Getting rid of the stick

A yoga teacher I know urges his students to be observant of themselves, but “get rid of the stick.”  This has been an important concept for me lately both personally and professionally. The idea is to take time to notice things–both obvious and subtle.  Notice how you feel as you walk into the school building in the morning. Notice how you feel as the bell is about to ring to end first period. Notice how you feel when a student asks for your help. Notice how you feel when you tell a student to put her food away when she is eating in class. But leave the stick out of it.

If I notice something I’m uncomfortable with, my reaction may be to chastise myself mentally for what I could have done differently or earlier or better.  Or I may have the urge to chastise someone else for not meeting an expectation I had of them.  But in the end, the stick just creates more discomfort where there already was enough to begin with.  It distracts us from the process of learning from experiences.

When we take the time to notice things, we are creating an opportunity for ourselves to illuminate the choices we make on a regular basis, some of which we may not even be aware.  Lately, I’ve even been taking time to notice what I notice.  Do I take as much time to notice the progress one student makes or how well a lesson went, as I do berating myself about a student who was messing around period 4?  How I fill up my mental space involves choice as well.  I’ve been trying to make the choice lately to notice the positive as much as the other things that beg my attention.

At the same time, feelings of discomfort can reveal choices I’ve been making that need to change.  For example, I noticed that I felt irked when I had to tell a student to put her food away–in that moment, I felt irked by the food as well as the student.  I realized I felt that way because I’d been telling the same student to put her food away almost daily, though she is fully aware that it’s against school rules to eat in class.

The trap was that I kept seeing the situation through the lens of the choice my student had been making–to flout school rules.  But in that moment I was able to note the choice I’d been making–to “remind her” of this rule every day, and then forget about it ’til the next day.  Ha!  Instead of whipping out the figurative stick on either her or myself, I simply identified that I needed to make a different choice so I could refocus my attention and interactions with her back on our real purpose: teaching and learning.  I pulled her aside later that day and told her what I’d noticed.  I told her that it was necessary that she follow school rules so we can spend time on what’s most important during class time.  She got the point and understood that failure to correct the problem would cause me to take further action, which she does not want.  We also talked about her eating breakfast at home instead of buying it at the store on the way to school.  She is no longer eating in class and making that change was pretty painless 🙂

Too much of the culture of schooling is based around using the stick to modify and control students. And it’s no wonder because the same is true for teachers… and principals.  I’m thinking about how we could shift toward illuminating choices instead.  How can our schools be set up to help students to see the choices they make and how these make them feel and learn to make better choices?  How can schools be set up for teachers to practice this as well?  Principals?

Are there places where we would just bump up against walls with this?  For example, in the story I told above, what if the “no eating in class” rule were something truly oppressive, like, “no looking out the window in class”? Then how does choice play out?  Or for a teacher, if the rule were, “No designing your own curriculum”? Hmm…

[image credit: chickyog.net]

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