A Principal’s Insight to Mindfulness Programs in Baltimore Public Schools

The newest episode of our university podcast, ‘MindfulU at Naropa University,’ is out on iTunesStitcher, Fireside, and Spotify now! We are excited to announce this week’s episode is the second part of a three-part, on-site series featuring the work of Holistic Life Foundation (HLF)–this week we talk to Baltimore-based educators Monique Debi, Principal of Fort Worthington Elementary School, and Vance Benton, Principal of Patterson High School.

Holistic Life Foundation: A Principal’s Insight to Mindfulness Programs in Baltimore Public Schools

“Anything dealing with meditation or anything dealing with children’s emotional growth is difficult to quantify. And it’s difficult to put a price on it. So, it’s difficult for schools, principals, in particular, to bring programs when you have to pay some people to do some things inside of a school. So, meditation and things of that nature, unfortunately, will be put on the backburner. And a lot of people’s levels of urgency tend to be well, low on that on that scale. Because a lot of people just aren’t into it themselves. And unfortunately, can’t see a broader picture, outside of what’s the immediate gratification.”

Full transcript below.

The Holistic Life Foundation is a Baltimore-based 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization committed to nurturing the wellness of children and adults in underserved communities. Through a comprehensive approach which helps children develop their inner lives through yoga, mindfulness, and self-care HLF demonstrates a deep commitment to learning, community, and stewardship of the environment. HLF is also committed to developing high-quality evidence-based programs and curriculum to improve community well-being. Listen as we discuss the Foundation and Naropa with its founders.

Full Transcript
An Onsite Inquiry into Mindfulness, Principals

[MUSIC]

Hello. And welcome to Mindful U at Naropa. A podcast presented by Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.

I’m your host, David Devine. And it’s a pleasure to welcome you. Joining the best of Eastern and Western educational traditions – Naropa is the birth place of the modern mindfulness movement.

[MUSIC]

DAVID:
Before this podcast gets started — I wanted to introduce a three part series. I recently traveled to Baltimore, Maryland to catch up with the Holistic Life Foundation crew — Ali, Atman and Andy, who I interviewed last year at Naropa University when they came to the school to give a talk.

Over that time, we became friends and began talking about what it would actually look like if I came to Baltimore and broaden the conversation with principals, teachers, kids and volunteers of their programs. My conversations were so profound and enlightening. Here’s what I found.

This podcast series is two of three with me interviewing the principals of Patterson High School and Fort Worthington Elementary school.

First off welcome to the podcast and this is my first time speaking to someone like in their school — so I’m like on your turf.

VANCE:
Right on.

DAVID:
It feels really nice.

VANCE:
Well, welcome.

DAVID:
So, can you just explain to us like — what’s your name? What’s your title? What school we’re at and kind of what you do here?

VANCE:
Sure, well good morning. My name is Vance Benton and I am the principal here at Patterson High School, which is a part of the Baltimore City public school system here in Baltimore Maryland. I’m currently in my eighth school year.

DAVID:
Okay. Yeah, I was going to say we had a small conversation before this, and you said you were in education for a really long time.

VANCE:
Yes, probably maybe around 22 years or so — 23 years from Cleveland Ohio.

DAVID:
Okay.

VANCE:
So, I got started there in Ohio and I came here in 2011 to lead the school.

DAVID:
Okay, awesome. So, thank you. So, I wanted to ask how was the Holistic Life Foundation program installed into your school? And I’m also curious how did you meet the guys? How did that relationship start?

VANCE:
Well, it was interesting how we — we met. Actually, Ali and I were introduced to each other by a mutual business partner, if you will partner — a school partner. And she wanted to introduce Ali to me because she felt Vance Benton over there at Patterson high school was open minded to hear the possibility of meditation in schools. Although I didn’t know what the meeting was about and why I was meeting with Ali and this other individual.

But when we — came together and he and I were talking, and I made a reference to a Yoda quote from Star Wars — actually —

DAVID:
Oh, he loves Star Wars.

VANCE:
Right, he loves Star Wars, right. So, I didn’t know this, but they were speaking on trying this out. And my response was well, either we’re going to do it or we’re not going to do it, but we’re not gonna try.

DAVID:
Oh, I like that.

VANCE:
And then when he heard that, and he knew where he came from — he instantly knew that we had a connection. So, it started from there. It just started from my willingness and openness and understanding that we need to do something different. It spurred out from a teacher — former teacher — actually retired and I coming together — impromptu conversation about how often our students dealt with death. So, we did an impromptu survey — just to see how many — how often children dealt with death here at our school. And where we found out was over half of the students had at least two — that they dealt with. And we were speaking on you know more intimate family members — household members, parents, grandparents if you will — friends or families on the street — community — something — somebody that’s real close not just the city itself. I mean again what we found out was our children were dealing with multiple deaths — even to the point where one of our African students noted six. And that was because you know they come from villages and things over on near land where it is very crucial — very dangerous, very violent. So, we knew we had to do something. And then when Ali came to my attention. I knew that was the creator and the universe moving — where it’s what we needed to do. So, we just did it.

