Leaving the Past Behind

Recently I was confronted with a situation in which one of my ex-coworkers was discussing problems with her center, many of them reasons why I left the company. The news of what was going on opened up the deep disappointments that I had felt while working there, and I thought about writing a letter to the corporate office to express my concerns. I voiced my thoughts to my colleague, who urged me to do it. So I began composing the letter, and while all of these disappointments began to bubble to the surface, a funny thing happened. Actually, several funny things happened: I didn’t sleep good that night, and yoga the next day was impossible. Not only could I not center enough to do yoga, but I couldn’t quiet my mind enough to meditate. When I got to work my co-teacher repeatedly asked me what was wrong. My mind felt foggy and I couldn’t concentrate well on what was going on.

After I finished the letter I had an uneasy feeling. Did I really need to do this? I talked to my fiancé about it and he urged me to really examine my motivation for sending the letter. After all, it really wasn’t going to help me any to send it. I wasn’t planning to go back to the company, and I had already voiced my unhappiness by leaving the company in the first place.

And then it hit me: I didn’t have to send the letter, and I didn’t have to worry about what was going on at my old place of employment. It didn’t concern me any longer because I no longer worked there. I didn’t have to write anyone a letter and tell them anything. I had moved on to something infinitely better, and all of that stress and drama was in the past.

As soon as this realization sunk in I felt the weight of what I had been carrying lift off of my shoulders – the weight of issues and concerns that weren’t even mine. It is hard to carry around so much when you have so much that you are already carrying. I felt happier and the fog lifted. And I thought to myself, “How much of this have I still been carrying around? Have I been carrying this around inside me ever since I left my old job? Have I been pushing away opportunities to connect here because I have been holding on to things from my old job?”

Because of these questions I have begun to really examine my interactions and my frame of mind in my classroom to see if I am holding myself back from having the best experience I can possibly have at this center. I work in a great, Reggio-inspired environment that affords me more opportunity than I ever had at my previous job. The best thing I can do at this point is to make sure that I am fully enjoying the journey, and I am sure that I will be doing plenty of meditation to that end. After all, the past just weighs us down. It is the present that lifts us up.

Meditation

I’ve been practicing meditation on and off (mostly off) for the last year. In the past few weeks I have tried to make it a more permanent part of my routine. I am attracted by its claims to help increase focus and bring some stability of emotion to the day. And it does. On the days when I do my yoga and meditation I feel less impulsive when it comes to acting on emotion – something that is important when working with children. I have to have patience and the ability to think through my reactions before reacting. Meditation has helped me with that.

Meditation is not easy. Sitting by yourself in a room with your eyes closed for even five minutes is difficult, especially when you have no idea what in the world you are supposed to be doing for that five minutes, because we always have to be doing something, right? We always have to be showing in some way that we are being productive. At least, that is how I have felt. But what is the quality of our productivity?

I have been in the process of writing a book. I would call it a grueling process, but so far the only grueling part about it is my inability to truly focus on what I am doing. I’ll write a little, then pick up my phone and check Facebook. Write a little more and pick up my phone and play some silly game. Write a little more… The process goes on and on. Sometimes I have wonderful productive moments when I am in flow and nothing else matters, but these sessions aren’t as common as I would like them to be. Meditation has helped me be more focused on the process of writing the book and less focused on checking to see if anything new is happening on Facebook since I checked five minutes ago. It helps me develop the ability to let go of my wonder about what is going on in the Internet realm and focus on what is truly important to me – this book.

It is amazing to me just how scattered our attention spans truly are, and how easily we get sidetracked by the most mundane things, but every story that I’ve heard from people who meditate says that meditation helps them cut back on all the noise. Just today when I was meditating, I was able to let go of my wonder about how much time I had left in the meditation! This is a huge stumbling block for me because every time I open my eyes to see how much time there is, it breaks the concentration and that inner “looking”, all because of a clock. The trick is to learn how to push that worry away and focus on something else – breathing or a mantra or whatever. And that is a hard thing to do, but meditation is a practice of learning how to do it.

Let Them Be

I had the wonderful opportunity to talk to some of the teachers that I worked with at my old school. We had a great time talking and catching up, since it has been about a month and a half since I have seen any of them. They are all doing well, and I was glad to hear about how their lives have been since I left.

