First Person

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

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.