DAVID:
And, so was meditation something you were actually actively looking for? Or did Ali — was just like, yo, I got this thing — meditation. You’re just like —

VANCE:
Absolutely.

DAVID:
We’re going to try that.

VANCE:
It was — it was — it was just like. I didn’t practice it — wasn’t too familiar with meditation and yoga, of course you heard of it, but it wasn’t anything that I was doing in particular. But I just knew we needed to do something because I — I liken our student situations to soldiers. Where they are in an environment that at any point in time they could die. Any day they could die. And every day they understand that — every day they live with that. They live with the possibility of their friends or comrades dying. They may have even seen comrades and friends die. And they’re impacted by this emotionally every day. However, those soldiers get to come home. So, they get to leave those situations and then when they come here things are not right within them. And then they seek a doctor and seek medical attention. And then they’re diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. And they receive medication or assistance to treat that. Well I got the questioning — if our students are in the same situations emotionally, mentally where you know every day I could be — it could be my last day. I’ve seen friends or I’m fearful of friends and family being killed every day. However, students are not able to leave it — situations. They are not able to be treated or diagnosed for this element that is the exact same thing as soldiers.

So, I don’t label it as post-traumatic stress disorder. I began to look at it as present traumatic stress disorder. And they’re not being treated. So, we needed to do something. So, I felt that Holistic Life Foundation was the key for us to addressing some things within students — and teachers that would go untreated.

DAVID:
OK. Wow. Some heavy stuff. Yeah, I really like how you said present stress order and not post because you cannot take away —

VANCE:
They can’t leave.

DAVID:
They’re — they are here. They are in it and the fact that you’re willing to address it and look at it and your wanting to implement a program that will help benefit the kids that they are dealing with some situations that aren’t ideal. You know I mean?

VANCE:
Absolutely, because you have to take things beyond the school walls. You know there’s only ascertain amount of time that you have with children, but as I emphasized to staff and students that we collectively spend more time under one roof than we do with our own families. So, if you spend that much time under one roof with children, with people — got to do something about them internally — not just academically. I mean that’s important. That’s how I’m evaluated. And if we don’t have children graduating doesn’t matter how well our mindfulness program is, they’re going to seek new leadership.

DAVID:
Totally. Yeah, but there is a factor of like just mindfulness is a search of self-discovery, education — so it kind of does ignite the wanting to discover more education. So, they kind of do work together even though like you could have the best mindfulness program in a school, but the kids are not graduating. So, it kind of doesn’t matter.

VANCE:
Absolutely. Unfortunately, that’s how it goes, but what we try to do even in my growth and trying to be more mindful — not trying but being more mindful I had to release the notion that everyone must be doing this, and everyone must be silent doing our mindfulness time. Everyone must participate. And I really need everyone to support this. I had to kind of back up off of that and just let it be free flowing for those who really want to take advantage of the opportunity and learn. Because if one or two — sounds so cliché, but you’re able to impact children for the rest of their lives — there are just certain things that data can’t quantify. What I mean by that is if children are utilizing strategies for meditation and stress relief — and being able to pause and consider before making a detrimental decision. There is data that we wouldn’t be able to quantify and knowing that that child just saved their life and just saved someone else’s life — in that moment. So that’s what’s — that’s what sticks with me and why it’s important for us to keep it.

DAVID:
Yeah, okay. So, I feel like you sort of gave us a little rundown of it, but like what was it like before the program and what was it like after or currently integrating the program into the school? What are some of the changes that you’ve noticed over the time?

VANCE:
So that’s the common question that’s always asked. And you know I liken it to a reading program. Right, so when in education everyone is stuck in the notion that does it work or not? Right? So, if it works that means that 30 percent of our student population was reading at a fourth grade reading level and then when we got this reading program — now only 25 percent of our population are reading at a fourth grade level. Well that’s cute, but we dealing with emotions and you dealing with meditation and yoga — it’s a little bit different to quantify that, right? So, you can say our suspensions decreased every year. Well I’m in my eighth year. My administrator has been here for the most part with me the entire time.

So, there is stability in that alone. My staff has very limited turnover. We do have turnover, but very limited turnover. And our structure, in terms of how we run things here, are a little different than other schools and what we expect out of our children. So, is it fair to say that our numbers improve because we have meditation and yoga for our students? Or is it fair to say that those things were able to come about because of the program that we implement holistically — to our entire campus.

