Mindfulness, Teaching, and What Matters

By Janet Uresti

Over these last few months, I have been spending a lot of time reflecting on my mental and physical health and the time I dedicate to both. Am I on the right track? I truly believe each of us is on this Earth to learn, grow and serve a purpose. Have I served that purpose? Is this a mid-life crisis since I recently turned 40? Is this a fear that I have not accomplished what I am here for?

I’ve tried scheduling my days. I’ve tried “Putting First Things First” and “Beginning with the End in Mind.” (Who doesn’t love Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People)? But my feelings of inadequacy and fear of failure and fear of saying “No” get in the way of the bigger picture. What if I’m not on the right track? What if I don’t know what I really want?

This summer I decided I was going to get my act together. I started with my physical health. I joined the gym and gave up soda (my one true vice). I knew I needed to become more active, lose weight and feel better. Then, the school year began. I returned to teaching full-time during the day and then two nights a week at Porterville College. Exercise and eating well quickly moved to the bottom of my priority list because I needed to ensure that I spent adequate time with my sons, make sure I am ready for both jobs, and try to fulfill responsibilities in my church and community.

I’ve been overwhelmed. Tired. Feeling alone. Maybe I feel the way a lot of people felt when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. While I was nervous during that time, I loved being with my children more and the idea of not having anywhere to be. The lack of a schedule (on the days I didn’t work) was freeing. 

Last year, as things began to return to “normal” after the pandemic, there was a lot of discussion around social-emotional learning. This fascinated me. I don’t think as a society (or myself) that we saw how hard individuals were during the pandemic because a lot of their needs were being met by the educational system. We sometimes forget Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and how as people we cannot reach self-actualization without having a foundation of physiological and safety needs being met. 

This year started and the rural school I work at gained a social worker who asked teachers if we wanted her to come in for a short “Mindfulness” lesson for 15 minutes, one day a week. At first, I was a skeptic. I am the child of very Conservative parents. As the daughter of a nurse who – even though he served in the Navy in Japan for more than a year – never seemed to believe in Eastern medicine and the overall connection between mind and body, so what would I, or my students, learn from these lessons? But since I was having my own struggles, what can it hurt, right? Anything that will help the students.

The social worker comes in, rings a Tibetan singing bowl at the beginning and end of each session, and reads from a script. Each week the focus is different. Students are asked to focus on their breathing, their body, and their thoughts, and it gives them strategies on how to focus on their thoughts and identify how they’re feeling. 

Again, at first, I thought it was kind of silly, but as I have my own struggles with feeling overwhelmed it helped me to focus and reflect. What is truly important? What is my purpose? Then, when I saw how the students reacted and how seriously they took it and how much they appreciated it, it showed me that this “settling” of mind and body could truly help them be better learners if they felt more at ease and comfortable with themselves and others. It could also help me as their teacher.

It’s interesting how when you’re searching for answers in your life how things seem to come out of nowhere and be applicable to your situation. I do not discuss religion at work (this, however, is a blog post). Soon after I thought about what teaching-and-learning experience I might share, I was studying a religious talk that would be discussed at church that Sunday. It was called “Do what Mattereth Most” and was given by Rebecca L. Craven. The content of the talk is religious, but there was one line that struck me and seemed applicable to this topic. Craven said, “And it’s not about doing more. It’s about doing what matters.”

The next Monday, I attended a Small Schools Conference at the Tulare County Office of Education. The guest speaker was Roni Habib, a former schoolteacher, and alumnus of Harvard University, who gave a presentation titled “Joyful and Resilient Teaching (and Living!)”. His presentation focused on being mindful of ourselves (and students). He modeled how to practice mindfulness in the classroom. He taught us fun games and cheers to share with our students to help them be focused, have fun and be ready for that day’s lessons. He shared the importance of reflecting on what we are grateful for and having our students and ourselves physically write out three things we are grateful for each day and sharing those ideas with one another. If you ever could take a training course with him, I highly recommend it!

I do not have all the answers. I know these are things I will continue to struggle with, but I am getting better at letting people know my needs and advocating for myself. (For example, although it was hard, I had to request to only teach one class in person at PC next semester. I am hoping to spend more time with my boys). There are other areas of my life I am working on prioritizing and maximizing my time and efforts, which is helping me better manage my mental and physical health. Even in my classroom, I am trying to figure out what lessons and strategies will maximize student understanding and growth and what can be left out. What more can I do in my classroom to promote “Mindfulness?” I hope as we continue this journey that we can all remember “… It’s not about doing more. It’s about doing what matters.”

Janet Uresti is an adjunct instructor at Porterville College. Janet was raised in Lemoore, CA, and graduated from West Hills College, Lemoore with an A.A. in Liberal Arts in 2001. She attended California State University, Fresno, and graduated with a B.A. in Mass Communication and Journalism in 2004. She got a job as an education reporter at the Porterville Recorder and worked there for a while when a school district administrator encouraged her to become a teacher. She went on to earn a multiple-subject teaching credential in 2009 from Fresno Pacific University and taught kindergarten for two years and third grade for two years at a small school district in Porterville. After having two boys a year and a half apart, she decided to take some time off but later got a job teaching part-time at an independent study charter school for at-risk teens. It was there that she discovered her passion for helping students gain skills to become college and career ready and she returned to Fresno Pacific University to earn an M.A. in Administrative Services. She taught articulated college and career readiness courses at the school, which helped her get hired at Porterville College as an adjunct instructor in 2019 where she teaches student success courses. She also currently teaches sixth grade at a rural K-8 school.