newsletter logo: Sangha Reflections

Spring 2007

Some Thoughts on Building Sangha in the Classroom

By Joann Malone

A friend once mentioned the idea of building sangha in the classroom as an alternative to not being able to do it very well with fellow faculty members. In some ways, I guess I feel I’ve been doing that for many years and just have never articulated it very well. It’s not the same as a group of people coming together for the purpose of intentionally building a spiritual community. But especially in conflict resolution courses and “Peace Studies,” students do choose the class based on some interest in making peace and solving problems. Choice is important. Of course, families can become sanghas and people don’t have original choice about being a part of a family, at least the children don’t. But it is quite challenging to think of a classroom where students are placed quite randomly with a teacher whose spiritual path includes sangha building as a possible sangha, at least for the teacher. It can become a refuge, a safe place, a support system, a place where young people are able to share in a very personal way with the understanding that their confidentiality will not be violated. This takes leadership and intention on the part of the teacher.

Fall 2006:
Table of Contents
Mindful Classrooms
p. 1
Science, Mindfulness & Depression p. 2
Vigil for Peace p. 3
dharMedia: Darth Vader? p. 4
Poetry p. 5
Weeds Retreat p. 6
Wanna Be Committeed? p. 7
Calendar p. 8

I actually try to create an atmosphere of respect in all my classes and have done so even before becoming a practicing Buddhist. If students understand and see the teacher model respect for other students, the atmosphere can grow to a point where occasional thoughtless interruption or rude behavior is frowned on by the whole group. Respect is catching. The teacher must believe deeply in its power to transform a group and be rigorous in practicing respect toward the students in order to make it work in a group. No sarcasm, belittling, making fun of a student as a way to “get back” at a child for misbehavior, no anger, raised voice, use of authority as a weapon, threats, treating questions or misunderstandings as “stupid” can be tolerated. Can a teacher be perfect in this practice? No, most of us will lose our tempers, become frustrated, experience the “last straw” effect of one more student getting up and moving around during an important moment of instruction. We are human too and have blocks to treating others equally, such as pride, defensiveness, impatience. When I do violate my own rule of respect, the students know it right away. What can I do to make things right? The key I found that works and restores a respectful atmosphere is making amends for violating the only rule in the classroom – respect. I have to have the humility to admit to the whole class (if the violation occurred in the whole group) that I have broken our one rule. Teenagers, I have found, respond to an apology from a teacher with graciousness and forgiveness. They are amazingly able to let go of grudges. Then harmony is restored, and they are willing to also admit to mistakes without being judged or dismissed. It tickles me that students who end up failing a course will still greet me with warmth in the hallways and take elective courses from me.

Many times in the “Peace Studies” or “Diversity and Community” courses we can discuss educational violence in the “Every Child Left Behind” legislation and other examples of violence and non-peace in the lives of people in the classroom. We are able to develop even deeper levels of confidentiality, openness and respect based on mutual understanding. This has happened in almost all of these elective courses, partly because the courses are chosen by the student, partly because they are older (usually juniors and seniors) and mainly because deeper levels of personal sharing are requested of them. I explain in the first session that they will be expected to explore the nature of violence and conflict in the world, in their communities and school, in their families and within their own hearts. We will explore solutions to violence and ways to deal with conflict and to make peace in all those areas. If individuals are not willing to share personal experiences, they have the option of taking another course, using journaling as the primary method of expression or “passing” when a topic brings up something difficult to share in a group setting. Respect for the individual’s comfort level and desire to share or not share is critical.

When discussing issues in “Peace Studies” such as war, poverty, genocide, female genital mutilation, the oppression of women, domestic and child abuse, alcohol and drug abuse, corporate violence to the public health and to the environment, government abuse of power, global warming, capital punishment, animal abuse, etc., students can become overwhelmed (as I can) by the amount of suffering in the world. I have begun in the last few years to make sure that there is some time in each class for laughter, silence, music and watering the seeds of joy, hope, imagination and beauty. We need the balance of looking deeply at the reality of suffering in order to seek solutions to stopping violence and oppression. But we also need to help our children not become overwhelmed by sadness, grief and hopelessness when they look deeply at the realities of war and poverty. They need to hear personal stories like those of students who survived the genocide of Rwanda or the poverty of Guatemala and India. Such students are often present in the very class discussing the topics or can easily come from another class in our large, multinational student body.

These students become the most important part of my support sangha in my workplace. They encourage me to continue to help them look at difficult issues while keeping their hearts light and happy. In doing so, my capacity for listening deeply, especially to the suffering in their lives, is strengthened. My joy at being alive, breathing, here and now, in this present moment is watered. My hope that any problem created by the carelessness, greed and cruelty of human beings like myself can also be solved by the mindfulness, generosity and love of human beings like myself. We have all harmed by our mindlessness and can all heal by our mindfulness.

In some classes such as “Peace Studies,” there has even been an opportunity to introduce meditation directly as a way to achieve some personal peace and to reduce stress in our lives and the lives of those around us. It is often helpful to have another practitioner to conduct the instruction on breathing, relaxation of the body, “raisin meditation” or “Clementine meditation.” Most students are happy to consume any form of food in any way possible. The idea of “stopping, relaxing and breathing” has caught on so much in some classes that students request at least 5 minutes of meditation at the beginning or end of class as a way of preparing for or recovering from the hubbub of the hallways. We share and discuss our experience and research on the value of meditation in thinking, studying and test-taking. On beautiful spring days we have practiced walking meditation from the classroom to a nearby hillside where we enjoy watching clouds and blue skies in silence. Some students have enjoyed the meditation and stress reduction exercises so much that they initiated a weekly after school meditation club led by students.

What a joy to find and build sangha wherever we are in our daily lives!

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