You’re listening to Awake In Relationship, a podcast about intimacy, community and culture in a time of great change with Silas Rose.
Silas Rose 0:40
Hello dear listener, my name is Silas Rose, and you’re tuned into Awake In Relationship, it’s hard to imagine a job more difficult or meaningful than being a teacher. Teachers, especially really gifted ones, can have a really profound influence on young learners, that goes far beyond the mere imparting of knowledge. If you look back on your own life, you probably have a few examples of educators that showed up in your life, just at the right time, to impart some kind of wisdom, or as a kind of a savior, when you were going through a rough time. For me, it was a very eccentric grade 10, English teacher, Mr. Parant, who really inspired in me a love of literature. He often smoked a pipe on break. As students, we often wondered what was in that pipe that gave him this kind of magical quality. I literally owe my life to a middle school teacher, Mrs. Denman, who performed the Heimlich on me after I choked on a piece of watermelon, in a watermelon eating contest. I see teachers as ambassadors of the culture both transmitting values, but also the biases and anxieties of society. There’s a path quality to teaching, that often doesn’t get talked about, which very much involves engaging our innate awareness and compassion. This gets often lost in a busy classroom where learning objectives and the curriculum take priority. For both learners and educators, it’s really hard to stay connected to the heart, when there’s so many demands bearing down on you. However, if we want to inspire the next generation, to be brave, loving and open, in the face of so much uncertainty, we have to put the heart back in the classroom. This is what separates good teachers, from great teachers. In this episode, I speak with Noel McLellan educator and author of Teaching Bravery: Meditation, and heart advice for teachers. In this conversation we discuss the inner path of teaching, and how meditation can both transform the learning environment and the process of teaching from one of stress and overwhelm into the possibility of a deeper connection with learners qnd the natural rising wisdom that results when we are more fully present. This mindful approach is just as applicable to parents as is to teachers. So if you have young learners in your life, this episodes for you.
Noel good morning, and welcome to Awake In Relationship.
Noel McLellan 3:20
Thank you. Good to be here.
Silas Rose 3:21
So you have kind of a unique background, having grown up in a Buddhist home. It’s kind of how I know you actually. I am curious how that sort of shaped your interest in understanding of education.
Noel McLellan 3:34
Yeah, sure. So I grew up in in Boulder, Colorado, which was sort of a hub of the Shambala Buddhist community. And I went to one of the early private schools that was inspired by the Shambala tradition. And, you know, as it was kind of open space, so there was some, some kind of natural landscape to frolic in there. And it was a unique, kind of little school, small little school. And I don’t know if I really appreciated it until later. But later when I went on to public school, and experienced a sort of more chaotic environment into a much larger environment in some ways a more an environment which had more aggression in it, that planted some kind of seed in me. And as I grew up, and got older, I started to reflect on how much in that school and also just in my upbringing in general, there was a kind of culture that was kind of based on a sense of trust and and care about me as a human being. And I started to see that, that didn’t exist everywhere in the world. And I noticing that contrast and starting to appreciate that contrast more when I got older, I started to have the notion that I wanted that to be in the world, you know, I wanted to, to be a part of making that a bigger part of the world. And so it kind of grew from there, my interest in education gradually started to develop from there. So, you know, it wasn’t so much that I loved school. I really didn’t most of the time when I was in school, I didn’t like it very much. But it was a sense, like, it could be better, you know, that this could be better in the world. And maybe I could help with that somehow.
Silas Rose 5:46
So your book, Teaching Bravery is uniquely written for teachers, of course, why was that important? As opposed to writing something for learners?
Noel McLellan 5:59
Yeah, I think in my, my contemplation, there was a few factors there. So yeah, I wanted the book to be for teachers. In one part of it was just practical, which was that I understand that teachers, there’s such an array of contexts that teachers teach in, you know, from very small children up through university age, you know, students, and everything in between, and all subjects and different kinds of environments. And the idea of teaching something, you know, that would be about developing curriculums that could be applied in those situations, just seemed like too much for me, I didn’t have enough, you know, a range of experience to even think about doing something like that. So that was one part of it. But another part was that the commonality through those things, is the central role of the teacher in classroom environments and in education environments. That no matter what kind of teaching methodology you have, and you know, these days, a lot of teachers are teaching in a way where it’s like, they’re less of a kind of a focal point, they might be doing more of a collaborative approach with their students. But nevertheless, there’s always the presence of the teacher in the environment, which represents the major reference point for students, especially young students, especially for children. You know, they, they really see their teachers as being these very sort of Titanic figures in their world. And the influence of their example of how they are as a human being is, is profoundly formative and meaningful for a young people. So it felt kind of strategic, I guess, from that point of view that if we could reach teachers, support teachers help teachers to develop themselves, that could be kind of a node for infusing something into classrooms of whatever kind, you know, whatever kind of context.
