attention

Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.  

(Albert Einstein)

As a teacher, I am well-acquainted with the terms of attention. I am first a magician who must mesmerize students with something that will keep their attention long enough to relay some information that is on my agenda. Then a salesperson who must demonstrate the value of acquiring attention as a beneficial life-long skill.  And finally an educator whose aim is to share a strong, passionate belief in the amazing power of attention.

But what can I say to students about the transformative power of attention in a world where they are constantly being called to attention and then shamed for not being able to pay attention long enough only to get an earful of seemingly useless information? To them, the word attention is loaded with expectation, compromise and perhaps even boredom.

 

The word “attend” means “to expect, wait for, pay attention,” and directly from Latin attendere “give heed to,” literally “to stretch toward”. 

 

With the intention of occasionally closing young mouths while not closing young minds, I begin each class with a few minutes of corporate silence as a way to ask my students, ‘in your actions and your words, to what are you attending? Stretching your mind toward? In this moment, what are you expecting?

The practice of intentional stillness and silence is a struggle for most of them but a welcome break for others.

 

After the silence, I ask:

  • Are you fixating on the details in the fabric? 
  • Measuring each moment with a hyper-vigilant awareness? 
  • Stretching your mind to some perceived perfect place? 
  • Or is your mind an aimless wanderer on a journey to nowhere? 
  • Or have you not even noticed where your attention has settled? 
  • Or quite possibly, are you not able to name the several dozen places your attention has quickly travelled before I have finished asking the question?

 

While there is no right answer to these questions, there is space for students to become of aware of their intuitive or learned style of attention.  And the impact of it.

With the intention of reducing the weightiness of paying attention, what about replacing the word ‘attention’ with observe? Or notice? And with learning to sit with experience with less scrutiny and more openness to what is?

Teachers and parents, can we take some of the weight off the word ‘attention’, add the invitation to observe and notice instead and see if it transforms the ability of our children to be present?  Let’s encourage them to genuinely and gently notice their world as opposed to mentally documenting it, passively disengaging or restless running from what is in front of them.  And more importantly, can we model that for them?

 

 

You can become blind by seeing each day as a similar one. Each day is a different one, each day brings a miracle of its own. It’s just a matter of paying attention to this miracle. (Paulo Coelho)

 

 

 

one part charmer, four parts thug

 

When I was in Grade 1 or 2, our teacher had us lie down on paper that came in large rolls and take turns tracing each other. Once we had cut out along the penciled lines tracing of ourselves, we were asked to clothe it and colour it based on what we wanted to be when we grew up. The cut-out version of my 7 or 8 year-old self was crayoned to look like a nurse with a white uniform and yellow hair. At that point in my life, my career path was most likely chosen based on the kind tenderness shown to me by a nurse during a brief hospital stay as a young child.

Little did I realize that the career I had chosen would mean that I had to demonstrate increasing proficiency in math, science and would to have be open to dealing with the icky bodily fluids of others. Hmmm. Clearly, I had not thought this through and have since found out that dealing with the emotions of others is far less messy. As I climbed the grade ladder, I entertained a long list of passing career options and eventually crossed them off one-by-one because they just ‘weren’t me’. Yet I still craved to have an “I am” phrase with an occupational title following it. How neat and clean it would be to say “I am a nurse” and it would negate the need for qualifiers and explanations.

 

Children And Art 09

 

Now that I teach Careers Studies to Grade 10 students, I am having to inform my young charges that the world of work is changing and that the odds of them having an “I am” moment with a clear-cut title is being ever-reduced by the evolution of the work landscape.

Futurists predict that my students may:

  • have 10 and most likely many more than 10 careers changes in their life time
  • contract out their services instead of working for a single employer or several consecutive employers
  • work collaboratively and creatively in teams for short-term contract work (think of the numerous teams that formed for the 3 years of filming the Lord of the Rings movies)
  • let go of the ‘education first, work second’ model and will re-invent themselves continually with a life of on-going learning through formal and informal education
  • instead of having the “I am a (fill-in-the-blank)’ label, may have a long list of ‘I am’s such as ‘I am…”:

 

parent
volunteer
coach
blogger
lover
contract employee
entrepreneur
life-long learner
community builder
storyteller
traveller
weekend gardener

So how do we guide these students and help prepare them for a world where information-overload is fast and furious, distractions from paying close attention are overwhelming and their options are seemingly unlimited even in the face of their own challenges and setbacks?

