sink or zen: finding my stride in the classroom of life

When you’re weary, feeling small, when tears are in your eyes… I will tell you:

Loosen up.

And you will tell me just where I can shove it. Or maybe you’ll smack me upside the head. Because being told to loosen up is like being told not to think of a pink elephant: both directives are bound to backfire.

Yet I shall risk the shoving and smacking and tell you what I’ve learned thus far about the whys and wherefores of loosening up, for teaching has forced me to swim in seas of stress and discover how not to sink.

When I was a first-year teacher, come December I was shocked to find myself on the edge of a nervous breakdown – this despite the fact that I’d heard over and over again how terribly trying any first year in a classroom must inevitably be. But I had never known such stress. In my heyday, four out of five dentists recommended me as laid-back and easy-going (to their patients who chew gum). Even my solo trek halfway around the world to meet and pick up and bring home from Ethiopia the third and fourth additions to our family, aka our oldest and youngest sons – a trip in which I grappled with language barriers, taxis, oppressive poverty, emotional roller coasters, unfamiliar food, unusual schedules, plane ticketing snafus and sudden illness – did not compare to the stress that saddled me in that first year of teaching.

I found myself in the doctor’s office choking over my words as I feebly explained my roiling thoughts and frayed psyche, tears falling, disoriented, with no sense of Christmas in the air. How had it come to this?

To some extent it was no doubt unavoidable. My mind could never have been prepared for the demands of responding to the needs of dozens of young adults and juggling the ever-pressing responsibilities of lesson planning, grading, networking, data assessment, professional development, email wrangling and so on and so forth. But I I think that my suffering in this transitional time could have been less intense and shorter-lived.

A certain metaphor has proved helpful for me in this department:

Running is life.

This is true in many ways, though here I want to focus on stride. For optimal running and for optimal living, I must find my stride, which means regulating three factors:

1. Angle of Attack: To run well, I need to lean slightly forward. This precipitates a sort of sustained, controlled falling that must be managed by landing with quick feet: a short stride. It produces speed and sometimes even a sense of flight. When I don’t do this, I feel slow and my feet land with greater force of impact, and before long I am likely to find myself injured.

My school days are similar. If I’m not leaning slightly forward, extending myself, reaching out to embrace each day’s challenges, then I am likely to grow bored, progress slowly, lose my students’ interest and strain the tenuous teacher-student connection that fosters higher levels of learning.

I think this applies to any challenge in life. Lean forward. Feel the wind in your face. Enjoy.

2. Pace: Related to but not entirely dependent upon angle of attack is the pacing factor. When I’m running, I must monitor my speed, holding a steady pace most of the time, pushing the pace occasionally and falling off the pace when necessary. If I don’t periodically push the pace I will become bored and the endless repetitive motion will lead to injury. Pushing the pace is invigorating.

On the other hand, I have to familiarize myself with the feeling of impending exhaustion and ease off the throttle before hitting the wall. Pulling back can be rewarding and restorative.

Most of the time, though, I stay in The Zone. I savor the sense of working hard but not too hard. I live there.

At school I pace myself, my lessons and my students. We all need to work hard but not too hard. We need to avoid exhaustion, repetitive strain and boredom. And sometimes we need to fall back and take it easy in order to return forthwith to The Zone.

3. Looseness: When I am passing a fellow runner on the track or in a race, I don’t tense my muscles for power; I focus instead on a looser core. This makes me settle into a lower carriage and, paradoxically, it speeds me up. I have come to think of the phenomenon as relaxed power. When I don’t intentionally adopt a loose core, I tense up instead. My muscles work against one another. My driving legs and pumping arms are impeded by the tension in my abs and back.

The other day I suggested to my students that they try to cultivate a relaxed focus in the classroom. I explained that in tennis or golf or baseball, for example, a good, powerful swing needs both looseness and tension. The whole body cannot be tensed at once or it will become its own greatest hindrance. Likewise, a student sitting at a desk or working with a group will excel only when he or she maintains a degree of mental relaxation that provides the gentle undercurrent for a focused mind. If, on the other hand, the undercurrent is a brewing apprehension, its force will push from below and disturb that surface level at which thinking translates to learning.

 

Back in December of 2008, my doctor diagnosed me with a bout of anxiety/depression, and he prescribed Lexapro. I took the meds for a few weeks. They helped. Since that time my stress management skills have gradually improved. There is no substitute for experience. But I still need to monitor my thinking daily.

In running and in the classroom of life, the monitoring of one’s form should be a constant. I don’t always abide by this principle, but the more I do, the better the results that I see. So I’m working on this. Holding onto the imagery of my metaphor. Am I leaning forward? Am I going fast enough but not too fast? Am I attaining a zen-like looseness of core?

When things are at their most challenging, when the waters are troubled and I need a bridge over them, that is when I most need to visualize and find zen.

Anything less just sinks.

(Now bracing for the shoving and smacking…)

Photos by: Margot Trudell, Cannon Fodder XT, Moyan Brenn

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