One of the things that we talked about was different types of teachers. “There’s the paper pusher,” said one girl. “And there’s the nurturer. And the by-the-book teacher.”

I really didn’t want to sound like I was fishing, but I wanted to know. “Which one do you think I am? I am definitely not the by-the-book teacher. And I’m not the paper pusher. And I’ve never really felt all that nurturing.”

“Oh, you are definitely the nurturer,” they assured me. “You let the kids be kids. You let them explore and play and enjoy childhood. And you let them experience independence, even if you have to get on the case of other teachers to do it!” One of the girls told a story about how she had attempted to help a child carry a bowl of milk to the sink, saying that he was getting it all over the floor. “Then he will clean it up!” I had snapped at her. That was toward the end of my tenure there, and I was really stressed out at the time. But one of the things that I have always tried to teach children is that messes aren’t a bad thing. We clean them up and we move on. But if that boy hadn’t had the experience carrying his own bowl of milk, he wouldn’t have had that practice balancing objects or developing his hand-eye coordination. A few drops of milk spilled is worth the development of those precious skills.

I had just had a talk with a co-teacher at my new school about children and letting them be. She was worried about how the children in the class were going to be when they got to kindergarten, because they were acting crazy at the time. “You can’t worry about how these children are going to be when they are in kindergarten,” I told her. “They are three years old. Right now we have to let them be three years old. If we worry about how they are going to be in kindergarten, and worry about getting them ready for that, then we are taking away their chance to experience being three.”

I believe in letting children be. I believe that their time is now, and we have to let them be what they are right now. Does that mean that we should not teach them, with an eye toward the future? No, it doesn’t. We can teach them, but not to the detriment of where they are now.

This brings new light to the yoga wisdom ‘be present’. To me it says that we need to be aware of where we are right now. But as a teacher, it also says that we need to be aware of where the children are right now, and we need to remember that, no matter what they have coming in a month, six months, a year, or two years from now, we need to meet them at this present time and enjoy where they are right now, in this moment. We need to bring our present selves to enjoy their present selves.

It also brings to mind the call of emergent curriculum advocates to capitalize on the current interests of the child. Children are interested in exploring different aspects of life, and their interests can take your teaching in unexpected directions. I have always loved the spontaneity of emergent curriculum because I never know what we are going to be learning about. Learning winds down unanticipated roads, and I confess to learning many new things simply by doing research into the areas of interest that the children in my class exhibited. This is ‘being present’ at its finest: paying attention and observing the children to the point that their interests are plain to you, and then planning lessons based on what you have observed.

In both cases of being present, we are being respectful of who the child is and letting them be that person. I believe that teachers should have respect for the unique individuals that come into our classrooms, and should not try to force that uniqueness to conform to our ideas of what is ‘good’ or ‘right’. I am not saying that we should let children get away with hurting others or acting out-of-control. There are respectful ways to teach children how to respect others around them. What I am talking about is not forcing children to constantly do what we want them to do, but let them do and learn the things that they want. They will learn more that way, and they will grow to love learning. We need to let them explore, let them grow, and let them be who they are. And most of all, we need to be present with them through all of that.

Focus on the Process

Yoga has become a huge part of my life in the past several months, and yesterday a yoga practitioner posed the following question on Facebook:

Why do you do yoga?

At first I started doing yoga for stress relief. Lately it has become so much more to me. I feel much more relaxed and balanced after I practice, and doing yoga is a way for me to reconnect with myself. I have talked a lot about how teachers give so much of themselves away, and yoga has become a way for me to check in with myself and really sense how I am feeling and how I am doing. I have begun adding in some meditation as a way to really focus myself and connect with myself on a deeper level. Meditation has been hard for me to do; I hear stories about how some people meditate for thirty minutes or even an hour and I can’t even imagine doing it for that long. But this morning while I was meditating a thought struck me: if I become uncomfortable or unfocused spending just five minutes being present with myself, how will I be when I have to be present for someone else? We are with ourselves all of the time, and it would make sense that our own selves should be who we are the most comfortable with, but I have found that it takes a lot for me to be comfortable with focusing on connecting with myself for even five minutes. That last sentence is a mouthful, but that is really what it is all about. Comfort, focus, and connection. With myself. And supposedly, what you get in is what you get out. Supposedly, when I connect more with myself I am supposed to better be able to connect with others. Which makes sense. I will see in others what I focus on in myself.

