you are caught out otherwise, the punishments can be very severe. But, beyond that, I firmly believe in our duties to each other in this and the necessity to ‘flatten the curve (I’m writing a separate post on this).

In my own case, there’s an additional factor, one that feels frustrating and unfair (but I have accepted – it is what it is). I gave up smoking around 17 years ago. At that time I suffered a lung collapse and a serious situation that could have killed me. I lost a business I had set up with all the money I had at the time, but eventually was glad that I still had my life to live. That left me with COPD, and my left lung after surgery was very prone to infections. Over subsequent years I’ve had pneumonia quite a few times. However, in recent years with attention to my health, a good doctor and good medication it’s been so under control that I’ve really had very little issue for the last 2 years. All this means that I’m in the high risk category if I catch the corona virus and therefore the implications for me could be simply life threatening. ‘Flattening the curve’ won’t be the end of risk time for me and I may only really be safe once there’s a vaccine.

Many who know me know that just over two years ago I lost my son (who lived with me) tragically and suddenly. He would have been 18 now, on the verge of completing A levels before thinking about heading off to university. I know he would have struggled to cope with the uncertainty of what we’re going through now. For me, those two years have not just been about the grief of losing Thomas, but also a complete restructuring of my own life, including my job. That was hard as someone for whom my work had always been important and with a sense that in my role here in Malaysia I had barely had time to achieve what was possible. But it was gone, Thomas was gone and I had no choice but to put in the hard and lonely work of figuring out what my life is for, what is to be my contribution in my remaining years and how I would ensure I leave a legacy that somehow makes the world even a little better. As an expat in this part of the world it’s near impossible to access professional counselling, support or psychological guidance. So, in dealing with this I’ve been on my own, needing to dig deep to draw on my own resources, even at times when the well may have felt completely dry. There were very hard and painful times, but by putting in that hard work they’ve been less and less frequent. As a result, my level of confidence to really shift in to fully positive mode for shaping my life going forward has been stronger and stronger.

In the down times over these thirty plus days I’ve felt the sickening dread of knowing just how easily I can slip in to anger against the world. I had battled up from the floor over these two years, suddenly for life, the universe and everything to seem to conspire to thwart me.

When I find myself thinking like this I can’t like the me I see in the mirror too much. Selfish and self-indulgent aren’t personality traits I’ve ever liked in anyone, least of all myself. Each time it’s happened my response has been to give myself the biggest of metaphorical kicks up the backside and a firm order to get on with it and stop sulking. The fact is that I still have a life that millions in the world would envy.  If I live my life positively and with conviction I can contribute to making a better world. In those circumstances there is little justification for wallowing in what might have been, fantasies and wishful thinking. My duty is to dust myself down, pick myself up and get on with things with 100% energy and focus.

A few things have helped:

Gratitude

I started gratitude journaling around a year ago, after seeing it recommended in a few books and podcasts. I use a form of journaling based loosely on one known as the five minute journaling method. It literally only takes that much time out of my day first thing in the morning, and last thing at night before I go to bed.

In the first days of lockdown everything felt disturbed and i stopped journaling. I quickly realised that it was now more important than ever. It starts in the morning with writing down three things for which I’m grateful. These can be simple or complex, but it’s important to push through with three even if I’m starting the day in a less than positive frame of mind. For me, it can be something as simple as my gratitude for the air in my lungs.

Then, I write down three things that, if they happen/ I do them/ make them happen will make the day great. This forces me to focus on priorities in the day, but also to cut myself some slack. If I’m not in a positive frame of mind I might look for small victories, little achievements that still remind me that I matter and I make a difference and have agency – little things that move me forward positively. Finally, in the morning, I add a single daily affirmation – something that feels significant to me and sets the context of that day in to the longer stretch of my life.

The evening session consists of writing down three amazing things that happened in the day. To me, the impact of this is the knowledge in the back of my mind throughout the day that i’m going to be asking this question of myself come the end of the day. i admit sometimes ‘amazing’ feels a bit of a stretch, but it forces me to think about the outstanding positives, even in a day that was grey and listless. Finally, I acknowledge one way in which I could have made the day better. This is not an excuse to beat up on myself. I approach it with self-compassion, but still treat it as an opportunity to hold myself accountable. One of the things that dawned on me was that I might have a “poor me” story for myself and a belief that the world has thwarted me after I had worked so hard, but so does almost everybody. We all have some form of this story and some sense that goals we were pursuing, things we aspired for, have now suddenly been blocked. I cannot assume that my story is any more significant for me than anyone else’s story is for them.

