“So,” asked Julia as we continued our conversation of last week, “if teaching is tough, how do you keep at it? Don’t you get tired of it, of us?”
“I focus,” I answered. ”You don’t know the power of focusing although you use it and don’t realize it. It’s a heart skill that too many people ignore and don’t learn. But, it’s not just focus; it’s the kind of focus and on what I focus that’s important; it’s the kind of focus that sends out caring rather than anger, encouragement rather than frustration, connection rather than disinterest, commitment rather than fear, and community rather than strangerness.”
I told her that focus tames frenzy; it applies brakes; it gives you a sense that you’re not out of control; it organizes your mind and heart. When I’m focusing, I’m not caring about students in a class; I see the class as a gathering of “sacred ones;” I hear that angel reminding me that each one is created in the image of the divine; I’m caring about one person, one at a time. It’s an unconditional, locking in kind of focusing: believing in focusing; having faith in focusing; having hope for focusing; loving focusing. And, that is an uplifting, invigorating, recharging, and inspiring focus for me. When I focus I’m abiding by my “Ten Commandments of Teaching” and my “Teacher’s Oath;” when I focus she or he is important to me; I notice her or him; I’m there to help her or him become the person she or he is capable of becoming, often to help her or him change the way she or he is looking at her/himself and life. It’s a determined focus that gives me an effective focus, a purposeful focus, an empowering focus. I told her that it’s both a state of mind and of heart. It’s a filtering state that allows me to know on what to concentrate, and what to ignore. That way, there’s little to distract me, little to throw me off track, little to frustrate me, little to annoy me.
“But, how do you do that for all of us at one time. God, you must get uptight a lot, concentrating so much. Don’t you get drained?” she said in surprise.
“No, not really” I answered. I told her that my focus is not an uptight focusing. Sure, I’m moving my spotlight from person to person, and my eyes are in a state of conscious REM. But, it’s not like I’m a stalking, muscles taut predator about to pounce on some unwary prey.. It is an intent and it is an intense boring in on one student, but at the same time it’s a relaxed reading of every student. I focus to understand, not command; to teach with each student, not to teach to each of them; I don’t work for the university; I work with each student. It means to break barriers, build bridges, create connect, establish community. That’s important because strengthening connection with students, eliminating “strangerness” and “aloneness” is the best way to help them achieve. That means I have to be awake, alert, aware, attentive, attuned, alive, mindful, and to have a strong sense of otherness. It’s an easy stillness, a still inner energy. No anger, no frustration, no anxiety, no disappointment, no fear. Just opportunity for improvement, understanding, preparation, care, purpose. No bouncing around like a ping-pong ball; no uncertainty, no desperation, no frantic, no “this-or-else.” Focus and relaxed are not antonyms. Focus and burnout are. The way I focus makes me relaxed and not worrying about being careless. It’s not a boxing match. It’s a dance. It’s a focus on both self and other in a way that creates and maintains a connection. I told that if I don’t know yourself and am honest with myself, how can I decide who I should become; if I don’t know what I am, how can I figure out where to go; and if I don’t know my talents and abilities, how can I know what to do. In this state of focus, trivial outside events do not have the power to distract or annoy me. They lose their “tug ability.” I simply accept them, ignore them, move past them, and continue working on what’s truly important to me. I just pay attention, close attention, not just to what I’m doing and what each student is doing. I carefully see his or eyes, I see his or her face, I listen to her or his body language.
In fact, as an aside, I told her that focus is my best form of evaluating what I’m doing in class. I don’t really look at the end of the term questionnaires. If anything, they’re too late. But, to see and read the eyes, face, and body every day. They’re the best on the spot evaluation; they offer the real shot at flexible, on-time adjustment and adaptability.
“How do you stay focused through everything,” Julia asked.
“Well, lots of ways. I take one day at a time. Right now I’m focused on today. For example, are you still using the ‘uplifting word for today’ I taught you? I asked
“Great! Is it working?” I asked.
“Well, it helps me see the good stuff all around. I pull a card and think about what I can do to live that word that day. It’s like writing a script that’s telling me what my attitude should be and how I should act no matter what happens. It’s hard. I know, before you say it, it’s hard that makes it important. If it was easy, I wouldn’t be bettering myself. Today my word is ‘happy.’ So, I’m being happy about lots of things; I find ways to be happy; and I see the reasons to be happy, like talking with you.”
“That’s called focus. I do it, too. Today my word is ‘smile.’ And, talking with you is reason to smile. Do you exercise?” I then asked.”
“That’s another way,” I told her. I explained that my pre-dawn walks, for example, give me a break from yesterday, recharge my batteries, and help start the next day fresh. It’s a mobile meditation that keeps me at ease and centered. Still another way is not to take back-to-back classes. I refused to teach that way. You and I need a quiet place where and when we have getting down time and getting up time. Our brain and heart need a shift. We shouldn’t be in a desperate, rushing, frantic, helter-skelter. During those depressurizing breaks I stroll the campus, talk with students, blow bubbles, sip a cup of coffee, close my eyes while sitting on a bench, take deep breaths, watch and listen to the birds, look at the bushes and flowers, imagine the students in the upcoming class, organize and prepare both my heart and mind. All that allows me to shift gears, to exit one state of focus while entering another, to let go of one class and reset myself for the next one. I also have developed a conscious sense of myself. That means I’m aware of my emotions, both positive and negative, and fight to make sure I hold tightly to the former and that it far outweighs the latter–and not let the latter get to me. And finally, I have an end-of-the-day glass of wine, a piece of cheese with my Susie during out ‘just to’ getaway time. ”And when I’m with her, I know all is right with the world and I set myself right.”
“I’ve got another question,” Julia said. ”Don’t you miss us?”
My answer is the last part of our conversation. After I come back from Hawaii.