Paul: Classroom practice and openness to unpredictability

This is the third of three conversations with Common Ground members about how they take their practice into the world. Scroll down for the first two conversations.

Paul Sackaroff, an English teacher at Columbia Heights High School, first got interested in meditation 12 years ago when he did a 10-day retreat in Thailand. But it was the hectic pace and stress of teaching that motivated him to focus to practice two years ago.

“I was reacting negatively,” he said over a cup of tea in his dining room. “I was just emotionally drained and frustrated. I wasn’t getting along with my students. I was full of aversion and anger and locked in this very small sense of self and the drama of high school.”

So he devoted himself to practicing at school. It was not so much trying to control the classroom or control the situation, he said, but simply trying to respond skillfully and effectively under what can be very difficult conditions.

For Paul, the essence of teaching has become an awareness practice. It is being aware in the moment what is going on and what is needed. “Are students getting it?” he asks. “How do I know? What are the signs they are giving me? How do I interpret that? Where do I go from here? Do I go over this again? Do I switch to another activity?”

“It is very much feeling it out in the moment and being open and trusting.”

The 2007-08 school year went so well he asked his principal for a tougher class. This year he has a class of 30 9th grade boys. (“There is all kinds of crazy stuff that happens in that classroom,” he says. “A kid blows a big fart and everyone wants to run out of the room. Fights almost break out. Anything can happen. It is such an unpredictable environment.”)

Paul and his class are guinea pigs for a new curriculum. They are reading the book Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens. They are not learning a lot about English in the Shakespearean sense, but they are learning about the human condition. Paul is teaching them life skills: how to be in the world, how to interact, how to treat each other, get along in groups and keep their word.

That is where mindfulness practice is really helping him, Paul says. What he is learning with the dharma is the same thing that Sean Covey is trying to teach with these Seven Habits. It is being of aware of habits-both mental habits and physical habits.

At its fundamental level, it is about awareness to make good choices.

“My hope is to integrate more mindfulness practices into the classroom, not using the term Buddhism, really, but using a secular, western approach,” Paul says. “These are common sense things that will help you.”

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