I’ll be honest. When I first started this journaling I was a bit doubtful about it. As a result, my activity was a bit sporadic and there were times when I dropped off. However, i was willing to believe that there was enough in it, on the basis of recommendations from a number of writers I respected. So, I stuck at it. Thankfully, now it’s as regular as clockwork and two little bits of my day that I really look forward to. I focus on gratitude that isn’t comparative, but simpler. What in my life, right now, is a cause for me to feel gratitude? On darker, harder days I may have to search my mind a bit, but I can always find something.

Meditation/ Mindfulness

I hesitate a little to mention this, as there’s some degree of cynicism around in some quarters these days. However, I can say without any hesitation that it’s been a critical part of my climb out of the dark ditch over the last two years. I had a meditation habit before I lost Thomas, but it wasn’t always regular and I occasionally drifted away.

I realised that it’s not the easiest habit to build. We tend to think that success at meditating defines as calming the mind. However, especially when I started, far from feeling that my mind was being mastered and calmed, there was the realisation of just how busy and uncalm it was.As a result, I didn’t feel very successful, even after a few months of trying hard to stick at it. Things got better once I eased off on the ‘success’ ideas and accepted that an objective of just watching and being aware in the moment of my busy mind – without judgement – was enough.

Over the years I’ve explored different methods and vehicles. These days I’m probably most comfortable with the ‘Calm’ app.  Incidentally, as a paid subscriber I have the right to give out five guest passes for people who want to try out Calm for a while. If you would like one of these passes, please send me a message and I’ll get you fixed up.

Movement

On this, I have some good news and some bad news – a boast I’m proud of and a confession of a task not yet mastered.

Confession time first – with access to the gym denied for the last month, I promised myself that i would have a strenuous exercise session of the High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) variety on at least 4 days each week. It’s only a time commitment of around 20 minutes, but I have to admit the reality so far has been only about one session each week, instead of the intended four.

So, that’s a task that is a work in progress.

On the plus side, even though I’ve only stepped out of my apartment three times to go to the supermarket (which is just a few minutes walk from home and permitted under the lockdown rules here), I’ve kept up a strong commitment to moving through walking each day.  There’s a regularly recommended piece of advice to ensure getting 10,000 steps of walking in each day. With a bit of rearrangement of furniture, I’ve ensured a loop around the rooms of my apartment.  Most of the time I combine my walking, at a reasonable pace, with reading, listening to podcasts or reviewing emails etc. The results are clear from the data from my Fitbit. After this very good week, my target is to see if I can do 50 miles in the coming week. I stress – barring a single walk to the supermarket this is done entirely inside my apartment – just round and around!

Fitbit

 

Schedule and Structure of the Day

Many people, in these lockdown circumstances can be very easily tempted to decide that they’ll take a relaxed and flexible approach and do what they’re in the mood for, except when they have commitments for phone or video calls (or a child’s online school class commitments). However, I had learned what I needed to adjust to working from home over the last couple of years and I know that without some structure to the day I can too easily get sidetracked and distracted. the result is usually a dissatisfying day without enough achieved and an expanding ‘to do list’.

I’ve also learned that, especially on days when there’s a lot to distract and mood isn’t easy to handle I need to be relatively kind to myself in terms of expectations. So, I structure some blocks of the day, but leave some other blocks of time unscheduled. For those blocks, how I use them is determined largely by my mood and level of positivity as the time approaches. If I’m working on something and I’m comfortably in flow, I let it spill over in to the unscheduled time. Alternatively, I give myself the freedom to do less structured things during those periods, including checking social networking etc. This is not all wasted time, as i’ll explain in a minute.

One way that i am a bit tough on myself is an old habit that i haven’t yet got to work on, but probably should. If, by the evening, I haven’t completed all that I had hoped I will try to push on in to the evening. This tends to coincide that i get a new burst of energy in the evenings (as a bit of a night owl type), so I feel the work i get done during that time is of quite decent quality. However, the downside is

Controlling Media Exposure and Social Networking

There are things happening in the world that are unprecedented and therefore it’s a very human and natural instinct to feel the need to track the news and aim to keep on top of the facts, the data and what’s happening. Once upon a time we would have settled for a limited time, probably in the morning, to read the daily newspaper to be informed. Then, later came TV news which over time morphed in to 24-hour TV news channels.

When you then layer on top of all this media exposure the commentary on it that comes from social networking and it all gets very overwhelming. it becomes so easy to get tempted to disappear down the rabbit hole of news and information for hours on end.  After being disappointed with lack of productivity on a couple of days I figured that I needed to change some things. I figured that deciding to go ‘cold turkey’ wasn’t realistic. So, instead, I built three specific blocks of time in to my day when I permit myself to check the news, read and post social networking stuff and engage with others’ posts.

