I sometimes watch a cooking competition that provides participants with a box of four surprise ingredients and then asks them to create something tasty, beautiful and creative in 30 minutes. I am always amazed at what they are able to do in such a short time with such random ingredients. Recently, however, there was one competitor who was quite frantic throughout the thirty minutes, changing his mind, unsure about sequence, unable to sort through his many ideas and obviously quite anxious. When it came time for the judging, the judge commented on his state of mind while working and said, “We should have put a breath in the box.” He then went on to comment about how his state of mind, or inability to breathe, interfered with his ability to create something that was focused and coherent.
I’ve been thinking about this phrase quite a bit and how it applies so well to educational contexts. We don’t breathe very well in education, we don’t intentionally ‘put a breath in the box’. The tyranny of the urgent, the complexity of the many decisions we are making as teachers, the comprehensiveness of curriculum, and the pressure we put on students to quickly perform and produce with the ingredients we give them can all work against breathing. And what was clear in the competition results is also clear in educational settings. When students aren’t breathing, they aren’t learning, and they aren’t able to accurately represent what they know.
So I am starting to ask myself these questions…Is there a breath in the box for me and my students? Am I aware of my breathing and my students’ breathing? What kinds of breathing are present? Are we breathing deeply in appreciation for all that is possible and present or is our breath more indicative of exhaustion, anxiety and fear? Are there ways we can breathe better throughout the day or semester and not just when the bell goes at the end of the day, or when spring break arrives?
I am convinced that teachers have a lot of control over the breathing in their classrooms. Students usually breathe the way we do. They need us to practice better breathing, model better breathing, create space for better breathing. Mindfulness practices from all wisdom traditions teach us the importance of breath to help us self-regulate or achieve stillness in the midst of chaos, to bring us back to ourselves (because when we are not breathing well we are usually disembodied), to stabilize or anchor our minds, and to become aware of our thoughts while not being caught by our thoughts. This kind of focus is absolutely necessary for deep, focused, meaningful and responsive learning. We may not be able to control many of the conditions that surround us, but we can, with practice and awareness, control our breathing and help our students breathe.
This is the kind of breathing I would hope for my students…
Breaths of stillness and presence, to bring us back to ourselves and our learning.
Breaths of fresh air and anticipation when learning is foreshadowed.
Breaths of exhalation when a need has been met or a challenge is realized.
Breaths that are shared when we realize that some of us are having a harder time breathing.
Breaths of relaxation and quiet after times of intensity.
Breaths of inspiration arising from stillness.
Breaths of excitement and celebration when learning is accomplished.
Breathing is good. Be inspirited.