So, I would say that yes, our attendance have improved. I would say are suspensions have decreased. I would say our enrollment has been steady and increasing. I would say that, you know, we do have a lot more programs going on. We do have now six years of having children exposed to mindfulness and meditation, which is more powerful for me than any data point could show is just the fact that we still have this here for children to be exposed to it.

DAVID:
Yeah and I really like the fact that you point that out. It’s hard to quantify something when you’re dealing with mindfulness, emotions — dealing with connection and community. Like how do you judge that? Is there an actual proper way to judge that? Probably not, but other than to like feel the energy of the room — to feel the energy of the kids. And since you’ve been in this position a long time you have noticed — you know, these numbers of this go down and the numbers that go up and things are working a little bit nicer, but it’s like does it actually work and I think it does, but it’s just hard to write a number. You can’t like science it out.

VANCE:
Absolutely. And that’s the difficult aspect of implementing the Holistic Life program. Anything dealing with meditation or anything dealing with children’s emotional growth is difficult to quantify. And it’s difficult to put a price on it. So, it’s difficult for schools, principals in particular to bring going programs when you gotta pay some people to do some things inside of a school. And a whole lot of people need to get paid for a whole lot different things and a whole lot of things are needed to pay for the school. So, you have to pick and choose unfortunately what you think you get the biggest bang for your buck quote unquote in the school systems. So, meditation and things of that nature unfortunately will be put on the backburner. And a lot of people’s levels of urgency tend be well, low on that on that scale. Because a lot of people just aren’t — aren’t into it themselves. Don’t necessarily believe in it themselves. And unfortunately, can’t see a broader picture, right, outside of what’s the immediate gratification. Am I able to show this at the end of this year? When it may not happen like that.

DAVID:
Yeah, they had that like statistic mind. They want to see the numbers. And it’s weird too because it’s like a mindfulness practice can be with you so lifelong. It doesn’t just get you by the end of the quarter or the semester. It’s a lifelong practice. And even if you do it for a little bit you can still feel its ripples throughout your life.

VANCE:
I agree. And then if something is — just like anything when children learn something that’s meaningful to them, they’re going to share it with somebody. They’re going to share it with somebody. Even they share it with their parents, brothers and sisters or younger cousins or other family members, friends at the schools. Children are just going to share it. If they’re consistently involved in the practice so it’s a major — it’s a major, major, major step for a lot of people just because a lot of people are unfamiliar with the brain research that goes along with meditation. They’re just unfamiliar with it because unfortunately again a lot of time is spent on maybe researching math and English — strategies as opposed to —

DAVID:
How to get their reading skills up.

VANCE:
That’s right. That’s right. So, unfortunate cycle that happens with our educational system, but I think it’s important.

DAVID:
Yeah, it’s interesting to think too because mindfulness is a practice of how the brain operates and mathematics operates the brain. Reading operates the brain. Science operates the brain. So, if you are able to fix the component in which everything is housed in and then you might be able to do everything else better without actually putting effort into getting better at that specific task.

VANCE:
Absolutely. You know the prefrontal cortex, right — shows our executive functions. And the biggest nerve to send all the information to our body parts — if that’s out of whack there’s no math lesson. There’s end of strategy that’s going to combat that. Right? But if I’m at ease — emotionally spiritually — I am able to now receive this information and process it even quicker, even better because I’m at a stable emotional state. That’s what meditation will bring about for our students.

DAVID:
Yeah, that’s super important — I like that. So since bringing this to the school — what is the response the students giving you? Have you had any people come up to you and they’re like this is the greatest thing or like this sucks? Like why — why are you punishing me?

VANCE:
I’ve had all of those, right. LAUGHS. I’ve had all of those I’ve had students who — who say, Mr. Benton that don’t work for me. You have students that say — I will do my stress breath. You have some students who will want to know more information. I always shared a story of a student who some time ago was going to the mindfulness room and wasn’t anyone there at the time. So, the student sat down in the main hallway of the school building outside his classroom and engaged in his mindfulness. But what was intriguing about this moment was he felt comfortable enough to sit in the main hallway and close his eyes and do his mindfulness outside of a classroom. But you had students in a main hallway of a high school with over a thousand children — no one bothered him. No one kicked his foot. No one slapped his hat off his head. No one touched him. No one stood and stare. No one laughed. No — no one did anything as if he wasn’t doing anything different. Or doing anything unusual. Weird. They knew what he was doing, and they respected it. Even if they themselves don’t engage in a practice — they didn’t bother him. Those are two crucial things that happened in our moment years ago that helped me at that time to know this can’t leave. It doesn’t matter how many children are involved in it, how many students and staff are actively involved in the practice. How many actively do it at home? It didn’t matter. What mattered is we had a culture where people understood what that was. We had a culture that people understood I could do this right here. And we had a culture of people who was accepting of something that might have been totally unseen to them years before.

