Last week I was fortunate to be in attendance at the South Carolina Teacher of the Year Banquet. Simply being around passionate educators is incredibly inspiring. Over the past few years, I have become acquainted with many of our State and District Teachers of the Year. It has been my honor to work closely with these leaders as they pour their lives into improving education in South Carolina.
In my discussions with these outstanding teachers, one thing has become abundantly clear. Evaluating the quality of a teacher based upon the results of a standardized test is damaging the teaching profession and, ultimately, the students of our state.
When schools and teachers are judged, in large part, by standardized tests the system becomes geared toward maximizing results on these tests. While tests can provide some useful data in assessing student growth and developing plans to improve achievement, they are narrow, objective, and VERY LIMITED in what they can measure. Thus, the education of our children becomes narrow, objective and limited. In this test-crazy environment, many teachers lose their passion. What should be an art is reduced to a technical process that sucks the soul out of many teachers. They are forced to paint by numbers rather than create masterpieces. Sadly, the passion for learning, so natural to all children, is also crushed in this environment because preparing for bubble-in tests is antithetical to igniting students’ passion for learning.
We have become so caught up in improving test scores that we have forgotten to consider whether the "test and punish" culture we have built is really the ideal approach to educating our youth. This culture has had devastating impacts on our teachers. Forty-six percent of our teachers leave the profession within the first five years. We should also consider the great number of young people who refuse to even enter the field because they cannot envision themselves spending their lives in a profession stripped of its autonomy and degraded by a growing lack of respect and dignity, evidenced by the common practice of excluding teachers from providing input on the very policies that impact them and their students most. The quality teachers who remain are forced to follow these policies, and they often conflict with a their own consciences.
Well-intentioned people outside of education commonly think they have the answer. Whether it is to integrate a business or military style approach, those who have NOT spent time leading a classroom simply cannot be trusted to create policy without SIGNIFICANT input from veteran teacher leaders.
Having never spent a day in the military, I would NEVER consider authoring or even supporting legislation impacting our soldiers without a high level of consultation with soldiers who have been in combat and military leaders who could provide informed input on the merits of the legislation.
As our teacher leaders are constantly bypassed in the creation of educational policy, we are sending them the message that their thoughts and ideas simply do not matter. We are telling them that their education, experience, and wisdom are trumped by the ignorance, inexperience, and folly of ideologues who arrogantly think they know better.
America’s teachers deserve better. They are heroes who should be treated with deep respect. Reducing them to test-preparers is misguided and immoral. Judging them by the results of a test would be like judging your doctor based upon the results of your cholesterol test. If your doctor prescribes the right medicine, treatment, diet, and lifestyle changes, what more can your doctor do? She can’t swallow the statins for you!
Besides, there’s much more to good health than your cholesterol levels. Likewise, there is so much more to an education than what can be measured on these tests. Creativity, compassion, mental health, honesty, integrity, happiness, and physical health are all essential to a quality life. As a father of three children, I would rather my kids have high levels of these qualities than those measured on a test.
I am calling upon educators everywhere to insist upon building a NEW culture, one that emphasizes student growth while investing in and cherishing their humanity, one that generates a universal respect and admiration for our teachers, one that eschews “test and punish” in favor “love and develop.”
We know what must be done. We just have to be willing to dream big enough to make it happen.
I just finished a great documentary on PBS called Mr. Rogers and Me. I highly recommend it to everyone, particularly fans of Mr. Rogers.
I grew up watching Mr. Rogers Neighborhood and fondly remember his fish tank, trolley, puppets, and field trips to so many interesting places. I have worn cardigans and sneakers for years as a token of my respect to the man. I always knew how kind and gentle he was, but the depth of his life was lost on me until recently.
This documentary confirmed that my evolving perception of the man as not just a kind, old tv personality, but also a wise and profound sage, was correct.
Mr. Rogers once said, “I feel so strongly that deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex.” This quote has been on my mind since hearing it. I have been considering the depth of my relationships and the complexity of my day to day life. These reflections have brought back memories of the time I spent in Floyd, VA about a year ago.
During the few days I spent in Floyd, I became enchanted with this small, magical town with one stoplight in the Virginia hills. I became fascinated and inspired by the teachers and students of Blue Mountain School. When I have spoken to people about Floyd, I have detailed a number of interesting and inspirational experiences (WARNING: If you ask me, I will go on for about an hour), but it has been difficult articulating those experiences succinctly. I think, however, Mr. Rogers has helped me find the right words, "DEEP and SIMPLE."
