Tuesday, December 10, 2013

"It's all a learning opportunity"

I regularly follow a weekly podcast of free "dharma talks" given by Insight Meditation Center called Zencasts. One of my favorite teachers to listen to is Gil Fronsdal and a few weeks ago he was speaking on the topic of equanimity. Aside from giving me something entertaining to listen to while I walk my dogs on this rock in the middle of the ocean, I usually find that much of the advice given is not only helpful for my life and meditation practice in general, but also directly applies to my work in the classroom.

The talk about equanimity couldn't have come at a more opportune time and couldn't have been more directly related. After hectic Thanksgiving travel and with preparations for the winter break looming I was feeling out of sorts and having trouble navigating the classroom waters steadily. When this happens, and I know that I am tired and probably not being my best self the words of a wise fellow blogger, Stacey Lewis from Sweet Sky, come to mind: "You are the weather." And if I'm in a particularly stormy mood, I know I'm a huge influence in the environment.

In the talk, Gil mentioned a visit to his son's preschool. After disrupting a perfectly calm classroom with his sudden presence, Gil apologized to the teacher. The teacher smilingly replied "It's all a learning opportunity."  He went on to talk about four qualities that he originally called "the grandmotherly attributes" but decided to rename "the preschool teacher qualities" after several anecdotes related to his experience at his son's school. He was referring to the Brahmaviharas, four central Buddhist virtues. I have read about these before, and loved so much to hear them described in the context of working with preschoolers.

The first of these four qualities is loving-kindness. In terms of working with children, to me this means a practice of seeing the best in the children and deeply wishing happiness for them. It has to do with hope and with acceptance, and with practicing the acknowledgement of what is positive in each of us. It also means directing that same kind of attitude towards myself. It also means to me that when I am feeling disconnected from a child, that I first have to work on my vision of that child so that I can see them lovingly and then be able to be of help.

The second is the idea that everyone is deserving of compassion. To me that means cultivating an attitude of helpfulness. It means working hard on overcoming the learned habit of wanting someone to experience pain in order to learn sometimes. It means being able to see clearly that when a child is acting out in the worst possible way, they are suffering and are in need of some smart kind of kindness.

The third quality is empathetic joy. This is sort of a new practice for me... I was brought up in a very competitive environment and my schooling and hobbies all reinforced the  idea that in order to succeed, someone else has to lose or do poorly. And that therefore, if someone else was doing well, I should feel threatened. The practice of empathetic joy means that I can rejoice in other peoples happiness. In the classroom that means that I can participate in all the successes that happen in the classroom. As a teacher, I can help children develop that feeling too- that when someone else does something great, we can all be a part of that celebration. (I love the idea of how this practice can really multiply the feeling of joy in one's life.)

And the last of the "preschool teacher virtues", and the one that Gil expanded on the most in the talk was the quality of equanimity. This is where he compared the preschool teacher to the grandmother. As educators we have seen our share of children and can have a much greater perspective on children's behavior than say, a first time parent. To me it meant that we can have days in the classroom that feel muddled and remain confident, knowing that it won't always be that way. The same way that we can have the most normalized week and meet the following Monday without the expectation that it will be just as orderly. Equanimity is a quality that I'm sure preschool teachers who have been at it for decades posses in excess.

Thinking about these four qualities after listening to that podcast was like putting a fresh wind in my sails and having a solid north to point to.