 

Sand Dunes 1

To thrive in the shifting sands of building their life’s work sand castle, students absolutely need to fearlessly cultivate these three areas.

 

Self-awareness

The life-long learning required needs to involve some significant self-reflection on individual style of learning, patterns built on underlying belief systems and clarity about regular ruts, obstacles and places of getting stuck. Temperament, relational style, communication patterns, interests and even likes and dislikes need to be frequently noticed and noted. The title of this post comes from an HBO series called “Brotherhood” where brothers, a politician and a gangster, demonstrate their multi-faceted personalities that extend far beyond their mere labels and is quite fascinating. At one point, a rival tells the politician brother that he is “one part charmer, four parts thug” and, to his credit, he is already fully aware of it. Self-knowledge is key to getting where you want to go even if you don’t know where that is.  It’s necessary to see beyond only the bright and shiny side for authentic self-awareness.

 

Flexibility

In the long list of skills that can be honed and improved (Employability, Emotional Intelligence, Self-Regulation and Leadership), flexibility is represented across the board. Once self-awareness becomes a practice then flexibility is the lubricant that greases the wheel of thriving in a changing world. Like a willow tree’s branches that sway in even the strongest of winds but never break, flexibility allows for every situation to be one of learning and growth. The only constant in life is change so flexibility is key to a world of fluid ‘I am’s’.

 

Creativity

Since we cannot clearly predict what the world of work will look like in the next decade, the students of today can be instrumental in creating it. But that means embracing diversity, change and the unique role each person plays in the design of the future through the full expression of their life’s work. Economist Allan Freeman say “We need cities and towns that nurture a creative population: diverse, culturally active, a harbor for caring and mutually respectful communities in all quarters. We must invest in place. But without people, place is just an empty space. We need new ideas to invest in them.” That vision takes a open mind that continues to learn, is aware and flexible enough to cultivate creativity.

I don’t ask my students to trace themselves on paper or tell me what they want to be when they grow up. But I do ask them to delve into the areas of self-awareness, flexibility and creativity. Then, with this skill set, they can look into their own personal Viewmaster to see the options untold that are waiting to be discovered.

 

ViewMaster

 

the sharpest tool

 

“The journey of a thousand miles starts with a sharp pencil.”

(shamelessly modified Chinese proverb)

 

Tucked into a corner classroom, far away from the hum of row-upon-row of high school exam-takers in the large auditorium, two dozen other students, with extra time and separate space testing accommodations, are hunched over math exams, graph paper,  unsolved x’s and y’s, calculators, word problems and flecks of eraser residue.

The discomfort in the room is palpable. Compulsive glances at the clock, nail-biting, deep sighs and the occasional frustrated forehead dropping down onto a desk in a moment of utter math despair. Ugh. Excuse me for a moment as I have a personal, quasi-traumatic math exam flashback.

 

eraser

 

Okay, I’m back.

As a proctor for accommodated exams for intelligent students who struggle to show what they know, my intention is to anchor the room with a calm presence so I arrive early, greet them, then stroll around the room during the exam, breathing deeply, smiling at them if they glance up at me and trying to relay with my eyes that I’m not judging them or their work since the equations all looks like Greek to me.  βοηθήστε με!

Mostly I just watch them. Notice their frequent highs and lows. I notice when their anxiety becomes momentarily debilitating over a tricky question or sheer exhaustion and that’s when I’ll quietly intervene with an encouraging word or a suggestion to take a few deep breaths or a short break.

Besides the stress levels radiating from their furrowed brows, I notice an overall level of uneasy unpreparedness in the students. I’m not judging them on how many hours they studied, if they created effective study sheets or whether or not they listened attentively during the instruction portion of class time. What I see are students unconsciously, reactively sabotaging their genuine efforts with a lack of appropriate tools for the task at hand.  Is there a correlation between how the students prepared for an exam with how they prepare for each day, part-time jobs, their relationships or their future?