Silas Rose 8:24
I think teaching is probably one of the hardest jobs out there. And especially after two years of COVID, just there’s many things about our education system that just sort of feels broken. What challenges do your high school students face, that perhaps we didn’t growing up?
Noel McLellan 8:51
Oh, my goodness. I mean, it’s so it’s tough. You know, I mean, I think we really live in a world where there’s just so much transformation happening all the time. I think the biggest thing is that there’s this sense of catastrophe that exists in the world right now. And, you know, when I grew up, there was a sense of like, oh, the world has a lot of problems, you know, but it didn’t feel like necessarily, we were living in a time of like, global catastrophe.
Silas Rose 9:30
Well, I might interject that while you are younger than I am, the Cold War looms large in my mind;…
Noel McLellan 9:40
Yeah, you know, the Cold War was still on when I was a kid. And I remember feeling like, you know, if I heard a loud jet fly overhead, my first thought was, this could be it. You know, so it was it was really intense, and that was a big deal. I would just, I think that the compounded levels of Something like the effects of, of transformative technology, especially climate change the way it is right now, some of the ways that, you know, the kind of capitalist fabric of society are falling apart. And then we add in things like a global pandemic, I think it’s on a different level. And so it’s, it’s more challenging now for students just to have a sense of, you know, what we might call promise or stability or hope, looking ahead into their futures and, you know, having a sense of like, you know, what we thought of as normal, like, Oh, I’m gonna live a normal life, that there’s a sense of like, who knows. There’s tremendous uncertainty. And part of that creates a kind of desire to just live in distraction, you know, kind of just be comfortable. And we’ve always had that, but I would say it’s, you know, those distractions and comforts are more readily available now. So it’s even more intense in a way.
Silas Rose 11:10
It’s in our pocket. How has technology either helped or hindered? The learning environment?
Noel McLellan 11:20
Oh, man, I mean, there’s so much to say about about technology, it’s a huge force, and it tends to get kind of boiled down to Lego, you know, people are kind of pro or, or anti, you know, effects of technology. But I think, you know, one thing that I think is, is really interesting about it, is that young people now rely on it tremendously for their self expression. And for their social connection, their social environments in a way that wasn’t even true, you know, five years ago, let alone 10 years ago. So one thing I’ve noticed is that students are less self expressive in the classroom, they’re kind of they tend to, you know, they’re hiding a little bit more. I mean, it doesn’t, it doesn’t help that, you know, we’ve been wearing masks for couple of years. So you can’t even see students faces. But yeah, so students are really relying on it in new ways. I mean, it’s not without its wondrous elements, in terms of like learning, there’s so much potential of ways we can use technology for, for learning in the environment. But what I noticed the most is probably the way it just affects our kind of the classroom atmosphere. And I think one of the keys to that, which, which I’ve kind of come around to as a teacher is that I have to surrender to some extent, that, that if I just take a kind of, like, high handed approach, you know, it’s like, oh, all these new social media platforms, I don’t respect them, and I, and I don’t understand them. All I really accomplished by doing that as putting myself in a different world, and my students, and you know, so it’s actually pretty important to have some kind of balance where we, you know, inquire into them and try to maybe learn a little bit about them so that we can stay on the same plane of existence and have decent conversations with our students to understand where they’re coming from. And then often, you know, if they feel respected, they might be willing to also listen to like, you know, there’s, there’s a world outside of that as well. And you know, so we have to navigate it together, basically, otherwise, we just develop greater generational riffs, which are really a big thing right now.
Silas Rose 14:03
One of one of the challenges I see with the technology, in particular for young people, is how it affects self perception.
Noel McLellan 14:10
Yes, exactly. I was reading about that recently, actually, a Buddhist teacher who was talking about kind of a traditional way of looking at Buddhist psychology is that, you know, we don’t have just one self, we have different kinds of, sort of clusters of experience. And then we tend to think of them all as oneself. And in a kind of modern context. He was saying one of those clusters is really like our, our online persona. You know, it’s like one part of our ego or our sense of self perception just exists online now. And that’s the way it is. It’s pretty weird, but it’s true.