DAVID:
A beautiful view to watch. Like this little Buddha in the hallways —

VANCE:
It was great.

DAVID:
…sitting down. No one bothered him.

VANCE:
No one bothered him. He did what he had to do because whatever he needed, he went to that room at that moment for it. That wasn’t there so he knew he needed it. And he sat down at that door in that hallway and engaged in his mindfulness. I never forget.

DAVID:
That’s powerful. So, in these programs what are the kids actually doing — because you’re talking about meditation. Do they do yoga as well? And when they do meditation is it a guided meditation? Are they given instructions and then given like a go ahead and do it yourself or how does that work?

VANCE:
Good question. So, throughout these six years or so we’ve tried some things, took away some things, reinvented some things — well, for the most part one of the main things I wanted was for the mindfulness guided practice to come over the P.A. system each morning.

DAVID:
OK. The morning ritual.

VANCE:
Morning ritual. We started with actually having an actual voice person doing it. We went to having a recording of a person doing it — to back to having a voice on the P.A.. One year, HLF and their funders wanted to remove it from the P.A.. And I didn’t agree with it, but we went with it and it didn’t work as effective to me. So, we put it back on the P.A. the next year. And so, we’ve been doing a lot of different things. For the most part it is guided meditation where you come over the P.A. for about twelve, fifteen minutes in the mornings. There are also opportunities where students can go to the mindfulness room as the individual — self-referred or referred by a teacher. You can bring your whole class down to the Holistic Life room or as a teacher you can come down yourself. So, it’s throughout the day when they’re fully staffed and they’re able to go through these meditations and some variations of yoga, as well, when they’re actually in the room and or when the practitioners are able to come out into the classrooms to service the teachers and students inside the classroom. So, we even developed an opportunity where teachers could have a — a menu of selections that they could actually have the practitioners come in and do. For example, if my first period teacher — I may want you to come in and do something to energize my students. If I’m getting my students first period after the lunch — I may want, you to come in to de-escalate them a little bit so they can get on track with what we need to do for the day’s lesson. So, it was an opportunity for teachers to really pick and choose what type of session they wanted from the HLF staff to come in and provide for the students.

DAVID:
Yeah okay. So, do you have a mindfulness practice? Is there anything that you’ve taken up over time — like kind of witnessing the program come into your school and noticing a shift in the kids. Are you just like okay, maybe this — there’s something here. Maybe I should try it, or you just have little mindful moments throughout the day.

VANCE:
Sure, again before having met Ali and HLF — I didn’t practice at all. Didn’t know about it, but since then I have taken on the practice. I used to have a staff member from HLF come every morning to do a one to one with me — every morning. This is the first year actually we haven’t done it this year just because of reducing staff. So unfortunately, I’m not able to get my one on one with them every day. So, I have to do it myself, which I do. I’ve grown in the practice. I still have a lot to learn, but I do know that from the practice and from knowing myself — even my students would say, have I done my mindfulness today? They’ll see me kind of going off the deep end.

DAVID:
They see raging down the hallway. They’re like excuse me, Mr. Benton, have you done your practice?

VANCE:
Have you done your mindfulness today, Mr. Benton? Or I just do it to remind me to smile.

DAVID:
Have you ever — have you ever tried like letting the school know that you are going in the mindfulness room and you’d love for them to join you and just kind of see who shows up — like so lead by example?

VANCE:
Right, I’ve never done that. I know I’ve had staff members suggest that I come on the P.A. and lead the mindfulness session. And those are pretty cool suggestions, but my grandfather always told me, you know, you don’t start nothing you don’t plan to finish.

DAVID:
Oh, I like that.

VANCE:
Right. So those are some things that I wouldn’t continually do. So, I don’t want to start that.

DAVID:
Just don’t necessarily have time —

VANCE:
To commit to it like that to where they will be expecting me. That would be pretty much a let down and I don’t really want to infuse myself into the total program as being, you know, it functions because Mr. Benton is involved. I don’t want it that way. I want it to function how it needs to function whether I’m here or not.

DAVID:
Okay. I like that. So, what does mindfulness mean to you? How do you define it? Because this is a question, I ask everyone mostly and everyone’s got a very unique perspective on what mindfulness means to them. And I’m just curious what does it mean to you?