Concrete Tools

Incredibly, some students enter the exam room with only dull-tipped stubs of once-glorious pencils or with no pencils at all. For a math exam!  Did they not know they would need a pencil for a math exam? Was it due to lack of clear instruction from teachers and parents over the years about how come prepared for a math exam? Doubtful. At some point, during the long years of math classes, tests and previous exams, the concept of coming equipped with multiple decently sharp pencils must have bypassed their general knowledge file and gone missing in a cloud of random, useless facts. Yet, still many come empty-handed and ill-equipped to reluctantly face the greatest challenge of their current day; a high school math exam.

If this is how they arrive, I wonder if they even ate breakfast before the exam, stayed well-hydrated while studying, studied for reasonable periods broken up by breaks and if they got a decent night’s sleep. Often, it is the students who arrive in the nick of time, out of breath and pencil-less to the exam have also forgotten which room they’re writing in, keep most of their notes in the bottom of their back-pack or locker and have years of report card comments like “bright student who needs to work harder at handing in all assignments. And on time”.   Years of short quips chronicling the life of the unprepared.

 
Abstract Tools

Outside the exam room just before the doors open, the following examples of students’ sabotaging self-talk were heard: “I have to do really well on this exam or I’ll be so angry with myself.  Not only that but my parents will kill me”. Or the other side of the coin: “Who cares? What’s the point, I’m going to fail anyway. I just can’t do math. I don’t even care”.

This barrage of unconscious but vicious, limiting language is an act of verbal self-harm and is likely a daily language patterns that is not just pulled out for exams only. Simple but deflating words paving the path to inevitable suffering. For even if they pass or ace the exam, the language of never being “good enough” is erosive and about as ineffective as their stubby, dull pencils. But ultimately much more harmful.

So what?

I’ve encountered a disturbing attitude from teachers and parents encapsulated in “Suck it up! I made it through high school okay so you should too” or the alternative where teachers and parents overlook the lack of preparedness because the student has reached a certain age when the adults decide that they will need to learn the hard way. Through soul-crushing failure?  Really?  How will the parched grain of their self-acceptance be watered with a concrete, line-in-the-sand, punitive attitude from the adults in their life?  Without parents and teachers seizing teachable moments, how will they ever learn?

Choosing not to engage students in the abundance of teachable moments is doing them a monumental disservice. New brain research is showing new levels of underdevelopment of the adolescent brain until their early 20’s so when a teenager appears lazy, crazy and hazy, they might not actually be. There is no magic age when a student will automatically put all the pieces together and have it all figured out. There are no concrete developmental milestones for well-honed executive functioning skills and the proof of this is the sheer number of adults who still struggle with daily organization, self-management, initiating, performing and completing a task, efficiently and effectively.

Each nano-second in the life of a frustratingly unprepared adolescent is an opportunity to teach, or re-teach a life skill for the first or millionth time.  As understandably tired parents and teachers, it is still our job.  The most important job we will ever have.

No coddling or rescuing is necessary. Simple emotion-free questions about how prepared or unprepared they feel before an exam or test. Asking them what tools, concrete or abstract, would increase their confidence, decrease their stress and remove the limits to their success. Asking them to recall a time when they felt prepared and how it impacted the result.  Plant seeds of critical thinking, asking the big questions, noticing the long term impact of their action or inaction.  Oh, and modelling increasingly developed executive functioning skills is the sail that’ll make that boat float most consistently!

If a student’s level of unpreparedness begins to interfere with daily functioning then it is time to dig deeper into the available support systems able to help maximize the teachable moments.  Explore their unique learning profile, consider a professional therapist to work on strengthening weary stress coping strategies, engage a subject-specific tutor and/or student success coach for on-going academic and learning strategy and study skills development.

Help is available so no student need ever arrive to the math exam of life without having multiple, exquisitely sharp pencils in hand.

Pencils