As part of a faculty interview panel, I asked potential administrative candidates what they believed was the most important thing for students to learn before leaving high school. Typical responses included, “to work collaboratively,” “to communicate well,” “to think creatively.” And I agree with all of that: we had some good administrative candidates! Others said, “to be happy” - There is a cult of happiness these days. Yet, no one said, “to be good people.” That seems critical to me because what difference does education make if we fail to develop the human potential for goodness?
So, in addition to teaching my high school students to be knowledgeable amateur historians - a requirement of the job - and better collaborators, communicators, and creative thinkers - all of which are important - I try to develop within my students the knowledge and skills that good people seem to possess. Although happiness is not the aim of my instruction, it just so happens that many of the characteristics of goodness correlate to higher levels of happiness.
Good people are self-aware, empathetic, conscientious, self-reflective, open-minded, and committed to cause greater than themselves. Meditation has helped me to develop some of these characteristics within myself and I have become a better (and happier) person as a result.
One meditation I use in my personal practice centers on the “three questions” from Ezra Bayda’s book, Beyond Happiness: The Zen Way to True Contentment. First, I get centered in my breathing. I put my index and middle fingers in the middle of my chest and feel my chest expand and contract, focusing on the sensation of my chest rising and falling. I think: “Am I truly happy right now? What blocks happiness? Can I surrender to what is?” After I determine what is blocking my happiness - it’s very rare that answer “Yes! I’m truly happy!” - I move on to the most surprising and challenging part of the meditation: Surrendering to what is. Surrendering to what is is accepting your feelings without judgement, without doing anything. To accomplish this, you must reside in your feelings. For those who know something of the psychology of phobias, this is a bit like exposure treatment. So, you hold on to this particular feeling of unhappiness and then witness yourself feeling it without judgement. If you’re like me, this will be challenging.
Another set of meditations I use, which doesn’t require a breathing component, and is versatile as each can be done anywhere and at anytime, comes from the Greco-Roman philosophy of Stoicism. In the book , Professor William Irvine describes these meditative practices, including negative visualization, the dichotomy of control, self-denial, fatalism - which is very similar to “surrendering to what is” - and watching ourselves practice Stoicism. All of these meditations are helpful, but the one that has the greatest application to teaching is the last.
Strategy 1: Foster self-awareness in students through metacognition.
The Roman philosopher Seneca advises that we “periodically meditate on the events of daily living, how we responded to these events, and how, in accordance with Stoic principles, we should have responded to them.” Self-reflection is ubiquitous in many professions perhaps because the rationale behind it is so obvious, and yet frequently, it is not meaningfully incorporated into instruction. Following major assessments, I have my students engage in a detailed metacognitive reflection. Metacognition is thinking about thinking, and research supports its use to improve student outcomes. For example, I’ll teach the students helpful methods to write an in-class essay. After they receive their grades and feedback, I’ll ask them a series of questions about how they prepared, including which suggestions they incorporated into their studies; then, they respond to prompts like, “Did you study in your optimal learning environment?” and “While planning your essay, did you write a detailed outline?”
Since this form of mindfulness compliments a primary goal of education - shaping students into conscientious citizens - it should be featured regularly in classroom instruction. Likewise, since social and emotional learning (SEL) is essential to goodness, it should inform many instructional practices.
Strategy 2: Co-author and reflect upon behavioral norms.
Empathy is a cornerstone of SEL. In my school, each class authors a social contract at the beginning of the year. The teacher guides the process in which students are asked to brainstorm and share their answers to questions such as these: “How do you want to be treated in class?” “How do you think your teacher wants to be treated in class?” “How do your classmates want to be treated in class?” The teacher records each answer on a chart and then works with the students to combine similar thoughts into a few coherent prescriptions, such as, be respectful / punctual / kind / hard working. Students and the teacher sign the contract and then it goes up on wall, visible for reference throughout the year. From time to time, it helps to take a few minutes out of instruction to refer to the contract and ask the students to evaluate their performance according to it. I’ve found that it’s helpful to collaborate with students to articulate communal norms of behavior and periodically reflect upon your performance as a class.
Strategy 3: Assess empathetic communication.
If it matters, assess it. Practicing good communication skills is an important aspect of SEL, and so I assess the use of these skills in different learning products. A couple of times per semester, my students engage in Socratic discussions in which the aim is to collaboratively arrive at a new understanding of an issue. I have observed this mode of discussion to be superior to traditional debate at fostering rational thought, social skills, and empathy. During the discussions, among other criteria, I assess students on how well they share the conversational space, show good non-verbal communication skills, and on how well they respond to and build upon the ideas of others.
As a history teacher, I have found that comparing different perspectives is an efficient strategy that helps students learn the material, become more nuanced thinkers, and build upon their capacity for empathy. So, when studying the Progressive Era in U.S. History, I asked students to select identify and select a modern progressive reform for further research. The students then researched arguments in support or opposition of the reform. I then asked students to take a course of action to make their voices heard.
Strategy 4: If it’s lacking, bring it to your school.
If there is an essential educational element missing at your school, make it happen. Our Head of School and Wellness Director championed a “Day of Wellness” during which students learned about yoga, mindfulness, and a variety of other wellness-related topics. For this day, I decided to make a presentation on social and emotional learning, and I sent the presentation link to other teachers. Many teachers shared the presentation with their students - and based on the feedback I received - it was informative to both.
A core component of emotional intelligence is empathy, so I look for opportunities to increase empathy within my school community. I started an Ethics Bowl Team in 2014, after being introduced to the National Ethics Bowl by a friend who started the Texas branch. Our High School Director champions any cause that benefits student learning, so when I shared the idea of starting a team, he quickly agreed. The aim of the National High School Ethics Bowl is to create an awareness and consideration of ethics. After each match, judges evaluate teams according to three criteria, one of which is “Did the team’s presentation indicate both awareness and thoughtful consideration of different viewpoints, including especially those that would loom large in the reasoning of individuals who disagree with the team’s position? (1-10 pts).” So, to prepare to successfully compete, Ethics Bowl students must try to understand and thoughtfully respond to different points-of-view. For those of us who keep up with the talking heads, this presents a refreshing and edifying alternative - one which I believe is a morally superior mode of communication.