My life, and the lives of most people I know are shallow and complex. We never seem to have enough time. Goal-oriented, focused on the future, driven by data and always in a rush, we rarely have the time for a deep conversation. We rarely feel what our humanity yearns for....freedom to explore, time to wonder, and the space to find inner peace and dream. Alarm clocks, drives, traffic, e-mails, texts, phone calls, Facebook, Twitter, appointments, agendas, chores, meetings, practices, tv, web surfing, and disconnection have us spread so thin that depth is rarely possible and complexity is the norm.
I am sure the people I met in Floyd have their share of complexity, but my experiences there led me to believe that they value depth and simplicity and are willing to act upon those values. Whether it is the way they have designed Blue Mountain School or the palpable sense of community, it is clear that depth and simplicity are more than mere notions of dreamers. They are integrated into the day to day lifestyle.
I think most of us crave this. We want REAL relationships. We want TIME to develop these relationships and explore our outer and inner worlds to find meaning and fulfillment. We also want TIME to fiddle with a guitar or a paintbrush. We want to feel that we are a part of a caring community. We want to decelerate, turn off the television, and sit around a fire telling stories and jokes with the people of our community. Someone brings a guitar, and we all sing together as we gaze up at the stars in sheer awe of how small we are compared to the universe. A hike through the forest, a day at the farmer's market, a quick snack at a locally owned coffee shop while three musicians play improvisational jazz music....not for money, but for the love of music.... we throw money in their cases because we appreciate their genuine expression....a festival....a park at the end of a trail worn by the feet of children who have the time to play something other than video games...an unplanned visit by a neighbor who just wanted stop by and see how we were doing....a child urging us to pay attention so she can show us how great her cartwheel is....reading an inspirational book on our porch while the last few rays of sun set in a prismatic sky....and the time to simply breathe and notice the changing seasons outside and within us. As we pass through this life, through the peaks and valleys, we never feel alone. We have found a way out of the chronic stress that our complex lives have placed upon us. This is what I dream about. This is the vision I have for my children and their children. This is, I believe, the neighborhood Mr. Rogers wanted us to have.
Instead of realizing this dream, we count down the days to our next vacation when we can get a glimpse of this kind of life, but we know it is temporary. Then we pass along this "life"style to our children, and they don't even know to question it. We move through our lives cashing in hours, days, weeks, months and years as if they were inexhaustible. Whether through resignation or denial, we rarely take the steps necessary to rid ourselves of the complexity to make time for the deep living Mr. Rogers claimed was "essential."
Our schools, filled with wonderful adults and children, appear to be entangled in this complexity. Pressured by accountability and our achievement culture, afraid to be left behind in the race to the top, human beings in boxes all over our country are scrambling to keep up. Stressed out, anxious, and sometimes depressed, these people feel powerless to change that culture. In a race to deliver standards and prepare students for tests, we have decided to sacrifice the depth and simplicity Mr. Rogers so wisely counseled us to seek. We have been left with a culture where many of us feel isolated, with plenty of PHYSICAL neighbors, but very few REAL neighbors.
Is this the kind of culture we want to sustain and build upon? Is this what will truly bring us happiness and fulfillment?
I'm calling upon everyone to reimagine our lives, to reconsider the words of a deep and simple man. Mr. Rogers had more to teach us than most of us have given him credit for.
Preface: This has been the most challenging blog post I have written in a while. I am sharing some things about my past that I have not shared with many people. I am not sharing these things as catharsis. It is more out of a hope that anyone who can relate to my experiences will be helped by my story.
I remember, as a child, hearing about meditation and being very curious about altering my state of consciousness. I sat alone in my room staring at a wall for a few minutes hoping something mystical would happen. I soon got bored and went back to playing Atari....probably Pitfall or Adventure.
I quickly dismissed meditation as something along the lines of magic crystals or tarot cards. It didn't seem worth the time. That view persisted for many, many years. Meditation simply had no appeal for me. Why would I want to sit and do nothing when there was so much to do?
