By Stephanie Mew
In a downtown meeting room, twenty school teachers gathered to listen to several high school students share their life passions. The energy in the room was filled with optimism and excitement to hear how these young people discovered their passions. The first student speaker expressed that he wants to help his friends deal with teen life, find their voice and have a safe place to speak out. As a result, he focuses on teen advocacy issues. When asked what lead him to his passion, he shared a tragic story of a classmate who committed suicide, and the next day his best friend did the same. This student found his passion through a traumatic life changing event. The room fell silent with disbelief, sadness, heaviness, and an outrage that our young people, our students, are dealing with experiences and feelings of hopelessness that lead them to no other option than taking their own lives.
Our hearts ached and we all wanted to know if they received any guidance in coping with life’s dramas and traumas. Another teen quietly said, “Not really. I wished I knew how to meditate or something to deal with this.” Her simple statement was a resounding confirmation that one of the essential lessons that we should be teaching and modeling for our students is how to be happy and how to handle life’s ups and downs.
Happiness is a state of being that we all desire. As a teacher, my daily classroom experience confirms the belief that when students are happy they use their learning time more efficiently, they try harder, they take risks, and they perceive failure as a learning opportunity. When they are happy, they contribute positively to the classroom and school culture. The opposite happens when students feel the contrary.
With an increase in school violence and the pain of our young people, schools are shifting their focus to the whole child and social emotional learning (SEL). The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) report on positive impact of SEL programs on elementary to middle school students found improvements in multiple areas: personal, social, and academic. CASEL found that SEL promoted an average gain on achievement test scores of 11 to 17 percentile points.
However, education is far more than achievement scores. At its root, education means to draw out inherent self-knowledge. Education’s end game should be a student who is prepared to live a happy and meaningful life. SEL programs help with that education and the positive impacts are encouraging. Yet, I still hear the soft voice who said, “I wished I knew how to meditate or something.” There is something we can do now that only takes five minutes and is a valuable tool for navigating life’s dramas and traumas.
The skill of quieting the mind and focusing on love or as we say in Hawaii, “aloha,” can put one in a peaceful and happy state. Every morning my students and I give ourselves five minutes to quiet our minds and bodies and focus on our breathing. We use our visualization skills to send love to all parts of our body. We visualize our families, friends, all people and all living things happy and content. We imagine our day already being a successful day and then we smile. 20 years ago, I learnt this simple practice in a small boarding school in Thailand. The calm demeanor of the staff and students encouraged me to practice daily. When I returned to the U.S. I knew I wanted to incorporate this practice in my classroom. For the past 20 years, I have sat silently with my students reaping the benefits from beginning our day making a connection to our heart. To help the students with the visualization, I created a short video illustrating this process.
In silence, we use this opportunity to connect us to ourselves and others. We remind ourselves that we are love and that we can freely share our love. We remind ourselves that positive actions are born out of love. We increase our mindfulness and strengthen our concentration. As we experience happiness within ourselves, we feel content and happy. As we open our eyes to the new day with positivity and love, we greet each other with aloha.
In the beginning of the school year, this five minute practice was strange and awkward but by the end of the week, mutual respect and trust began to grow. Now, this treasured practice is an integral part of our day. The inner experience is peaceful and relaxing. It is a moment to remember we are enough. It is a chance for our creativity to reveal itself. It is a moment to forgive ourselves and others. It is five minutes out of 1,440 minutes in a day, that is intentionally used to tap into the feelings of love and happiness. And the students who choose to watch others sit silently, they practice respect, allowance and also experience a stillness.
The new year has arrived, and I have five more months with my students. We may feel that there is so much to teach and learn before the end of the school year and that time is precious and can’t be wasted. Yet, I know that it is worth spending five minutes sitting silently in love and being happy both individually and together.
Stephanie Mew is an inclusion teacher at Kapunahala Elementary, Hawaii. Her passion for teaching began 18 years ago at small boarding school in Thailand where she learned that the meaning of education is to draw out the innate goodness, gifts and talents of each individual. She has Masters degrees in Social Work and Education and is the 2016 Hawaii State Teacher of the Year. Stephanie believes that the foundation for a peaceful community starts with making a connection with our hearts. By using our loving heart to guide us in all of our communications and actions, we can see the unity in our diversity. Find her on Twitter @StephM808.