VANCE:
Wow, mindfulness to me and growing over these past six years — mindfulness to me is just having a realization and understanding and acceptance of things that I cannot control. I’ve grown to pretty much understand and accept that what has happened has happened. What’s going to happen hasn’t happened. So, the only thing that I need to concern myself with is the present. And within the present — if it is beyond my control — worrying about it will not make it better. And just being balanced, being in control of one’s self in the phrase that I continually say to myself is, in regards to mindfulness, is pause and consider. Just pause and consider. In that pause am I taking a deep breath? And now pause am I doing a — and now pause am I doing a breathing technique, but whatever it is I’m pausing. And I’m considering. I may consider committing a crime and I may consider retaliation or not. I may consider my anger, my rage right now. But whatever I’m considering I must pause. Take a moment and understand that totality. And then make the decision.

DAVID:
Yeah, it’s hard to realize what your actions could do in a moment of rage — in a moment of confusion. In a moment of just unclear thoughts. And the pause is a reflection moment to be like, hold on second, like this decision I’m about to make might not benefit me.

VANCE:
Absolutely, right. In this pause consider — to I go round this truck because I’m in a hurry to go outside my lane to another lane to kind come back because I’m in a hurry. Do I pause and consider because if our pause and consider — there might be a car coming that I can’t see around this truck? And then wherever I’m going I would never get there.

DAVID:
Yeah.

VANCE:
All right, so that’s how I look at mindfulness.

DAVID:
All right, so here’s my last question and I’ll let you go be a principle.

VANCE:
I might like this better.

DAVID:
Yeah this is fun. I mean I feel like I can just keep going with you. You just feel so knowledgeable and just really fun to talk to.

VANCE:
Thank you.

DAVID:
And plus, you just have like a history of — in the education system. And I’ve actually worked in education for eight years now. I don’t think of it that way because I was like running lights and sound, but now — now I’m on like the marketing team and do all this stuff.

VANCE:
See, everyone’s important. Everyone is important.

DAVID:
But the space you hold — seems very important and you just feel so solid to me. You just feel like a very solid loving dude.

VANCE:
Thanks brother.

DAVID:
Who really cares about his kids and really cares about his school and is doing the best he can and you’re like trying new things out and you’re like, okay that don’t work? Next.

VANCE:
That’s right.

DAVID:
And then I try this out — I’m like hmmm that kind of works. Let’s reintegrate — let’s reassess and then apply again. And I really like that. So —

VANCE:
Thank you.

DAVID:
…anything you want to highlight about your school? About yourself? About HLF — just anything funny you got to say.

VANCE:
Sure, a couple of things. Man, HLF Andy, Ali, Atman — those are my — those are my brothers from another mother because they always tell me I’m one of their biggest supporters or I believed in them before a lot of people did and what they were doing. And it was just out of pure appreciation for young brothers trying to do something for young people.

And I just felt it was my obligation to assist — because I’m not scared to fail. Because when you give all you can to something, and it not work out the way you want it to work out that’s not necessarily a fail. Right, I just learned how to do it better. I learned how to do something different. Or I learned that I need to do something else, but either way I didn’t fail. So, I don’t know, just a funny loving story man, is when we first started to bring this to the school — so we bought mid-year. So that following school year was gonna be the first full year that we had the program. So, I told them the number one thing we needed to do was get buy in from the teachers. I don’t care what it is, how great it is — if teachers aren’t in support it — it’s not going to work. It’s not going to work, right?

So, they didn’t understand that piece. So, hey we’re gonna put you on a calendar for our back to school professional development. We’re going to put HLF on the calendar on that Friday. So, the first full week of school for staff — students don’t come till the next week. So, on that Friday, hey, let’s have something, but let’s have something off campus. Because I wanted the teachers and everyone — staff members to come off the campus. I say and if we come off campus then we could provide them some other refreshments — some adult refreshments at the off campus location.

DAVID:
I hear you.

VANCE:
And when I looked up the line for the food was easy to get to — the line for the other refreshments was pretty long. LAUGHS.

So, once we got everyone there and we got everybody comfortable — I mean in the spirit quote, unquote — I mean opening them up. It opened them up to the understanding to the possibilities to what we were trying to do. What we wanted to do. The purpose of it. The rewards of it. The research of it. It just opened them up to it and them seeing how important it was for me to bring them off campus to actually see what’s going on and provide some other entertainments and appreciations for them as well as — as adults. I think it resonated with them. I think it resonated with them. And that’s what really kicked it all off — to where now we do have different staff from that first staff, of course. So, it’s always an ongoing situation where you’re trying to help new people understand that this is what’s going on here. This is what we do and why we do it. It’s how it’s done. So, it’s always an ongoing situation. However, that first opportunity to meet with the teacher and get the buy in — it was aided by strategic strategies that we implemented, utilized — and it worked.

DAVID:
All right, you’re smart. You know what you are doing. You’ve been around this.

VANCE:
I’ve been around. I’ve been around a long time.