These three blocks of time go in to the schedule mentioned above. I’m not going to claim that every day i stick within the parameters of these blocks, but i’m sure that it’s better than if I just left it unstructured.

Doing for Others

There’s a lot of scientific evidence that loneliness can be as damaging to life expectancy as smoking 15 cigarettes a day! Today, it is a massive good fortune that we have the means to make contact with others, anywhere in the world,  So, for my sake as much as anyone else’s it was vital to me from the start to make sure that i was having frequent and regular contact with others. Even with family and close friends there are times when busy living means that we neglect our communication with those we’re not seeing regularly.

So, I committed to reach out regularly and have meaningful communication with family members and my closest friends. I then went through all my contact lists and drew out a list of names of people I had maybe not been in touch with for some time. I committed to make contact with 4-5 of these people each week – reaching out to check that they feel OK and have contact. This has lead to some really delightful interactions, catching up and filling in the gaps in each other’s lives since last contact.

In late 2018 I joined a Facebook Group for parents who had lost a child suddenly. In the early months I was fairly passive in that Group, but it was a help to know that there were people there who were more likely to understand my feelings and emotions when there were difficult days. After a few months I responded to a request for moderators for the Group. The Group is quite big – about 1,600 members. We manage with two admins and around four of us as moderators. this has brought me more actively in to a role of being a sounding board and help for others. Over time, this helps me to deal with my own emotions and to feel that I’m doing something positive. There are times it can be a bit harrowing as the circumstances of some people’s lives are dire and bleak. In recent weeks with the stresses of what’s happening in the world we’ve seen an increase in numbers of new members and more existing members reaching out to unburden themselves as they deal with a whole load of new challenges and problems. This sin’t a commitment that fits neatly in time or can be planned for. But, it’s important enough to me that I accept that and adjust around emergencies when they arise.

In the very first days of the lockdown I saw an article referring to an idea that originated in Canada for ‘Caremongering’. The idea was to bring people together, through social networking, to provide community, local support to others. I searched around and discovered that another expat, Joe Mathers, also from UK, had had the same idea and had formed the Malaysian Caremongering Group on Facebook. Diving in and getting involved was a great way to feel less isolated and also because it was clear that, as good as the local arrangements might be to support those in need, there would be gaps and people who would find themselves in severe difficulty. Within days there was a flood of interest. Today, the FB Group is approaching 10,000 members. IIn turn, there are more localised Whatsapp Groups that enable for close coordination. There are usually two Groups – one in which requests for help are identified or raised and one in which volunteers coordinate for raising funds, purchasing goods and deliveries.

This is all entirely spontaneous and among people who have never met. However, it’s been heartening that we’ve been pretty effective and ensured that food and vital supplies reach those who would otherwise be going hungry. These might be refugees, undocumented migrant workers or others not getting support through official channels. As an expat, with above average risk from the virus, I may not be able to run around outside taking supplies to the needy, but from my home I can still play my part. This also feels right from the perspective that I know my circumstances are so much more comfortable than many others.

 

Free Online Meditation Resources

Awake Network Covid

As we all deal with the issues of the covid-19 pandemic, especially with the need for social distancing and the loss of human to human interaction, the effect for many is one of considerable anxiety and disturbance. there is an awkward irony that high levels of stress and anxiety cause increased cortisol levels – reducing one’s immunity levels.

In these circumstances, attention to mindfulness and the use of meditation is enormously valuable. Whether you’re an experienced meditator or someone who has been curious to try, this resource will be useful to you. The ‘Awake Network’ has collated an extensive list of free online resources;

The Awake Network – Free Online Meditation Resources

Biased Teachers

unconscious bias

Teachers are human. All humans are prone to unconscious biases, therefore teachers too are subject to unconscious biases. However, it’s not advisable to ever go in front of an audience of teachers and say this – I know, I’ve tried it! My argument has always been that people are only victims and weakened by their unconscious biases if they remain completely blind to them. The more that even the possibility of biases is brought in to consciousness, the greater the chances that teachers will overcome them, counteract them and render them powerless.

This was the subject of a post I wrote on this blog post three years ago;

Blog Post – Teacher Reflection Guards Against Unconscious Biases and Prejudices

With this in mind, i was very interested to see two interesting articles within the last week from different sources. The first comes from the British Psychological Society and raises the touchy issue of teacher bias against children who are overweight:

British Psychological Society – Teachers Show Biases Against Overweight Kids, Including Giving Them Lower Grades

The second article comes from the Washington Post, sharing results and data from research carried out in the UK and the US. This research concluded that without a doubt better looking children performed better and achieved to higher levels in school than less good looking children.