Silas Rose 14:52
You mentioned earlier that teachers really have a outsized influence on young people that they are sort of seen as the modern day elder, which can be both positive or negative, depending on the psychology of the teacher. Are there examples from your own life growing up of an extraordinary teacher that really kind of embodied the positive aspect of mentor/elder and what made them so great?
Noel McLellan 15:25
Thanks for, for bringing that up. I mean, I think just to, to address the first part of your question. I think, you know, it would be good. If teachers were really regarded as elders in our, in our modern society, and elders in the sense of, you know, the way the term is used, maybe in certain indigenous traditions, and that kind of thing, like, holders of traditional culture and holders of traditional wisdom. The idea that, like spending time around these people, is going to be good for you, you’re going to learn how to be from them from their example. And if we took that approach, it would be really could be really helpful, because it would, it would, you know, on the one hand, put the onus on teachers to cultivate themselves to be worthy of such a role. And maybe, to think a little bit beyond being just, you know, knowledge, receptors, or, you know, knowledge, conveyors, rather. But also, I think, you know, one thing that’s come up a bit during the pandemic, as people have realized that, even more that teachers often don’t get very well respected in society. They’re sort of, you know, thought of as sort of low level scholars or babysitters, or, or what have you. But it’s true, you know, especially with young people, teachers can have a profound influence on the lives of, of their students in ways which sometimes don’t show up for decades. You know, a lot of students don’t realize, I know, from my own experience, I didn’t always realize that certain teachers had profoundly impacted me until I had some time to reflect on that I can think of a handful, you know, in different contexts. I’ll just, I guess I mentioned a few. There was one, one person who was a founder of a summer camp, I used to go to Sun camp Shambala Sun camp, and his name was wil Regan. And he really inspired a tremendous loyalty and admiration among many teenagers is a camp primary well, for 10 to 16 year olds, pretty life changing experience for a lot of people. And so people would ask, you know, what’s the? What’s the secret? Like, what’s your key? To what you’re doing, you would always say that the main thing was that he saw the campers, he saw the teenagers, the youth, as warriors. In other words, he saw like the kind of fully embodied virtuous part of them, and he spoke to that warrior in them. He kind of, you know, saw past the surface saw past the unfinished personality, the, the, you know, punky teenager, your personality or, you know, behaviours, and spoke to the warrior. And the effect of that was that we, you know, the warrior in US heard that heard itself being called out what were called in being summoned. And that’s a very profound experience, actually, you know, you can actually have an experience where, you know, the teacher, in this case, trust you more than you trust yourself. You know, they don’t necessarily trust that you’re going to, you know, know how to chop a carrot, or something like that, if you haven’t learned that, but they trust you fundamentally, you know, they trust that your being is worthy. And, and that’s a very profound level of trust that most people actually don’t really have in themselves. holes. So if another person can kind of summon that within you, it plants a seed, you know, you have a sense of like, Oh, I could develop that trust myself.
Silas Rose 20:10
My my sense with the kids, especially younger children is they have a remarkable bullshit detector. And they actually have a lot of wisdom, which often gets missed. It seems like there’s a lot of assumptions that teachers come into the classroom with that really kind of get in the way of the teacher student relationship. Can talk a little bit about that.
