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Thich Nhat Hanh

Ideas come to us in moments we don’t anticipate. Don’t look for them; let them find you.

Teaching with wisdom in mind emerges slowly and only when we are open to it. Most likely, it comes to us as much (or more) than our moving towards it. One of my earliest encounters happened in our local cinema with middle schoolers watching Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, when I suddenly realized I could change how I approached the world and my classroom. As I observed Ben Kingsley’s Gandhi, I understood the power of his presence, and from that moment I began to perceive myself more in who I was and how I behaved rather than what I said. I increasingly observed myself both as a teacher and a person.

Often, wisdom arrives in short phrases. Shunryu Suzuki’s, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few” spoke to me. His words were counterintuitive to my drive to be an expert teacher, as I wanted my students and colleagues to know I was well prepared and knowledgeable. I strove to be on top. Suzuki’s words taught, however, that I could never complete the expert in me, and also that I needed to remain open to possibilities at every moment. As I became more receptive, I delighted in others’ insights, including those of my students and colleagues. Letting go of becoming an expert, I discovered there was less I needed to cling to and more that I could learn.

Later, came Thich Nhat Hanh’s “There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” His words opened me to the meaning of being in the moment. My life as a teacher had been an endless chain of completing one task to do the next. “Wash the dishes to wash the dishes” opened the idea of staying present with the task before me. Whenever I stray from this peaceful place, I recall Hanh’s words to realign me, often simply by taking a breath. I introduced this idea at a middle school assembly with a talk in which I invited students “to do your homework to do your homework,” and paraphrasing Hahn, I added,

The fact that I am sitting here and doing my homework is a wondrous reality. I am being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There is no way that I can be tossed around mindlessly, hating what I am doing and wanting to be somewhere else. I am here doing my homework, simply doing my homework. It is a miracle. It’s awesome!

I put these words on index cards for anyone who wanted one. They disappeared.

See what Rilke offers in Teaching from the Middle of the Room: Inviting students to Learn from Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Teaching-Middle-Room-Frank-Thoms/dp/0615358918.

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