The birth of my first child generated a love beyond my ability to comprehend. That profound experience opened my mind back up to many possibilities. It also, paradoxically, created a great amount of stress because I began taking a deep look within myself trying to figure out who I was and what I believed in. I felt like I needed to know these things if I was going to be worthy of the role of father. My life was no longer my own. I had to ensure that I was going to be the kind of father this wonderful being deserved.
Along with the stress of being a teacher and a new father, I was going through this existential crisis. What did I believe in? What was my purpose? What values was I going to pass along to my child? I could no longer turn away from these questions to play video games. They had to be explored because the answers were going to impact the being I loved most in this world.
I won't go into my personal spiritual journey, but I admit that it is hard to separate my spiritual journey from the psychological journey I began at that time. That psychological journey was incredibly difficult. I experienced periods of great anxiety that led to periods of depression. I experienced valleys of overwhelming fear and uncertainty as I tried to find a footing or place to anchor myself. That journey included a lot of reading and listening. I devoured books and podcasts on philosophy, religion, self-improvement, etc. I was searching for solutions....solutions that would satisfy my sense of reason while also providing me comfort from my fears....fear of death, fear of not knowing, etc. Many times the solutions that made me feel at ease conflicted with my sense of reason. Likewise, the concepts that seemed most reasonable often made me more anxious.
This exploration led me to meditation time and time again, and as the scientific community began affirming the MANY benefits of the practice, I began dabbling.
I recall one of my first attempts to meditate. It was during a time of great stress. I found that being alone with my stressful thoughts, with nothing to distract me, would magnify these thoughts and generate negative emotions. Despite that, I decided to press on. I thought about the times when I would restart a workout routine and how PAINFUL the first few weeks were as my muscles, heart and lungs became reacquainted with regular exercise. I didn't feel like it would be fair to evaluate meditation as a tool to manage stress unless I committed to practicing consistently over a long period of time.
As I practiced, I slowly began to understand how my mind worked. My mind would generate negative thoughts. I would typically critique myself about something that happened in the past or worry about something happening in the future. I would follow this thought, ruminate, and create my own stress. This would set off physiological responses that would leave me frazzled and wiped out. For the first time, I could see the stress-generating system from beginning to end. With this new vision, I learned strategies to short-circuit the system. The first of these strategies was to stop trying to suppress thought. This was counter-intuitive because I thought if I could just stop the thought, I could stop the stress, but I realized that the mind is AWESOME....I MEAN REALLY GOOD at GENERATING THOUGHTS, and the more creative one is the more terrifying these thoughts can be. Somehow, when I tried to suppress thoughts, my mind became even better at generating thoughts. So that was the first step. I had to stop trying to suppress thought. The next step was just as important as the first. I had to recognize thoughts as a thoughts and separate them from reality. I came to understand that while I could not suppress my thoughts, I could control my response to thoughts. I did not have to believe them. I had developed a habit of lending too much credibility to all of my thoughts and then following the thought down a rabbit hole into cyclical negativity, worry, and fear. I not only followed the thought, but I built upon it. I constructed scary, painful realities out of these thoughts until my mind accepted them as reality. My mind would then set off the alarm system and over time, multiple alarms left me exhausted, sad, and focused on the negative.
Try to remember a time when you were a child and you convinced yourself that there was a monster under your bed or a boogeyman in your closet. Your mind generated this fantasy, and if you believed in it enough, you could scare the crap out of yourself. Then you would cry for your mom. The problem is that the lies we tell ourselves now are not so obviously fiction and screaming "MOM!" is less effective than it was when I was six. The lies we tell ourselves seem plausible. "I am not a good person." "I am going to mess this up." "People think I'm incompetent." "I will never achieve my goals." The mind generates the thought. You buy it. You perseverate on the thought, and it branches off into other recurrent negative themes or stories that you have been constructing about the subject. Sometimes these are stories you have told yourself since childhood.. The thought gains momentum and solidity like a snowball rolling down a hill. You react to it as though it is real and you find yourself anxious or depressed.
Meditation has helped me deconstruct this process, and that has helped me deconstruct my stress. I am not pretending to be a zen master. I am still learning a lot about my mind, and there are times when my new tools fail me, but at least I have some effective tools to use. Sometimes I don't recognize this system at work until it has reached the massive snowball stage, but MANY, MANY times I have been able to cut the process off at its beginning stages. As a result, many thoughts that would have previously entangled me in a web of negativity have been gently swept away, allowing me to maintain a sense of peace and joy.