Washington Post – Good Looking Kids Do Better in School

Whilst the article suggests that more research is needed to figure out all the reasons for this advantage, I can’t help suspecting that again unconscious biases of teachers (and other pupils in the classroom) are playing a big part.

All of this could make unnerving reading for teachers. So many educators have chosen their profession with ideological desires to do good, to give children opportunities and qualities such as fairness and equity figure high in their priorities. So, to discover the evidence that unconscious biases are causing better or worse experiences and prospects for children sits uncomfortably. However, as i said before, I don’t believe this gets addressed by putting our heads in the sand. Awareness, vigilance, self reflection and mindfulness all have the potential to unearth the potential for such unconscious biases and prevent them.

Mindful educators can be better educators.

 

Mindful Education

Mindful Education

There’s been growing interest in mindfulness in education in recent years, but all too often educators struggle to know where to start, how to work with the teachers first before considering the potential impacts for students or how to carry all other stakeholders with them.  I’ve also had experiences where senior educators have struggled to figure out all the implications of how mindfulness practices will change so many other facets of their school culture. For example, if a school expresses a commitment to mindfulness then it has to completely rethink its approach to discipline, behaviour policies etc.

I’m always keen to bring free and useful resources to the attention of readers of this blog. So, I wanted to get a quick message out to all to share information on the Mindful Education Summit. This is a free online conference that actually started on Wednesday. Each day they share through the website (link below) a number of video presentations of talks of varying lengths. each day’s videos are available for 48 hours. So, there is still a little time to catch up on the day 1 material, day 2 will be available for another day and day 3 is just launching now.

The videos vary between explanation of theory and research in the area of applying mindfulness in education environments and some that are very geared to providing demonstrations and simple practices of mindful practices.

The Mindful Education Summit Website
(Click on the link above and it will open a new tab or page in your bowser. You will simply be asked to share your name and email address to register, then getting full access to the videos.

Creativity – Key Skill

Wired to Create Crop

“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him …..a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create and create – so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. he must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating.”

Pearl S. Buck
Winner of Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes

Educators today are very fond of parading and selling the emphasis given to the development of creativity in their schools. Many have declared its importance through values, mission or vision of the school. This has been partly a response to the work of people like Dr Ken Robinson (highlighting the ways in which education kills creativity) and the recognition that creativity figures highly in most lists of the core skills that employers look for both now and in the future from their workforce.

However, I’ve really seen very little attempt by most educators to define what is really meant by creativity, what it would look like if a student had it and the best ways to ensure that school experiences nurture and cultivate it. How many schools could give an honest appraisal of how well they are achieving this aim?

The picture and quote above come from the best book I’ve read so far this year. As I read it I was continually mindful of this inclination towards creativity that is espoused by educators, but how the lack of detail or clarity suggests that these are simply nice words given little deep thought or introspection

The starting point is to acknowledge the types of creativity the world, business and schools want. in addition, as Dr Ken Robinson has highlighted over many years, the young infant doesn’t lack for creativity. A small child doesn’t need to be taught divergent thinking. When a child runs around the house or garden with a stick that is one second a gun, the next a flying broomstick, the next a walking stick and the next a cricket bat they show all the attributes of creativity.

The reality is that a lot of divergent thinking is not welcome in the classroom. Teachers fear the divergent thinking child. In fact, one chapter of the book shares research where children who were more creative divergent thinkers were among the least popular with their teachers, while their more compliant, obedient and passive peers were top in the popularity stakes. So, the child who is going to retain their creativity will need the resilience to deal with unpopularity and the treatment meted out to them by all around for ‘not playing the game.’

I had a very personal experience of this in primary school. I moved in to the classroom of a teacher I found incredibly frustrating. Her attention was all on power and control. It was a place where you spoke when ordered to do so, where obedience was the golden rule. I dared to ask questions and even after being given all the visual warning signals I continued to ask questions when dissatisfied with the dismissive responses i was getting. As time went on, the relationship between me and that teacher became more and more adversarial. Worse, she sought to turn my classmates against me with sarcasm and hints that I was stopping the class from moving forward (and the perception being that progress forward through the syllabus is what everyone’s supposed to care about). It all escalated to the point where the teacher suddenly took out a large roll of sellotape and taped my mouth shut. The sense of humiliation and belittling was horrendous. I received the message loud and clear that my curiosity, my desire to know things and understand some things deeper was not welcome in a classroom. Rather, classrooms were places where ‘playing by the rules’ counted above anything else and the punishments for daring to step out of line could be barbaric.

