by Kristy Wood, Bachelor of Education, Australia
I am a primary school teacher and I wish to share my experience of the ‘quality of presence in a classroom’.
Schools and teachers today are dealing with a rise in the many issues that they are presented with on a daily basis. We are living in a current context in which teacher stress and burn-out are at an alarming high. We are also living in times where the behaviours being displayed by children and the vast issues schools are dealing with have intensified, and this is an issue that is being reported in newspapers world-wide. Many teachers are expressing that they feel disheartened by the process of teaching. It has become so outcome and achievement based, there is little time for anything else.
Consider this quote from Aristotle, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all”, and the fact that our way of educating children has now predominantly become about the end result of the knowledge they retain that will help them to get a job in the future. How much educating of the heart and the person really happens in this process?
I recently asked a group of teachers, “When was the last time you really enjoyed being with the children or you sat and really listened to them share an experience about something that had happened to them?”. The room of over 20 teachers looked a bit shocked and many honestly responded that they couldn’t think of the last time when they stopped and just enjoyed a moment with the children. They shared that they simply didn’t have time to do this. There was too much that they needed to do in terms of getting through the curriculum, managing behaviours, planning, programming, lesson preparation and filling out numerous amounts of reports and paper work so that they can justify what they are doing. It’s like the teachers running a marathon each day: many are often not even stopping to go to the toilet when they need to.
What I noticed is that we spend a lot of time caught up in where we need to be, what we are doing next, where we need to get the kids to, etc. We are constantly running a few steps ahead of where we actually are, and the process of doing this is exhausting.
I too was a teacher going through the motions of getting through the day. I liked being with the kids but the moments of really enjoying each day were few and far between. I never really thought much of this but just accepted that this was how teaching and life were to be. I was often considered one of the ‘best’ teachers in the school but this was still my experience – I liked the job but there wasn’t a daily joy to it. I would listen to the kids, but it was that half-listening, where I would listen to them for a bit but I was also still focused on other things, like keeping an eye on the rest of the class.
I attended a Universal Medicine retreat and I was presented with another way. It was very simple – it just made me stop and consider how I was living, and how much time I was spending being caught up in the ‘next’ thing, the ‘next’ moment, and how little time I spent being present with what I was doing in that moment. I started to become aware of how this then impacted on those I interacted with. During the retreat Serge Benhayon shared simple and practical tools to support us to bring quality and presence to our days. Serge also shared that we need to look after and take care of ourselves so that we are then able to truly care for others. From there I started to bring more awareness to how I was living and supporting myself each day. The impact this has had on my teaching has been amazing.
By bringing more awareness and quality of presence to the classroom I noticed that the way the children responded to me changed instantly. I was able to start to really see the kids and observe what was going on for them. Through taking the time to be with the children, they felt more honoured in the relationship, and the dynamics of the classroom changed dramatically. I was able to connect with each child in the way that they needed each day; the ripple effect of this in the classroom was huge. I found that I no longer had to ‘manage’ the kids’ behaviour as I could see what was going on for each child and could respond with what was needed in that moment without reacting in frustration and adding to the issue. I noticed that the children also started to take more responsibility for how they behaved and treated each other. There were rarely any issues between the kids and if there were, they would work through it in a way that supported each other – not in an argument. No one was vying for my attention either as they realised they were all seen and would get the support they needed. The class came together and there was a deep appreciation, respect and enjoyment of each other. From here teaching changed for me, it re-ignited the absolute joy and love I have of working with kids. I looked forward to going to work each day and I started to really enjoy just being with the children first and foremost before anything else.
Through bringing the quality of presence to the classroom I began to realise that only now was I able to support real learning with the children. It was no longer just about developing a lesson and teaching that lesson so that the children could gain information and knowledge. I was able to start to see what each child needed, how they needed things to be presented, how they best understood things and what was the next thing they needed to unfold their next level of understanding. There was no longer a right or wrong way of doing things.
I know many teachers would say you can’t teach 30 different ways of doing things at the same time. The answer is, I didn’t. I was no longer the only teacher in the room. If I could see that one child had a deeper understanding of something, and also had a similar approach to learning new information as another child, then it was important for them to share their understanding with one another. The knowledge was no longer theirs to be used over another: in this way, their understanding and way of learning was appreciated and used to support others’ learning in the classroom.
In this process of learning together, where I too was an equal learner, the confidence of every person in the room grew. Yes, some children understood mathematics better and some understood the conventions of language better, but each child had something to offer, so the kids stopped seeing other kids as being ‘better’ than them. Each child brought something special to the room, whether it was the way they were able to understand people, the way they cared for or supported others, or their sense of humour – everyone was appreciated for who they were, not what they could achieve – and everyone fitted. This is often something that doesn’t happen in a classroom, there are often one or two kids who are slightly ostracised by the group or who you can feel the teacher would find it much easier if they were in another class.
This doesn’t mean that I now had a class of perfectly behaved children; it wasn’t like that as life is not like that. Yes, the children still went through stuff but it often didn’t last long. I didn’t have to manage behaviour, have a rewards chart or any behaviour plans. If something came up for one of the kids, the other kids didn’t react; and because of the support I offered them, they were then able to offer this to each other. So if a child came into the room angry, the other kids didn’t react or try and push their buttons and provoke them. Without it ever being discussed, it was as if it was known and silently worked out who would be the best person to talk to that child and support them. Sometimes the children would talk through what was going on, other times they would simply tell the child to stop and that they couldn’t join in until they had stopped being angry with others.