DAVID:
So, I just really appreciate you speaking with me. I know you’re a busy dude.

VANCE:
No problem man.

DAVID:
And it was just a pleasure. I love hearing how this work is helping kids, helping people, helping families, helping communities — it’s just helping. It just helps your mind.

VANCE:
Absolutely.

DAVID:
It allows you to know that you already have what it takes to be a good person. You know we have the mechanisms within to do it. It’s just you have to choose to do it.

VANCE:
Absolutely.

DAVID:
And you’re like here you go — here’s the choice.

VANCE:
Because sometimes making the choice is difficult. Now, what do you after that choice is made might be work in itself, but even before making that choice it’s so difficult when I’m emotionally clouded. Right? To make the better choice. I mean emotional clouded. So, my intent was ok how do we resolve the emotional cloudiness within people? Remove that and then now you open them up to better decision making.

DAVID:
Oh, I love it. Ok, so thank you so much meeting me. I like — I wish the best for your school. I wish the best for you.

VANCE:
Thank you.

DAVID:
I wish the best for this program. I mean I hope just everything just flourishes so amazingly —

VANCE:
It will. The brother — the HLF brothers already told me that it’s written and sealed — we just haven’t got there yet. So, I’m looking forward to get in there and celebrate.

DAVID:
All right, well, thank you for speaking with me.

VANCE:
Right on. No problem man. I appreciate you.

*****

DAVID:
So, welcome to my podcast and thanks for speaking with me today.

MONIQUE:
Thanks for coming.

DAVID:
Can you just introduce yourself? Tell us what you do here and what is your role?

MONIQUE:
Sure. So, my name is Monique Debi. I am the proud principal of Fort Worthington Elementary Middle School here in Baltimore, Maryland.

DAVID:
Awesome. Ok, how long have you been in this position?

MONIQUE:
I’ve been in this position — this is my second year here at Fort Worthington. We opened the doors to our brand new school building August 2017.

DAVID:
That’s why it looks so fresh.

MONIQUE:
Yes absolutely. Thank you.

DAVID:
So how long you’ve been teaching?

MONIQUE:
I’ve been in Baltimore city schools for twelve years now.

DAVID:
For 12 years, wow.

MONIQUE:
So, I was a teacher for seven years. Did a residency — so as a resident principal I had the opportunity through a program called, New Leaders. I received on the job training in the principal role shadowing a mentor principal for one year. And then I served for two years as assistant principal of the Mount Washington school and this is my second year as principal.

DAVID:
Wow, there’s like a different type of person who wants to be a principal. I don’t know if that like —

MONIQUE:
Different type of person. I’ve never heard it explained that way. But, you’re right. It takes a lot of guts. It takes a Iot of love you. You know, it takes a lot of determination. So, definitely a different type of person.

DAVID:
Cool. So, when and how did the Holistic Life Foundation program be integrated into the school? Was this something they came to you and said, hey we have this program, or did you hear about it and wanted to integrate it into your school>

MONIQUE:
So, I have a unique story — and so, I was actually — just went out the internet doing a search and I came upon the Holistic life Foundation. I was just reading about. Kind of like, wow, that would be really cool to have for my school when I have one. And as luck would have — and one of my employees at my Washington is really good friends and grew up with Atman and those guys and so I was like oh you know perfect connection. And so, I saw them at a barbecue, and I told them the same thing. I was like when I get my school, I’m going to have this.

And so, during my residency year at City Springs — so we would do rotations. And we visited City springs and I think it was — Ross, I’m not sure — one of the guys from Holistic Life came and ran a circle for us and just kind of like modeled for us what types of things they do at the school. And I was like, wow, like third time’s a charm. It’s the third time it’s been brought to me. So, I’m at the barbecue. I read the article and now I get to see it in action.

DAVID:
Did all the things.

I was sold! And so, I was appointed to be principal of the school in July and I immediately emailed Atman and was like, hey I need to know how much it’s going to cost, what we need to do. So, he invited me into the office and he — you know treated me just like any other customer, you know, and shared the program with me and all of the different options and the way they could tailor it to support my school community. And we’ve been rocking and rolling ever since.

DAVID:
Ok, so how long ago — that was like two years —

MONIQUE:
That was July 2017. So, we’re going on two years.

DAVID:
OK. And what was it like before and what was it like after integrating the program into your school?

MONIQUE:
Wow. So, when I was recruited to apply for this position — it was explained to me that the school was essentially on fire.

DAVID:
Uh oh.

MONIQUE:
Yeah, so the original building was torn down. And the children were moved into what was called a swing space, which is like temporary housing for a school, right.

DAVID:
So, like a little bungalow.

