Top Five Things I Learned as a High School Mindfulness Teacher

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About this time last year, I was brainstorming on ways to expand my business and reach a larger radius. I felt like I was banging my head against the wall, trying to convince people that taking care of their mind/body/spirit is essential for the ultimate quality of life. In my journal, I kept writing that I wanted to expand my reach, and infuse more mindset/spirituality into my work.  I was feeling disheartened with my business, the hustle, and wanting to serve the higher good. However, I’m determined and a bit stubborn, so my next bright idea was to try to facilitate self-care workshops for teachers.

Educators are my people. I know first-hand that they are some of the hardest working, selfless, stressed out, run down people. I reached out to my friend/educator to see if he knew any contacts within the district that may be open to the idea of self care workshops. He gave me three email addresses.

The first email address I chose was to the principal of Fairdale High School. I emailed her to gauge if she would be open to me leading workshops for her faculty/staff. She was interested, and went on to email that they were beginning a mindfulness program for the students at the high school. She asked if I knew anyone that would be interested in a full-time job in the upcoming year. I told her I would think on it and give her some references. 

My intuitive hit was the position was for me. However, I wasn’t looking for a job. I liked being my own boss and having scheduling flexibility. I told myself I would never work in a high school. However, the nagging feeling that the job was for me kept repeating in my mind and body. I believed in mindfulness whole heartedly. I knew that mindfulness was the answer…to shift thought patterns, and impulse control. The upcoming generation needs access to these tools.

So, I decided to make an appointment to hear more about the position. I gathered that the majority of the students at the school are economically disadvantaged; and, it is one of the most diverse schools in the district. THAT pulled my heart strings – I knew that most of these students would not have access to mindfulness practices. Further, the person recruited for the position had to have some edge to be relatable to teens (That’s me!!!!!). I had just the right experience to make this program work…public relations, marketing, leadership, education, research, business, and wellness. I was determined that this program would be a success, and I was the woman to see it through. 

Since July of 2017, I’ve moved my business to a side dish, and my work at the school to an entrée. I’ve found my life work. I’ve been able to meet, develop relationships with, and see changes in hundreds of students. They are choosing not to fight, and to seek healthier relationships with themselves and others. They’ve chosen to cultivate a toolbox of coping skills for stress, angst, feeling overwhelmed, anger, self-criticism, and much, much more. 

As the saying goes, we are all students and teachers. Being the mindfulness teacher this year, following are the top five things that I have learned.
1.    Empathy, compassion, and listening go a long way: Do you remember your first break up, first crush, or first love? Trying to figure out where you belong? What’s going on with your body? Feeling misunderstood, awkward, and confused? Feeling like the world is against you? Do you remember trying finding out, the hard way, about true friends? Do you remember being the first one to graduate high school, or go to college? Trying to figure out what you’re going to be when you grow up? What about social media, or the types of drugs that are able to be accessed? Did you have to practice active shooter drills when you were in school? Do you remember when grades and test scores defined you? No, it may not make a difference a week from now, a year from now, or 10 years from now. Yes, there are plenty of fish in the sea. But, the choices these students are making create the foundation for their lives. It’s tough being a teen. Stepping into thier shoes, and walking with them on their path might give them a glimpse that they are not alone. They can experience the gift of being seen and heard.
2.    It's a struggle to find a new life lens: Many of these students, because of what their lives are like outside of school, are unable to view life from a new vantage point. Many of them get bogged down with the gravity of life such as watching their families struggling to make ends meet, not knowing where their next meal is coming from, lack of family or a support system, teenage pregnancy, carrying out adult responsibilities, witnessing the cycles of abuse and addiction, family members in prison, and violence. In an environment where their basic needs aren’t being met, it’s a struggle realize that there could be something better on the other side of high school. 
3.    There’s always something more going on: There’s so much more going on than a student sleeping in class, refusing to stay on task, or being tardy to school. I’ve heard judgments, from those not working in the school system, that these students are “lazy,” “bad,” “thugs,” “hopeless,” and much worse. However, many of these students are tired because of babysitting their siblings while their parents work their second job. Or, they are late to school because they are responsible for getting their younger siblings on the bus. Many of these teens miss out on the adolescent experience because they have to work to help support their family. Or, past trauma has created seemingly impossible obstacles to a life of thriving. 
4.  There's hope for our future: The students that I’ve met this year are proof that our society has the potential for change. Many of the students I’ve met are blind to race, religion, and sexual orientation. They believe in social justice, peace, and making changing the world. They are not afraid to speak out about sexual assault, inequality, racism, and social injustice. Many see the value of education, and express gratitude for all of the opportunities that education has provided for them. They are open, forward thinkers that I’m looking forward to being leaders of our society.
5.    Mindfulness is an answer: Mindfulness can be defined in many ways. Here are a few ways in which I like to explain mindfulness. (1) Feeling your emotions, but not allowing them to be in the driver’s seat of your life.  (2) The ability to watch your thoughts, and not believe everything you think. (3) Being an objective observer of the unfolding of your life without becoming hooked or entrapped. (4) Taking action based on empathy, love, and compassion for yourself, others, and the greater good of our planet. I’m astonished how quickly these teens adopted mindfulness. I’ve witnessed students choosing not to fight when being provoked or insulted. Students feeling sleepy, angry, or distracted choosing mindfulness practices to bring them back to neutral. I feel it in my heart center when students realize that with their mindfulness practice, they can be the stopping point of the cycle – the cycle of abuse, unhealthy relationship patterns, people pleasing, perfectionism, victim mentality, or apathy. 

This school year is coming to a close and I’m ready to pause, breathe, rest, and celebrate. There have been over 3,000 visits to the mindfulness room this year. The students have the option of participating in breath work every day during the morning announcements. Plus, we have led breaths for over 700 students prior to test taking. Students LOVE: eye pillows, peppermint oil, body scans, taco breath (AKA kaki pranayama), the sleepy spell (AKA the yoga nidra), burpees, the pink bubble meditatation (AKA guided visualization), to be heard, and to be loved. This work continues to make my heart swell with purpose, gratitude, and hope. 


Just Breathe, Namaste, and Much Love,
Jessica Sharpenstein, M.S., C.W.C.