For me as a teacher behaviour management stopped because the children had a deep connection with each other and they started to see and deal with what was actually going on. Children have an amazing empathy for others and can express this easily, if they haven’t had too many detrimental experiences. Through the understanding they had of each other they could recognise that certain behaviours a child may be displaying wasn’t actually them. This also helped me to look ‘through’ the behaviours, connect with the child, sit with them and discuss the behaviours, without the child being identified by those behaviours. We would look at why they were choosing certain behaviours and what was happening for them, this also allowed them to see the impact this had on others when they chose to act in this way. It supported the children to take responsibility for their behaviour and deal with the issue that was underlying them. All of this came about by simply choosing to be more present and connected to myself so that I could then connect and be more present with the children in my care.
We can’t treat the brains or minds of children in isolation to the rest of the child. Life is about people and the relationships we have with each other – our occupations and what we do are second to this. You often hear statements in schools such as, “If that child wasn’t in my class, it would be so much easier”. But it is about ‘that’ child, as it is about all the children equally. It is not about how much of the curriculum we can impart onto the children, for this is not true learning. We need to stop and consider that while we may be preparing kids so that they eventually have the skills to get a job, do we equally prepare them so that they will have quality and joy in their lives? How can we do this if we as their teachers do not have this quality in our own lives, and therefore don’t bring this quality to the way we teach children and the way we run our classrooms?
When people are asked to recall their favourite teacher or those that made a difference to them, it is often the teacher that took the time to know them and develop a personal connection with them. This we know. We do have courses at university that teach the importance of the relationships you have with the children in your class. However, we need to go deeper with this and look at the quality of our presence and the quality of the relationships we have with ourselves and then all the children equally.
I was recently talking to a 12 year-old boy who had been in trouble at school. I asked him what was going on and he said, “I hate school”. I asked him why, and he said, “They just tell us stuff all day and then when there is something that really needs to be talked about, it’s not. They focus on all these rules, like don’t run on the concrete and stuff and they put that first, but then when you need to talk about a problem or something important you are just told to play nicely and stuff, like it doesn’t really matter”. I then asked him how he would like to be educated. He said, “When a child is born you would watch them and see what they are naturally interested in or good at, the parents would then support the child to develop that. If the parents didn’t have those skills but were good at something different, then they would find a person who knows more about what the child is good at, and would support them to develop those skills further. You would talk with the child about what they know and ask them questions so they understand things more. You would also encourage them to learn other things that weren’t as natural for them but they would also have more confidence to do this because of what they know first.”
What this boy expressed was very revealing of our current ways of educating children. He was misbehaving at school because he felt like no one really knew him or took the time to care about him, know what interested him, and know how he needed things to be presented for him to feel confident in his abilities. He also expressed that children come to school with a knowing, they are not empty vessels that are to be filled with knowledge. He was frustrated that in the busyness we were unable to see what was already there in him to be worked with. While practically we may not be able to do things in the way he has expressed, we are however able to bring a quality of care, presence and understanding to our current classrooms.
Too many children are craving to be met with genuine care and warmth. Many children play up in the classroom and because teachers can be overloaded and caught up in all they need to do, the kids are not really seen. Some teachers may react to these behaviours as they see it as a disturbance to their lesson or day. They then implement behaviour management strategies to attempt to minimise these behaviours, however in this, the children feel the lack of care for them as a person. The child knows that it isn’t about them but is about making it easier for the teacher to get through the lesson, so they often react further and may escalate the behaviours, or some kids may choose to shut down and withdraw. Some of the children who act out realise that in doing this they get some kind of attention or recognition, which is better than not being seen, so they continue to choose these behaviours. What I have learnt is that the less I react, which I can only do when I am not running at a million miles an hour, the more I am able to be with the children and be aware of what is really going on. In this the children feel a genuine love and care and will often respond without resorting to inappropriate behaviours. It is not our job to control children but provide the support and boundaries that then allow them to makes choices and learn from these.
There are lots of children coming into schools in quite a variety of momentums resulting in varied behaviours. It seems that many of them are over-stimulated and find it hard to stop. Many of these children share that they have problems sleeping; they look exhausted and find it hard to focus. When we do stop and take notice, we can see that our pace of life is having an impact on our children. Teachers often feel this momentum and think they need to do things quickly to keep the kids entertained; sometimes teachers go into a more intense state than the children, such as raising their voice above them to try and control them. This just exacerbates the intensity in the classroom.
What I have learnt is that the more I look after myself, the more I am able to hold a consistent way of being and hold my own rhythm. When I walk into a classroom the children feel this, it is like it allows them to relax and they then align to my quality of presence, instead of me being pulled into their momentum.
Some people think I have a special gift with children and some try and copy things I do so that they can get the same response from the kids. But kids can’t be fooled, no matter how soft your voice is; if you are running a million miles an hour, you can’t suddenly stop and put on a soft voice and be able to offer the children a stillness, a different momentum or a deep connection. If you haven’t been meeting yourself in this way then you are not able to truly do it for others. There is nothing special about what I do, it is simply about the quality in which I choose to live that I then bring to others. This is something we need to teach in universities. It is not about behaviour management but the quality of connection that you offer to children.
As the Dalai Lama so wisely said, “Affection and a calm mind are important to us. A calm mind is good for our physical health, but it also enables us to use our intelligence properly and to see things more realistically. Affection too is important because it counters anger, hatred and suspicion that can prevent our minds from functioning clearly.”