MONIQUE:
Yeah, I mean it was an old school building they had closed before and so they moved them over to that building. The children were bussed over. My school originally was just grades 1 through 5. But when they moved them into the swing space, they closed a neighboring K-8 school and those middle schoolers were then added into my school.

DAVID:
Oh wow.

MONIQUE:
And so, we had a school, which was usually just one through five for maybe 30 years — to now one to eight. And middle schoolers are totally different than you know little babies. So, the culture was really off. And there were a lot of challenges. And the year prior to me having the school we had 180 suspensions. Last year we ended at 80 suspensions. And so far, this year we’ve had two.

DAVID:
Wow.

MONIQUE:
And so, I really attribute that to the work that we’ve been doing around restorative practices, around mindfulness, around using effective language and building relationships with kids. So, our building you can feel the love when you walk through the hallways. It feels a lot different from when we opened the doors in August of 2017. Adults know children, children know adults. Children are now equipped with strategies and tools that they can use when they are having difficulty. So, it’s like night and day — literally night and day.

DAVID:
Ok, so what did the kids do in the program? Do they have a class they go to? Or is it like something they do in between classes or is an after school program? How do they show up?

MONIQUE:
We have a mixed bag. So, Yogi J we call him — Jaron is our Holistic Life —

DAVID:
Yogi J.

MONIQUE:
Yogi J. Yeah, he’s cool. He has actually a morning check in circle with identified children and those children may have been having difficulty, may have been withdrawn. Some of them have self-identified that they wanted to join the group. And it’s just a check in from — kind of like how we did the bow when we got ready today. It’s that time to shed whatever’s going on at home — whatever you encountered on the way to school. Really checking with an adult that you know cares about you and then set your purpose and set for the day. And so, he meets with identified children in the morning and then he has a push on schedule where he pushes into classes and he runs — it may be yoga, it may be just deep breathing. It might — may just be mindfulness techniques that he teaches the kids. It really depends on what the teachers identify as a need.

And then the children also request different —

DAVID:
Like I like that! This one’s cool.

MONIQUE:
So, like you know I’m having a hard time concentrating today — you know any deep breathing. I mean so he’ll address those things as well. And so, we’re looking to transition into after school for next school year. But we did a soft rollout. So last year we just started with referring children to the room. This year we’ve now added in the added piece of the push in into the classrooms. And then next year we’ll be adding on to after school component as well.

DAVID:
Yeah, the more mindful in this just inserted in.

MONIQUE:
Yes.

DAVID:
That’s so great.

MONIQUE:
And they also provide professional development to our teachers — because we’re like if you’re not being mindful how can teach kids how to be mindful? So, everything that we do with the children — we embed to our own professional learning cycle as well. So, our teachers are equipped.

DAVID:
What was the kid’s first response when they’re like — what? What is this thing that you’re trying — why — I don’t want to sit?

MONIQUE:
One sound. (ohm). So, any time you talk about like deep breathing —

DAVID:
That was an ohm for everyone out there by the way.

MONIQUE:
Yes, we — anytime we talk about that — they are like I know how to meditate. I know how do to — do yoga. Ohm. And so, we like — all right it’s much more to this than just that. And so, some kids are excited. Some kids are a little ambivalent and kind of like oh what’s that? I don’t — you know. And so, we try not to push it off on everybody. And so, what we did was we just identified the kids through referral who actually needed a mindful moment. And then it just took off from there because it was like word of mouth — like you seeing Yogi J? Have you been to the room yet? The room is dope — you know. And so, the — the kids are like really excited. And then you start having more children like I need a mindful moment. I need a moment. And so, they started to go and then it just kind of spread that way.

DAVID:
Yeah, it’s so empowering when you allow the kids to be able to show up and like I’m actually having a moment and I can like voice it. I can say it and it’s not only now that they are empowered to say it — they’re also empowered to fix it themselves or just even look into it and ask for help. And that’s super cool. Wow! Especially in education — like when I was growing up and especially when you were growing in school — I bet you we didn’t have any sort of —

MONIQUE:
No outlet.

DAVID:
Someone is like hey — like we can deal with that. Let me show you how. And there’s — there’s a way to calm down. Ok, do you yourself have a mindfulness practice? Have you seen the kids doing it and you’re like wait what — they’re — something is happening over there? Maybe, maybe I should look into this.