Which led to my other big epiphany for the day: it is all a process. I know what it is like to want everything now, now, now. I am one of the worst when it comes to that. I want it all fixed now. I want my business to grow now. I want to know whether I have the promotion now. I want to fix everything in my classroom and have it be perfect now. I am a now person. But that, at its core, is focusing on the product. The end result. It takes a process to get there. It takes a process to fix the classroom like I want it, just as writing this book is a process. Doing yoga is a process all on its own. I can’t do all of the poses that I want to be able to do, but I am in the process of getting there. I am in the process of being comfortable enough with myself that I can spend larger amounts of time focusing on connecting with myself. I am in the process of getting that promotion. Life is a process, and it is time to slow down and enjoy the process rather than waiting and stressing about the end product. It will come, but it will never be the end. There will always be something else to want now right behind it. Life itself is one big forest, but the process are those trees that make it up.

My Yoga Journey

About a year ago I was in school, working full time in a stressful environment, and trying to keep my house in order. To say that I was completely stressed out was an understatement. I was stressed out, burnt out, and working hard just to keep my head above water. I needed some way to decompress.

When school ended for the semester I began to explore options for stress relief. I’ve tried to do yoga on and off throughout the years, but I’ve been intimidated by the skinny people doing poses designed for the mega-flexible. I wasn’t sure if I could get past that enough to try to do much yoga, but I was willing to give it a shot. I invested in a beginner’s yoga DVD and began my journey. I was glad I did. It didn’t take me long to realize that yoga is about letting go of where you want to be and accepting where you are, no matter where that is. So I learned that flexibility doesn’t matter so much as tuning in to myself.

That has been my big take-away from yoga: tuning in to myself. Yoga is about so much more than the poses. It is about connecting with yourself, whether it is the good parts or the bad, and accepting all of those pieces of yourself. Sure, there are parts of ourselves that we would all like to work on, and yoga doesn’t tell us that we can’t work on those pieces. It does tell me that I am okay despite those pieces, and it helps me focus on working on what needs to be worked on.

I needed that lesson because I was giving so much of myself away. I gave pieces of myself away in my job and in my school work. I gave pieces of myself away to my family and my small business. I kept giving pieces of myself away every day, and I did not stop to reconnect with that part of myself that needs to feel loved and accepted, that part of me that is so passionate about what I do and why I do it. Yoga is an important part of my life now because it helps me reconnect.

Writing this post became important to me a few weeks ago because I realized that, even though I was doing yoga to reconnect with myself, I wasn’t truly reconnecting with my passion to teach. My passion for teaching has been driving me for many years, and through the burnout and the stress I have lost my connection to that. Add to that the stress and uncertainty of changing jobs, and through changing jobs the loss of certainty of the direction of the company. I love my company and I love teaching, and I don’t want to lose those things simply because I haven’t slowed down enough to reconnect with that passion inside of me. It is time for me to reconnect, to slow down. All of my previous recent posts have been written in hopes of publishing a book. I believe in every word that I have published here, but in some ways I feel like I am concentrating on the forest and forgetting about the trees. The trees – the children and the relationships that we go back to day after day. The love and the curiosity and the creativity that is let loose every day in the classroom. Those are my passion, and while everything I am writing here is important, it is also important to not forget about these aspects of the classroom.

I have been struggling with writing about taking care of ourselves first, because as teachers we give so much of ourselves away. I have been trying to write about how to get that passion back once you hit burn-out, because that is what I am trying to do right now. Looking at the forest hasn’t helped. It is time to look at the trees.

