How do you win the respect of teenage African American girls when you’re a soft-spoken, sensitive African American male teacher, educated at Columbia and UPenn, a musician, social activist, cultural commentator with hipster leanings, note the dreads and plaid poncho perfectly draped?
You got it. Not easy. The more postmodern pluralism you allow in the classroom, the more challenges you have with adolescents not ready for a looser structure. The more power struggles with teens who are outgrowing older, rigidly-disciplined rules, teens who are unfocused and perpetually distracted, without even realizing it. The more sensitively you introduce contemporary issues, expecting engagement and conscience, the more pushback you get from sassy girls not yet independent enough and yet old enough to feel entitled to do things their own way.
The tenth grade classroom can be a challenge. While the line that separates the first two years of high school from the latter two is faint, in ways that matter there is, more often than not, a huge difference between high school sophomores and seniors. That difference makes introducing mindfulness to younger adolescents tricky—and needed.
Sophomores, however sophisticatedly they may dress, however big their feet may have grown, still are young teens. That means they have a hard time self-reflecting. They have a hard time making subject into object. They have a hard time owning their own experience. They relate to what is right in front of them, finding it challenging to connect the dots with currents and influences outside their immediate field of reference. They are less able to appreciate “what could be” and quickly assume “what is not.” Their eye-rolls, loud as a Keith Moon drumroll, communicate not just disdain but also insecurity, inadequacy, and often, a code for h-e-l-p in a world so overwhelming and out of control.
So let’s look at two questions:
First, what makes girls respond this way? Second, can mindfulness help?
Understanding the currents at play
What are these teens carrying with them? They want to live their own lives the way they want to define them, without being told what to do. They aren’t developed enough to be able to handle the complicated and conflicting emotions around all the issues any single teacher or authority figure represents. In school, they are likely still reverberating from tensions at home, deterioration in the neighborhood, media stories that highlight kids just like them in unsafe and uninspiring ways.
At fifteen, most inner city kids in public schools are juggling the personal effects of: Racism. Financial insecurity. Violence in the neighborhood. Proximity to harsh realities that can’t help but leave a mark: aggression, alcoholism, unemployment, incarceration. They carry on their shoulders responsibilities older than their years: Care for disabled or chronic ill in the family. Negotiating city, state and federal bureaucracy for services. Competition for access to better education, in a field where the privileged grow up with resources that a priori set them ahead.
Inner city, at risk kids, like any adolescent, carry the tumult of their age: Emerging sexual maturity. Brain growth which propels them to take risks in a world that is more dangerous, with harsher consequences when risky behavior goes wrong. A lack of moral guidance in a culture that has rejected outmoded ethics and has yet to replace them with new ones that truly guide inner development.
Can mindfulness help?
In the classroom described above, twelve weeks of mindfulness instruction did create a noticeable difference in the classroom. More space and respect between teacher and students. More self-regulation. More quiet.
In that calm, students learned to find some center in themselves, to not spill out their tensions and confusion on each other or on the authority figure in the classroom or on an indiscriminate target (which can also include themselves). And while you couldn’t necessarily place the exact cause of the change on any specific child, the overall effect of the class engaging as a group with these exercises and lessons that teach them about how the mind works, how to create space and context, how to explore the field of awareness, and how evolutionary biology and cultural change influences our times and therefore ourselves, palpable lessened tension. In that lighter atmosphere, learning happens. Relationship happens. And the future starts opening up.
Why do I say cautiously yes?
Mindfulness is a powerful tool for well-being. Over the last 2500 years, countless individuals have called on mindfulness to help themselves grow out of afflictive mind states. Countless have transformed themselves from semi-awake to truly aware and compassionate individuals full of a zest for life. Like all tools that work with inner development for outer transformation, mindfulness techniques take time. Their promise can flower into extraordinary results with care and most of all practice, consistency, and support.
As you consider implementing these tools in your classroom, let me suggest that you look for the gentle changes not the fireworks. Be willing to allow the openings to slip in from the side, a little off-center, a little skew, just a little outside of your field of vision. In those spaces, you can discover some extraordinary shifts, that when recognized for what they are, can yield profound and moving change. If you are willing to let students’ behaviors settle down through practice, putting your (and their) attention on mindful awareness without giving undue attention to every disruption and defiance, the mindful practice can become habit, and new and better habit is another word for human transformation.
As martial artist Bruce Lee remarked, “Under duress we don’t rise to our expectations, we fall to our level of training.”
Help your students train their minds, when they really need it, they’ll reap the rewards.
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Amy Edelstein, educator & founder of Inner Strength Foundation and its teen programs, runs mindfulness programs for over 800 Philadelphia students.Contact for more information about bringing mindfulness to your school.