A few years ago I was teaching four sections of AP Economics at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, a top ranked school in the nation. I needed to prepare my students for the Microeconomics AND Macroeconomics AP tests at the end of the year. Most schools only prepare students for one of these two tests so, needless to say, my students needed to learn many concepts in a short amount of time. Everyday my lesson was well crafted as I wanted to make sure to make full use of the 58 minutes of instructional time. I noticed that as major assessments approached, such as a unit test, a midterm, or the actual AP tests, my students weren’t able to learn at the pace and depth that I was hoping they would. I figured that perhaps it was due to stress or anxiety, but what could I do about it? I barely had enough instructional time to cover all the material that they needed to learn. I knew that if I trained my students to meditate regularly, my students would see tremendous benefits from it in the long term. But I still didn’t do it. I resorted to the very common excuse many of us teachers use: “I just didn’t have enough instructional time.” My students ended up doing just fine on the tests but at a great cost. I saw some very bright students work themselves up and question their intelligence simply because they had no mechanism or techniques to regulate themselves physically, physiologically, and psychologically.
I reflected over this the following summer and decided to give myself permission to meditate with my students for the first week of classes in the upcoming fall semester. I had some serious concerns.
What if my students think meditation at school is stupid?
What if their parents accuse me of initiating them into a buddhist monk cult?
What will my colleagues think of me?
And most importantly, how will I cover all the material that I’m expected to cover with less instructional minutes?
I told my students that for the first week of class we are going to meditate everyday for two minutes at the beginning of class. I remember their faces — sheer excitement and curiosity. They were surprisingly excited to try this out. Here are some of things that happened right away:
1. None of my students were late to class because they wanted to meditate or they were afraid to interrupt the meditation.
2. They thoroughly enjoyed this moment of peace and calm in their very hectic day.
3. By the end of each meditation, my students were fully there. Not just their bodies, but their minds and hearts as well.
With the 56 minutes of instruction that I had left, I was able to cover the amount of material that would take me 75 minutes previously. My students were more engaged, and willing to participate in our classroom discussion more readily. What their boyfriend or girlfriend told them during lunch was not in the forefront of their mind nearly as much (alas, you can’t eradicate that stuff completely), rather, the Law Of Diminishing Marginal Utility was what their prefrontal cortex was processing. At the end of the week I asked my students whether they wanted to continue meditating everyday. Out of 120 students, 118 wanted to continue meditating. And so we did. For the rest of the semester, we meditated every day before class for 2-5 minutes.
This allowed me to recognize the long term benefits of attention training exercises such as meditation. By November my students demonstrated real behavioral change because they were able to self-regulate and develop an ability to clear their mind from external events or internal negative voices. This skill obviously helped them intellectually, which deepened the discourse in our class, improved their ability to student and take tests, and allowed them to be more creative when working on their final projects. More importantly, this newly formed ability allowed students to build resilience and emotional intelligence, skills that are significantly more important for happiness and success in life.