Minds over daily matters: Amherst principal helps teachers clear away mental clutter

Last modified: Friday, March 07, 2014

AMHERST — Nick Yaffe, 60, began teaching when he was 20. He started with preschool. After earning his college degree, he advanced to kindergarten and for a decade he’s been a principal, the last four years at Wildwood Elementary School in Amherst.

One thing he’s learned is that educators need to step back now and then and think about what inspired them.

“Most teachers went into the profession wanting to make a difference,” he said during an interview in his school office. “How do you reconnect with that passion? How do you keep it alive over a career of 30 years?”

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For the second semester Yaffe is leading a series of nine sessions for teachers, every other Wednesday after school, called “Teacher Reflection and Contemplative Practices: How cultivating awareness and mindfulness can infuse our teaching with insight and enthusiasm.”

It’s a professional development course in meditation and self-examination. Eighteen people took it from October to January. Nineteen are enrolled now.

“It was incredibly rewarding,” said Chris Eggemeier, who teaches math and English to sixth-graders at Wildwood. He was part of the session that recently wrapped up and is continuing in a newly formed meditation group at his school. “It absolutely gave me a renewed sense of purpose.”

Practical application

The words mindfulness and meditation may seem more suited to a yoga studio than a school room, but not if you listen to Yaffe. An affable man with closely cropped gray hair and green-rimmed reading glasses, he was taking time to talk with me on the last day of school vacation week. He was catching up on work in the empty building.

“I don’t want this to sound esoteric,” he said. “I didn’t invent this. But it brings together a lot of things that have been important to me in my life.”

The idea is to give teachers tools they can use in their classrooms: Ways to sharpen their focus on their students, control their reactions to challenging kids and feed on what energizes them.

Many of the principles he discusses are practical, he says. Other people have applied them to teaching as well as to other occupations. Sam Intrator of Smith College and Sonia Nieto and Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts and Parker Palmer of the University of California Berkeley are educator/authors he draws on heavily.

“You want to keep teachers vital, you want to keep them buoyant,” Yaffe said.

One key is coaxing them to think about what inspired them to teach in the first place.

“We want our teachers, at whatever stage of their careers, to feel connected to why they are teaching. Because some days, you really wonder.”

Yaffe has long practiced meditation and he first ran a group for teachers when he was teaching at the now-closed Marks Meadow School.

“I was concerned for myself as a teacher,” he said. “I was concerned for all of us in our profession. How do we maintain our energy and enthusiasm for this challenging work?”

Since then he has done a lot of reading, taking Palmer’s “Courage to Teach” and “Courage to Lead” seminars and has moved up to sit in the principal’s chair, which, he says, has given him a greater appreciation for teachers’ work.

“I love teaching and I want others to love teaching, too,” he said. “The study group really comes out of a deep respect and caring for the work of teachers.”

Being mindful

Many of those who have taken his course — men, women, new teachers, veteran teachers and teachers from kindergarten through high school — have either had no experience with meditation, or have dabbled in it a bit.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Yaffe. “These are tools for everybody.”

He starts each session with what is called a body scan, where participants concentrate on where they’re feeling rigid and then letting tension go. They learn to concentrate on their breath, which is a good way to relax and rid themselves of stray thoughts, Yaffe said.

That helps them achieve mindfulness by focusing on the here and now. In the case of teachers, that means being able to give students their undivided attention.

“If you’re worrying about something, or thinking about preparing the next lesson, it’s taking away from your ability to listen to a child, to notice what that child is learning” — or isn’t, says Yaffe. “For teachers to possess the ability to be in the moment with their students is so important. A lot of creativity can come out of that.”

Each session also involves everybody discussing a relevant reading and then breaking into small groups to talk further, working their classroom experiences into those conversations. That is followed by full group discussion. There is also journal writing and poetry reading.

Homework assignments are ways to carry what they’ve learned into their classes: Be aware of your breathing at a tense moment. Pay attention to your emotions during the day. Try to view a challenging child in a new light.

It all helps the teachers examine who they are, how they react to children, even how the language they use affects students, Yaffe said. “The way that we speak to children is very powerful.”

The study group also helps diminish feelings of isolation teachers may have as they share their ideas and practices, he said.


Tracy Vernon, who has taught for 28 years and runs the dance program at the high school, said she has practiced meditation off and on for three years. She found Yaffe’s course invigorating. “It was fantastic,” she said. “Pretty much every time I walked out of Nick’s class I felt better.”

Yaffe, she said, is a skilled meditation guide, which did not surprise her.

“Nick walks and talks with a certain clarity,” she said. “He puts you at ease. You know you are in good hands.”

The discussions with colleagues were a highlight. “We were really able to communicate and hear other people’s perspectives,” she said. But one exercise she particularly liked she practices each morning. Yaffe encouraged the teachers to think about their intentions for the day as they first walk through the school door.

“I love my students and I love my subject, and just to remember that as I’m walking through the door, I’m offering myself, my expertise, my listening ear, is a beautiful thing,” she said.

Eggemeier liked taking the time to reflect in the after-school sessions. “So often teachers have so much to do that we lose sight of what first drew us to this,” he said. “It helped me gain perspective.”

His inspiration for teaching came from his parents, both of whom taught, and his own teachers. They helped him find meaning in his life through writing and reading. Now, he strives to do the same thing for his students.

He and Vernon are among the veterans of the first session who will take part in a book group Yaffe is hosting on “Real Happiness at Work” by Sharon Saltzberg.

Yaffe is glad his work has struck a chord among teachers and that the school administration sees its value. “What we want is inspired teachers because the professions need that. The kids need that.”

Debra Scherban can be reached at DScherban@gazettenet.com.


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