MONIQUE:
Yes. And so that came by actually suggestion from Ms. Cathy — Cathy Smith. And she’s like you know you need to take time out your day and have a moment. Like you need to de-escalate. You need to deep breathe. You need to calm down. And so, she’s like schedule it on your calendar. And she said that Vance over Patterson uses it — used it as well. So, he has like 15 minutes of mindfulness on his calendar every day. And so, I started to go and see Yogi Evette who was our holistic life person last year. And we would go in and do some yoga poses and she’d help me with my breathing. What I noticed about myself is that I am a very rapid breather. It’s very you know, right, because I’m always go and go. Yes. Always on go. And so, one of my goals for this year was just to be able to breathe deeply. And to make sure I take out at least 15 to 20 minutes of violence because meditation is so hard for me because the committee gets to go in and ticker tape is going and I’m thinking about everything I have to do for the day. And so, I was like start off small, you know just start small. 15 to 20 minutes of just uninterrupted silence. And it’s working so far. Do I get to it every day? I’m still a work in progress.

DAVID:
Yeah. Honestly, it’s hard to get it in every day. I mean you’re a principal of the school. Like do you even have time?

MONIQUE:
No. When I walking to the stairwell and I’m walking up the stairwell — you know for a couple of seconds, right. Yeah but it’s just, you know what I’ve noticed and I kind of set it at like 115 and that was kind of like when my day started to like dwindle down and we’re getting ready for dismissal and the children are settle. All the lunch breaks over. And so, at 1:15 I literally come to my office, turn the lights off I just sit. And I’m like ok don’t think about anything.

DAVID:
Yeah, it’s kind of interesting that you have to mark time on your calendar to do nothing.

MONIQUE:
Yes.

DAVID:
Like that’s how busy we are. Ok.

MONIQUE:
Absolutely.

DAVID:
Ok, here’s a question. So how do you define mindfulness? What does it mean to you? I’m always curious about this because everyone has a unique perspective.

MONIQUE:
So, I think mindfulness for me is being consciously aware of myself, my place in the world, my role in the world, but then also the awakening to others awareness and where they stand in the world, right. I think that mindfulness is also a connectedness and that when we are still, we are able to tap into that still small voice and kind of hear what’s going on around us, right. The things that we kind of ignore in all of our busyness. And then I just think like alignment and the tuning. It’s like plug me in plugged into the source. That’s what I think mindfulness is.

DAVID:
Ok, yeah, I really like that. There’s definitely multiple voices in the head. And we have to decide which one is the one we want to listen to. And the one that is in front usually isn’t the one that —

MONIQUE:
the loudest one, right. My son asks me — he’s nine, and he asked me the other day — he is like mom, I heard a voice in my head. Who’s doing the listening? And I was like oh, God here we go. It’s like so let’s talk about meta cognition for a second. right. But yeah it gets deep you know, and you have that spirit of discernment, you know — just reading a lot and Eckhart Tolle talks about the power now. Being aware of that voice — acknowledging it, right. But then like superseding what it’s telling you. And I was like, hmmm, ok so yeah, I haven’t quite figured out who my committee members are yet, but you know they’re very busy so —

DAVID:
Committee members. Who is in that board meeting up there? The mental board meetings. Yeah, I realize there’s definitely like a couple of voices in my brain that like to speak up and say things. And it takes a breath — it takes a moment to actually realize which one is the one that’s going to benefit you and that holds the most truth and resonates with who you are trying to become and who you are. You know because when we just react it’s not a very thought out way of being.

MONIQUE:
I like that piece that you talked about and said who has the most truth? I’m going to start asking myself that too.

DAVID:
Yeah. Because if you’re always stepping forward in truth, you’re never going to do anything wrong. It may not feel good. Definitely some pain that breaking up or dealing with a death or having some things happen in the community — like there’s things that we have to deal with as humans, but we don’t have to react just yet. What I’ve realized is the heart wants to listen and chill before it like has this moment of reaction — the ego wants to react. And usually the ego is — has like this defense mechanism thing about it. But is it —

MONIQUE:
Fears are there and emotionally driven. Absolutely.

DAVID:
Is it the way you want to be? So just like — take a breath. It’s so crazy how everything is like based around the breath.

MONIQUE:
Essentially what we need, right?

DAVID:
It really is. So, yeah, I mean that’s everything I got. Unless you have like a fun story you would like to share or like shout anything out while you’re here.

MONIQUE:
Yeah, I just want to shout out Holistic Life. I think that this partnership has just been amazing for us. I also want to shout our CEO Dr. Santelises for her work around student wholeness and just putting social and emotional learning at the forefront because she realized that relationships and social and emotional wellness are the crux of everything that we do. And if we don’t have whole children — we don’t have whole anything. And so, I’m just really pleased to be a part of her vision and bringing it to life.

DAVID:
Wow okay — that sounds really beautiful. Thank you so much for speaking with me. It’s a pleasure.

MONIQUE:
Thank you. Thanks for having me.

DAVID:
All right…

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On behalf of the Naropa community thank you for listening to Mindful U. The official podcast of Naropa University. Check us out at www.naropa.edu or follow us on social media for more updates.

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