Two Educators: Moving From Mindless to Mindful

This is the first post in an occasional series with Brian Kulak, Chief Academic Officer at Collingswood Public Schools. In this series, Brian and Dylan will tackle one topic from their unique perspectives as an administrator and a teacher.


Kulak: Listen, I loathe all educational buzzwords and phrases. I’m tired of being asked to unpack. I’ve had my fill of meaningful conversations. I have no desire to be a part of anything that is rolled out. I’ll pass on an invitation to a crosswalk. I’m not even entirely sure I understand what grit is anymore.

But, I’m also a hypocrite. Because, my friends, I’ve become mindful, and I ain’t going back to, what is it, being mindless?

Having grown up around yogis, meditation, ashrams, and gurus, I was no stranger to the basic tenets of mindfulness: breath deeply, invite awareness, appreciate nature. Hell, I have a tattoo of a yin-yang on my shoulder blade because of my belief in harmony and the spiritual connectedness of the universe.

But I never really practiced mindfulness.

While we’re on the subject of confessions, my mindfulness practice started by accident. When a former nurse contacted me last summer about setting up informal, free, stress management workshops for anyone in our district, I thought it was a great idea. Then, when it came time to register, I figured, “Hey, I’m as stressed as the next guy, why not?”

During that first session, we stretched, we breathed, we talked about resilience, and we spent much of the time with our eyes closed. A month later, I was posing in my first “hot” yoga class. So, if you’re counting at home, my indoctrination into mindfulness took about as long as one of its patented inhalations.

Shortly thereafter, I started to listen to myself speak to my children, ages 6 and 2. I taught myself to stay present through the bickering, food throwing, poop changing, and attention competing implicit to every day in my house. Instead of reacting, I practiced just being. As a result, I have changed the way I parent because mindfulness preaches a sort of timelessness necessary to stay present.

Now, I approach my career with the same purposeful intention.Relationships have become more meaningful. Advice has become more empathetic. Projects are completed with more clarity. Breathing has become much deeper.

Unlike the uniform meaninglessness of the buzzwords I mentioned earlier, mindfulness is actually meaningful because it is deeply personal. I didn’t have to start yoga to practice mindfulness, but I chose to. I didn’t have to become “aware of my breath,” but I am. None of my parenting or leadership is rolled out, unpacked, or crosswalked; it just is.

In fact, this journey has made me acutely aware of what is rather than acutely anxious of what will be.

Fenton: In my first year of teaching, I had a vision of what my classroom should look like, as so many first-year teachers do. Part of that vision was to set aside a minute at the beginning of each class for us to practice group meditation. To become present. To leave all the stress and yelling and drama of the school day out in the hallways and prepare ourselves to focus our full energies on the class. I thought it was going to be amazing – maybe even life changing – for students.

I thought.

It was a bona fide failure. When we went into the “Meditation Minute,” as I dubbed it, students sat there with bewildered looks on their faces or snickered at their friends in embarrassed confusion. The group silence, the absence of any guidance during the meditation, the sitting without doing anything conventionally constructive, was too far outside of students’ comfort zones that few, if any, genuinely tried it.

And it was my fault. I hadn’t built the rapport and trust with kids necessary to encourage them to take risks and be vulnerable like I was asking them to do. I was just this strange new guy in their lives asking them to do this strange new thing that made them feel strange. I should’ve encouraged them to start with smaller mindfulness techniques, like Jon Kabat-Zinn’s famous raisin exercise, or at least found a good, short, guided meditation for them. But I didn’t.

So, when during one of our Meditation Minutes a student raised his hand and very purposefully asked, “CAN I GO TO THE BATHROOM?,” I decided to quietly and humbly accept defeat and conclude my attempt at mindfulness in the classroom. It had lasted for about a week.

Now, I should mention that, unlike Brian, I didn’t grow up around Eastern philosophy or any other new-age belief systems. In fact, I come from a long line of worriers, naysayers, and worst-case scenario-ists. My thoughts often feel like they’re caught in a whirlwind. I’m no stranger to insomnia. The uncertainty of the future often casts a shadow over my present. So the struggle to stay mindful is a daily challenge for me.

But I know the value of it. When I’m playing with my daughter, going for a run, listening to great music, or I just find a moment in my busy day to stop and center myself, I am mindful – I am present and calm and feel connected to all of the wonderful and darkly mysterious mechanisms of the universe. But those moments are tough to hold onto. Really tough.  

The rise in teen anxiety and the pharmacological response suggests that there are students out there like me, who struggle with control over their thoughts and wish that they could grab onto those fleeting moments of tranquility and extend them into days, months, even lifetimes. So while the “Meditation Minute” might’ve been a failure all those years ago, a little bit of mindfulness might be necessary in the classroom now more than ever.


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