I am very passionate about sharing meditation because I see so much stress in the world. I see teachers, students, administrators, parents and many others who are being crushed under the weight of their stress. I see shootings that seem to be occurring almost daily in schools, malls and theaters. I see a broken government filled with politicians unable to see past their party or ideological identities to move our country forward. I see religious, racial, and cultural intolerance. I see violence and hatred based upon fear and ignorance.
This is not a world worthy of my children or yours. They deserve better. They deserve a world that is consumed with compassion more than competition. They deserve schools that value their hearts over their data. They deserve adults who value peace and equanimity over money and power.
I know that meditation could help in all of these areas, and it could be implemented NOW because it is free and requires no talents or prerequisites. Its benefits are universal and neither require or restrict any set of religious beliefs. Exercise and proper nutrition are proven to make our bodies healthier. Meditation is proven to provide us with greater mental health. Why wouldn't we use it?
My three children provide constant motivation for this work, work that I recognize must start with myself. For me, meditation has gone beyond a simple tool to relieve stress. It is helping me develop compassion, peace and a deep sense of connection to others. For me, the dive inside myself has been the most important journey I've ever taken. This website, my presentations, and my efforts in this area are all designed to facilitate that journey for others. If we can all summon the courage, we will find that the treasures we have been seeking externally can all be found within us.
NOTE: It would mean a lot to me to hear your reactions to this piece. Please feel free to leave a comment or e-mail me at email@example.com.
As we start a new year, many people will make a resolution to lose some weight. Being physically healthy is a fantastic goal for everyone, but I invite you to also lose another kind of weight in 2014.
Life can get chronically heavy. This weight is created by our inner thoughts about the external world. Many of us, including myself, have formed habits to think and respond negatively to our external conditions. This negative inner chatter produces negative emotions. When those emotions become chronic, they can generate anxiety, depression, and a host of physiological problems (headaches, insomnia, hypertension, etc). Left unchecked, we can also develop a miserable attitude.
So we busy ourselves with the quest to manipulate external conditions in an effort to short-circuit these negative thoughts and all of the terrible stuff that follows. This quest is never-ending. We find that once we have one external issue solved, another pops up. Our lives become a non-stop game of Whack-A-Mole. We heal a relationship and then another one begins to deteriorate. Just when we think we have external conditions settled, another stressful event rears its head. This quest often leaves us exhausted, cynical, and jaded. So we do our best to cope with this weight and simply try to hold on until our next break or vacation when we can temporarily step away from this maddening game.
As a teacher, I recall the combination of excitement and dread as I returned to work after a break. This mixture of optimism and pessimism, hope and fear, made transitioning back to work a challenge. I hoped there would be fewer moles and feared there would be more, but I knew the whacking of moles would really never stop. For me, the hardest transition of the year was returning to work after the holidays. After spending time surrounded by family and friends, celebrating and relaxing, it was hard to face down that long stretch between January and Spring Break. The days are still short. The weather is still cold. The holidays are done, and there is still a LONG way to go before summer. PLUS....college football is over. That alone is enough to make many of us pretty blue. This time of year can be very stressful and, at times, depressing for lots of us.
Well, this year I challenge you, her, that other guy and myself to completely change the way we view this time. Instead of simply coping with life, hanging on until Friday afternoon or Spring Break, let's reprogram ourselves to make the most of each moment we have.
To help us accomplish this, we can make a resolution to "lose some weight" through practicing mindfulness. Just like consistently eating well and exercising can help us lose physical weight, a consistent mindfulness practice can help us lose this mental/emotional weight. We will see that so much of this weight is placed upon us by ourselves. We will learn to control our negative inner dialogue and realize that the path to inner peace is found within us rather than outside us. We will learn to accept that while we don't have much control over our external conditions, we have the ONLY control over our inner conditions. As we lose this kind of weight, our daily lives will get lighter and lighter. We will still experience painful and stressful situations, but they won't seem as overwhelming. We will be better equipped to keep life in perspective resulting in much greater levels of peace, joy, equanimity and love. I hope YOU will join us this year, and I hope all of us will be much lighter headed into 2015.
If you are new to mindfulness practice, check out this this great illustrated guide to get you started.