Little Monkeys jumping in your head?

I recently began reading (if that’s the correct term for listening to an audiobook on the SLICE copy
Hoopla app in your car as you drive to and from school each day) 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found a Self-Help That Actually Works by Dan Harris.  It’s a great book of Dan’s life, including his journey from a panic attack on national television to a happier balanced place.  This post is not intended to be a book review, but I heartily enjoyed his style of writing, his humor, and his use of a well-placed foul word or two. I definitely recommend you pick it up or visit Dan’s website or follow on Twitter to learn more.

While his book is not about instructional coaching or even education, one term stuck with me that applies to our work with teachers. As Dan recounts his journey, which lead him to practice meditation and to learn more and more about Buddhism, he discusses his discovery of his favorite term. Harris states,

“The Buddhists called this prapañca (pronounced pra-PUN-cha), which roughly translates to “proliferation,” or “the imperialistic tendency of mind.” That captured it beautifully, I thought: something happens, I worry, and that concern instantaneously colonizes my future. My favorite Buddhist catchphrase, however, was the one they used to describe the churning of the ego: “monkey mind.” I’ve always been a sucker for animal metaphors, and I thought this one was perfect. Our minds are like furry little gibbons: always agitated, never at rest.”

The concept of monkey mind stuck with me. As I did some quick research,  I found other great quotes about our monkey minds. The words of the Buddha are particulary eloquent, “Just as a monkey swinging through the trees grabs one branch and lets it go only to seize another, so too, that which is called thought, mind or consciousness arises and disappears continually both day and night (Guide to Buddhism A to Z).”

Buddha contrasted the monkey mind with the mind of the deer. According to Buddhist teaching, we should train our mind to be like the forest deer. According to the Guide to Buddhism A to Z, “Deer are particularly gentle creatures and always remain alert and aware no matter what they are doing.”

I’m sure in all of our work we’ve all met with the teacher, either in a structured meeting or in a coaching conversation, who has a case of monkey mind.  They can’t concentrate on anything, talking about anything and everything that’s not on the agenda, they have a million things to do and only 10 minutes to do them, and they need to go to the bathroom before they have to pick their class up from Music class!

As instructional coaches, we are not immune to contracting a case of monkey mind.  We’ve all been in the middle of various projects, adding students to assessment software rosters, covering a class for a teacher who has to go to the doctor, meeting with students who have various issues, and all the while trying to keep our laundry list of to do items from spilling out of our heads.

When you work as an instructional coach, being mindful of the monkeys in your head can help. Beyond mindfulness, you need to develop strategies to not only help control those monkeys in your mind, but help the teachers that you serve as well. I welcome your suggestion in the comment box below. Some strateies that might help include:

  • Using a prioritized list (what must be done today, what can wait, what can be done by someone else)
  • At the start of a conversation or meeting, give teachers a moment to reflect on their success and a moment to share (if they are willing).
  • Breathing: I teach students all the time to inhale (Like smelling a flower) and exhale (like blowing out a candle). Even a few seconds of breathing can help all of us calm and refocus.
  • Focus on what we can control and change right now, today, and tomorrow.
  • One last coaching note, when working with teachers struggles and troubles can be seized and turned into coaching opportunities. If the teacher is overwhelmed by grading you might be able to sit down and talk through some strategies for being more efficient.

Regardless of the strategy you choose, the goal is to be more mindful of the monkeys in your mind, minimize distractions and bring the focus of the deer back to our work. Good luck taming your mind monkeys!

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