Moving and Stretching for Stress Management

Moving helps increase blood flow to all areas of the body, including the brain. According to the Mayo Clinic, movement increases the production of endorphins, which are neurotransmitters that help you feel good. These neurotransmitters can counteract the ones that the brain releases during the fight or flight response and put you back in the driver’s’ seat. Sometimes lowering the stress in the classroom can be as simple as taking the children outside to let them run and play for a while. However, in some child care centers or schools the day can be quite scheduled. Sometimes the weather may not allow for the children to be outside. There are many reasons why children may not be able to go outside. In those situations it may be worth it to try one of these methods instead:

  • Yoga – A lot of people are intimidated by yoga because they have seen pictures of skinny, flexible people bending themselves into impossible poses. Those poses and that stereotype are not the essence of yoga. Yoga is about accepting what you can’t do and focusing on what you can do, no matter who you are. Yoga pairs breathing and movement in such a way that you can’t help but relax. There are several resources available for doing yoga with children, including sets of cards that have pictures of different poses on them (these are the ones I use). You can use the cards as a large group activity, or children can practice with them independently.
  • Simple stretches – Developing a series of simple of stretches can help your class relax and increase blood flow. Touching your toes or doing a windmill are just a couple of examples of effective stretches. Doing exercises that cross the body can also help stimulate both sides of the brain, as well.

Remember, just like breathing exercises, moving and stretching should be performed throughout the day to fight stress build-up. And moving should be fun! Fun releases stress, too, so don’t take yourself too seriously during these exercises! Kids are only kids one time, so give them good memories of stress management and don’t make the process add more stress to the situation.

 

Broken Relationships

Usually when I post about relationships on this blog, I post about building positive relationships. Today, however, I experienced broken relationships in my classroom, which is why I have felt prompted to write about them.

Child: “I don’t like you, Ms. Sarah. I don’t like your kids, either. I’m going away and I am not coming back.”

These are the words that I heard today when I was out on the playground. Now, the child had taken another child’s shoe and wasn’t giving it back to them, even as the shoe-less child was screaming “GIVE ME BACK MY SHOE!” I told her to give the shoe back to the other child. After she did, those were the words that she said to me.

It had already been a long day before this happened, and for some reason I was extremely tired. I knew this, so I was fighting to breathe and keep my calm through all of the emotional turmoil that seemed to be going on around me today. After all, if the teacher can’t respond to turmoil calmly and consistently, there really can’t be a feeling of safety in the classroom. I had been trying so hard to figure out just why I was so tired and why I felt like I needed to breathe just to get through every moment. I knew I hadn’t slept well the night before, but I didn’t think it would cause the kind of day I had been having.

But I should know better. One of the things that I teach during my workshops is that:

In order to be an authentic teacher, you must take care of yourself first.

Being authentic can mean many different things to many different people, but in order for anyone to be authentic – to be truly them, they have to take care of themselves first. I know that when I sleep at night, I have to have the room cold. If the room is not cold, I will wake up and I will not be able to go back to sleep. I know that I have to have eight hours of sleep a night, or I will have no patience and I will feel bad. And yet I did not check to make sure that my room would be cold. And I didn’t get eight hours of sleep. I didn’t take care of myself first. Because of that, I had a really rough day in which I was tired and low on patience in a room full of three-year-olds.

Teachers are so busy taking care of everyone else: the children in the classroom, families (if they have them), parents, lesson plans, ideas for the classroom, etc., etc. But it is important for us to remember that, in order for us to be able to take care of everyone else, we have to take care of ourselves first. Even those of us in professional development need to remember that.

I saw a great quote on Facebook yesterday about being authentic: “You actually have to practice being authentic, because the world puts so many layers of ‘should’ onto you.” I saw this quote on the page of Baptiste Yoga. I do yoga a lot. I used to do it in the classroom with my kids. I do it at home in order to make myself slow down and breathe and calm down. It is one of the ways that I take care of myself first. I find that if I do yoga and meditate, my patience level is much higher and I can slow down and think things through better before I simply react. Working with any age requires that you slow down and think about how you are going to respond to situations in the classroom. After all, these children are looking at everything we do. If we act emotional and out of control, so will the children. If we act calm and in control, the children will, too. It is important to be the calm that we want others to be. And it is important that we take care of ourselves first so that we can make that happen.

Tomorrow, I am hoping to repair the broken relationships that were caused by my lack of good, quality sleep. Three-year-olds are pretty resilient, so it shouldn’t be too hard. Plus, we are working on making a zoo and we are learning all kinds of cool stuff about animals. I’m sure we can come up with some absolutely amazing animal activities that will help repair the broken relationships of today.

But for now, I am going to bed – in my cold room.