Mindful Conferences

Posted on October 28, 2018

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Parent-teacher conferences were held last week, and I was delighted to reunite with at least a dozen former students, whose offspring now sit in chairs they once did (partly because we still have desks from the 1990s–and they’re still in fine shape).

After a quarter-century in the district, I simply begin my classes by asking the new arrivals, “Show of hands, please! Which of you are the children of my former students?” About a third of the hands go up in the air. Add the students who are nieces and nephews of former students, children of families who have several members among my former students, and the children of my colleagues, and a web of connections among us is apparent…so conferences are a series of joyful reunions with old friends, for the most part.

On the other hand, conferences can be very stressful, and my mindfulness practices are most useful when I come under attack by an angry parent. In twenty-five years, I’ve faced a number of tense situations, for a variety of reasons. In no particular order, here are some of the less pleasant moments I’ve faced at p-t conferences: I’ve been sexually harassed by fathers; I’ve been afraid that an intoxicated parent would be violent toward her children; I’ve been bullied, insulted, called names, sworn at, threatened, preached at and condemned to hell; I’ve been told how to do my job–as most educators have by someone, sometime. I recall an administrator saying that he knows that certain parents “are going to yell at you for a little while.” Aggressive parents. It’s a thing. I don’t know how other educators deal with it, but I rely on mindfulness to carry me through these situations in a dignified manner.

First of all, I prepare for conferences in such a way as to try to AVOID all drama. I print the students’ progress reports out and require them to write letters to their parents explaining how they earned their grade and what they’ll do to address any issues that need their attention–with a date by which they’ll have taken care of business. I alert students of the days and times that they can come into the classroom before or after school to get help or to use resources, like Chromebooks and internet access. I write a letter to parents, explaining how I work, what students are learning, the independent reading (homework) requirements, and upcoming project due dates.

I prepare internally, my practicing mindful breathing and positive self-talk. Externally, I tidy the classroom and put student work on display in the hallway outside the classroom. This year, I put up posters that IB Literature and Theory of Knowledge students of 2019 made for the students who come after them: “How To Thrive”–on each of the components of my courses.

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How To Thrive When Writing Commentary

Before parents arrive, I put on some calming jazz piano music, and I take a seat at my table. I know that every time someone walks through the door, I will be fully present, and I will breathe deeply throughout the interaction. I rehearse how I will react if I sense a real threat. I relax and prepare to provide information, encouragement, and opportunities for growth to students and their parents.

Most conferences go like this: greetings, “here’s my letter, the progress report, your student’s letter of explanation, what we’re working on now, upcoming due dates, and my email if you need to contact me.” There might be a little catching up, then they leave, and everybody’s smiling.

In the very rare instances when parents arrive or become angry and aggressive, I simply listen and breathe deeply. I am not intimidated by their anger; it’s just emotion, and I KNOW that I haven’t done anything to ignite it. Every interaction in my classroom is conducted in the service of a peaceful classroom where everyone feels safe and knows that they are part of a caring circle of friends. I know that if the parent spent an hour in the classroom, they could put away their anger, but they don’t know how it is; they are reacting to something they’ve been told, not direct experience. Interestingly, zero parents who have expressed concerns about how my classes go have ever accepted my invitation to visit and see, for themselves, how my classes run.

Through every angry conversation, I sit. I breathe. I listen. I am fully present with the parent and their anger. I do not comment or react. I just breathe. In my mind, I repeat the Lovingkindness mantra, “May you be happy. May you be well. May you be free from suffering. May you be at peace.” Sooner or later, the angry person runs aground. They’ve had their say. They stop talking.

I wait a beat, maybe four, and then I say something a little like this, “One of the reasons I teach mindfulness in my classes is  that we can use it to change our thinking. My thinking about my work with your student is that I’m here to help her make it safely to adulthood, with as much knowledge about my subject-areas as possible. It would be beneficial to the student to change their mind about me. I’m not their enemy, and they will have a lot better experience of class if they could see me as a helper–which is what I am. Of course, nobody HAS to see me as a helper. In truth, your student can hate me all year long, but that will only harm them, because they might limit opportunities for success with this approach. BUT no matter what, I will continue to do my best to help the student learn the behavior expectations of the class, learn how to engage in civil discourse, and learn the language arts skills necessary to succeed in IB Literature, college, and life. How can we turn this situation around so that we can all work together in a good way to help your student succeed?”

When the student has come to the conferences with the parent, the student sees first-hand that mindfulness can allow a person to remain calm and centered and avoid joining in someone else’s emotional drama. All who are present experience the cortisol release in the brain, because we’re in  a stressful situation, but not everyone responds in the same way. Mindfulness allows me to remain calm and centered, ready to offer practical steps to address academic and behavioral concerns.

When I was a high school freshman, I was surrounded by a group of four or five bullies in downtown Grass Lake, about two miles from home. Deb and Cindy and their friends were a year or two older than me, and they harassed me from age twelve to eighteen. It’s how they got their kicks.

For a much longer time than it would have taken them to kill me, they talked a lot of shit and said they were going to kick my ass. I had learned about nonviolence from reading Martin Luther King, Jr., so I refused to engage with their anger. I put my hands in my pockets and waited in silence, studying their faces, which were contorted by hate and fear. I was afraid that they would beat me, and I mentally rehearsed how I’d try to protect my brain if they did, but I stood still, rooted in the earth, like a tall tree, and solid, like stone. I studied hate. I practiced peace.

We don’t have to engage in the negative emotional dramas of others. We can maintain a dignified presence, be aware of threats, and be calm in the storm.

For the first half of my teaching career, I knew how not to engage, but I didn’t know how to keep the hurtful things that were said to me from taking root in my body. Consequently, I would suffer weeks of debilitating chronic spinal pain episodes after an encounter with an aggressive parent. Mindfulness has allowed me to learn to become aware of the merest signs of the start of that cycle, and it has helped me put an end to it. Now, I am able to keep my balance during an incident, practice self-care immediately afterward, and leave it at the table, like an athlete leaves it on the court. I can move forward in a good way, focused on helping all my students reach their goals. I don’t have to engage OR carry someone’s anger around with me afterward. I need to focus on taking positive and practical actions. So I do.

I’ve also learned another important lesson about dealing with aggressive parents. Self-care sometimes means walking out of the room and rescheduling a meeting at a future date. One time, I was alone in the classroom with an angry parent who wanted to tell me how to do my job. When I began to explain the reasoning behind my approach, the man rose from his chair, became red in the face, and shouted, “You’re harassing me!”

I felt like I might be in danger, so I quickly walked to the door, opened it, and said, “I think we should talk at another time, when you’re feeling better.” I never heard from him again, and that’s okay. I do have an obligation to serve my students. I am not obligated to endure angry attacks from parents.

By practicing mindfulness when faced with anger, educators can transform the situation, for our own well-being, and for that of the students that we serve. This is Why Mindfulness Is A Superpower; it allows us to “react wisely, not blindly.”

Dear Reader,
May you be happy. May you be well. May you be free from suffering. May you be at peace.

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Garden Glory

 

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Posted in: Mindfulness, Wellness