On the side of my notebook where I attempt to keep my whole world organized, I have written three reminders: Move. Breathe. Listen.
My 9th graders were at their computers hammering away at their literary analysis essay of bildungsroman in To Kill a Mockingbird when I started to notice that the thunder of fingers on the keyboards was giving way to side chatting, fidgeting, and the kind of grabby behavior that used to result in me calling out, “freshman boys, stop touching each other!”
Instead, I said this: “Finish your sentence. Stand, stretch, and touch four textures, then return to work.” I did add a disclaimer about the textures not being attached to humans, because as I mentioned above, my freshmen boys don’t need to be handed excuses to touch each other.
Within a minute, everyone was back in their seats, productivity was back at peak, and a new tool was added to my classroom management toolkit. Now, movement might mean note-taking stations where kids walk the walls to examine and analyze model paragraphs. Movement might mean I give my kids a rich prompt about the poem we just read, then I pair them up and we “go on a field trip” around the building to have a walking conversation. Invariably, I’m happier with what I see and hear compared to when they are all confined to their desks.
I have crested the “half-way through my career” point and I’ve finally realized that there is no good reason to maintain a breakneck pace at everything. Yes, there is much work to be done. Yes, much of that work is important. But I think I’m finally learning that if I want that important work to be done well, sometimes that means I need to slow down.
The reminder to breathe is also critical because my current roles put me in the position to work with people who are facing incredible obstacles. In my work as a union leader, I am called upon to support teachers who might be struggling, perhaps even at the brink of losing their job. In my work as a classroom teacher, I am supporting many students who come to school angry, scared, hungry, or on edge for any number of reasons. People in these situations don’t need someone rushing to check off boxes on a to-do list. They need someone who can pull up a chair next to them, take time for a deep breath, and…
And not just listen; listen wholly, without judgment, without preparing my response, rebuttal or defense, and without letting my mind wander back to that ever-expanding to-do list. It is the hardest thing I have ever tried to do, and compared to any other professional skill I’ve sought to develop, it has had the greatest return on investment.
I’ve turned these three reminders into central tenets of my classroom. I teach my students to monitor their own minds and bodies, and to move when they need to: go for a walk to the water fountain, grab a clipboard and work while standing, or stand walk to the window and back to give the brain a break.
We also take time to breathe. Sometimes it is as formal as guided breathing, sometimes it is just a matter of building in time to slow down and reflect on work and learning. At first, slowing down to breathe and reflect is so foreign a concept that they resist.
Last, since listening is a skill I’m personally refining, it is a skill I take time to deliberately teach. We talk about what real listening looks and feels like. We practice it during discussions. We monitor our experience in the role of listener. Students often point out that listening is something that we just don’t do much in our culture, and how much better things are when you both listen and feel listened to.
Teaching is complicated work, for sure. For me, these three little reminders have made all the difference: Move. Breathe. Listen.