Creativity is challenging by its very nature. In 1959 Isaac Asimov pointed out that, “The world in general disapproves of creativity.” Many companies have had to take hard looks at their cultures to understand how they can create more ‘safe space’ for creativity. However, the focus on getting stuff done, continual movement of all in a common, shared direction in schools means that it’s majorly stifled in both teachers and students. Therefore, I conclude that any school that glibly declares it applauds creativity, but doesn’t ask itself serious questions and introspect continually is likely to be short-changing students.

Sadly, this gets brushed off by pointing out the inclusion of music, art and drama in the syllabus of the school and even that students can take these subjects through to examination levels. Also, much of the ‘creative time’ is pushed to extra curricular activities. A keen eye watching most schools’  annual talent competition would notice two significant things;

a) The levels of real, true creativity exhibited are minimal. The fact that a child can produce a reasonable rendition of a popular song or dance is hardly representative of creativity, and
b) Almost all the talent on show will have been acquired by the child outside the school, not in it.

The ability to point to a handful of children with some degree of mastery playing the piano or violin, putting on a staged musical or writing a poem for the school yearbook or displaying a watercolour of three pointy mountains and a rising sun does not represent proof that the school inculcates creativity in its students. The fact that many of those things might be done in very formulaic, pre-precribed and predictable ways may actually be indicative of quite the reverse.

As the various chapters of the book highlight, creativity is not neat and clean and certainly not formulaic. Rather, it comes out of daydreaming, mindfulness and developing an awareness of the working of one’s own mind. Invariably (but not exclusively) it flows from and is most often found in those who have undergone some suffering and had the strength to battle through to the other side of their personal challenges. If schools are truly positive for creativity they need to think carefully about how they support students to build resilience and grit.

As the quote at the beginning highlighted, creativity often flows from heightened sensitivity. All too often, today’s schools teach such sensitive children to tone down their emotions, to put a lid on strong feelings and to learn to conceal or bottle up those feelings that would make them stand out.

In fact, this may highlight the area that requires most effort in schools. All too often, it’s just not cool to stand out, to be different or to show behaviour or thinking that is outside the norm. Instead, school cultures emphasise conformity, fitting in and complying. many spend way more time drilling children for ‘march past’ etc for sports day than in activities that develop and expand on ability to think differently.

Visions, missions and values are not meant to be just nice phrases that are tripped out, displayed on websites, brochures and hall walls. Rather, they should be treated as touchstones against which a school community is continually testing itself.  The work of school leadership around these driving principles is never done. They should be continuously introspecting and leading the debate, encouraging a willingness to publicly challenge, question and innovate – a process akin to peeling an infinite onion.

It’s time to get creative about how we develop creativity in schools.

Free Resources – World Business & Executive Coach Summit

Many say that we live in a world where it’s never been more challenging to be a leader, regardless of the field or environment in which one leads. Faster changes, higher expectations of the leader to meet the needs of all stakeholders, always on communication channels, differing needs and expectations of different generations, global and technological changes that rewrite the reality of every industry or field are just a few of these challenges. In such circumstances, leaders need help and access to material that helps them to clarify their thought processes, from wherever it comes.

Last year I was very impressed to access a number of excellent sessions that were part of the WBECS Pre-Summit.  This organisation has a very extensive annual Summit that runs online weekly over a period of months. For that, you pay. However, they also offer a very extensive pre-summit where some of the top leadership experts and coaching experts of the world share summaries of material that will be in their longer summit sessions. These are free, run over a three week period, but are still enormously useful and can often stimulate interest for further reading, research and exploration.

WBECS Pre-Summit Recordings

The first week of sessions this year that can be accessed through the link above already include some valuable gems. Highlights for me included;

a) Daniel Goleman and Michelle Navarez – Mindfulness and EQ
b) Edgar and Peter Schien – Humble Leadership
c) David Peterson – DNA of VUCA
d) David Goldsmith – The Robots Really are Coming

And, there are three more weeks of great material still to be made available – all free!

I stress, this is not just for coaches or those who aspire to be coaches. For one, I would suggest that as leaders seek to achieve more through others in diverse teams, often scattered over many locations, the skills of coaching are pivotal for anyone who wants to lead. In many ways, the skills of coaching are the skills of leading.

There’s also much in these sessions that is food for thought for educators as they give thought to how to prepare young people to go in to the workplace of the future and do so effectively, as well as the most effective ways to lead and empower all stakeholders to do their best for the education of the pupils.

Enjoy, and please let me know what captures your attention.

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