Noel McLellan 20:39
One thing we need to think about more as is like, what are we? What’s our motivation? Why are we? Why are we wanting to be teachers at all? And I think it would be really good if in teacher training, you know, we spent more time contemplating what the fundamental motivation is, of education altogether, for one thing, but of our own point of path as the teacher as well. And sometimes when I talk to, you know, teaching students who are in school, or people are thinking about becoming teachers, I asked them, you know, what are they? What do they want to be a teacher for, and, you know, it’s, it’s always very revealing, like, some of the time, people want to teach because they love, they love being learners, you know, which is great. You know, maybe they love English literature. And so they love to share English literature, but actually tell them a lot of the time, you know, maybe you want to go be a university teacher in that case, but you might not want to be a middle school teacher, because, you know, your middle school students are mostly not going to appreciate what you love about your subject. So, it’s really important that like, if you’re gonna teach youth that, really what you’re there for, as is them. And, you know, beginning with some kind of, like, basic attitude, that we’re curious about them, that we’re there to serve them and to cultivate them, and to connect with them, you know, that’s the primary, the primary thing and that we’re, we’re there to, like, teach them. We should be kind of constantly surprised and awakened by the brilliance that comes out of our students and, and not just out of our students, but out of the kind of the interaction that happens with our students, which is often the most beautiful thing. And it can be really easy to miss it, because, you know, we have an agenda, like we have to teach our lessons. And so, you know, it’s a balance, like, of course, we do, we do have to teach the lessons. But those lessons are happening within a context of interaction and relationship and, and we can look at that relationship as being kind of the main sort of dojo, you know, the main space where we’re training and learning together. And, you know, a story comes to mind, this is just a recent experience that happened. My colleague just shared this with me the week or two ago, where we have a student, I’ll call him, Sam, who’s come to us from a pretty rough background, young, young students, middle school student, we could say he has definitely a history with some pretty complex trauma has a pretty hard time developing trust in relationships and exhibits a lot of challenging behaviours and often kind of sabotages himself by not really even being willing to try in certain circumstances. So you know, in science and in my colleagues class, he would never even put a word down on on tests. He just would sit there and wouldn’t try at all. And he also would often say kind of, I think maybe out of you know, some kind of have strange attempt to get attention or whatever you would say sort of shocking things. And on this particular day they were, they had a test, another science test. And the student said, You’d better give me an A on the test, Mr. Fletcher, or I’m gonna put poison in your coffee. And the teacher said, Oh, you would never do that, Sam, because we care about each other much too much for that, the student got really quiet. And you actually had some tears in his eyes, and he just became very reflective from that response. And, and then, and then he, he wrote the test. And he got like a 40% on it, which, you know, by a kind of, like, typical kind of objective measure of some kind is a really bad mark, you know, it’s less than a 50% mark, but for a student who had never been willing to put a word on the test was absolutely outstanding. You know, it was like, really genuine progress. And so, you know, I think it’s that kind of thing where, you know, honestly, when I heard that story, I thought, like, I might have punished that student for saying that to me, you know, I might have been, like, that’s inappropriate, don’t say horrible things like that, you know, write your damn test, you know, whatever. And, and instead, he kind of reversed the impulse completely, and really went for the heart. And, and the results really came out in a completely different way.
Silas Rose 20:50
That is really kind of a powerful example of something we call in our community, Basic Goodness, bodhichitta, awakened heart. That’s the center of your book, really. And the foundation of what you referred to as the inner path of the teacher. Most teachers and also parents, of course, are in completely overwhelmed trying to deliver a curriculum or learning objectives and often ignoring their own self care. What I love about your book, is it presents the possibility that the whole learning environment and the process of teaching can be something that’s nourishing, and there’s a path quality that can lead to some form of mastery, and deeper connection with your own heart and the heart of your students. How does meditation help that process?
Noel McLellan 27:54
Well, yeah, you’re absolutely right. You know, that, especially in the last couple of years, the whole situation has been really overwhelming. And, you know, a lot of the context that people have found themselves in trying to deliver education online, trying to deliver a message education, with no training at home. And now people are going back to school, and it’s overwhelming in entirely new ways, and a lot of cases. And that’s, you know, that’s just in the last couple of years, like school has been overwhelming for teachers for a long time. So I think one thing to start off, I think it’s really important to acknowledge is that we should, we should talk about like self cultivation, self care, and mindfulness, and so forth. But it’s really important to acknowledge that it’s not just our kind of inability to care for ourselves that are making things overwhelming. You know, it’s the whole, the whole system isn’t actually working well. And so the contexts were finding themselves, teachers are finding themselves in and parents are, are not functioning properly, you know, they’re not actually very entirely workable, and they need to change. So, yes, we can develop ways to help ourselves cope with them better, but we, at the same time need to be thinking about ways that we completely restructure those situations and re envision those situations so that they actually don’t lead us into perpetual burnout and overwhelm. But you know, going back to the more of the individual like I do think one of the roles that that comes in there all together is, is the individual and the individuals relationship to their teaching life. And and if we could sort of just start by looking at daily activity, in this case teaching, but really daily activity all together as being a field of self cultivation, you know, a journey of self cultivation, and self transformation. That’s a big, that would be a big shift altogether from the start. So, you know, often we look at kind of self care, and mindfulness as being like, I think people think of it as like being like, a little bit of water that we’re sprinkling on the fire, you know, that kind of things are really intense, and we’re really out of control. And it’s really stressful, and then we kind of need to soothe ourselves down a bit. We need to take care of ourselves, especially in a society that emphasizes overwork, and almost glorifies kind of like, stress. You know, we could we could really think differently about about that. But a really deeper approach altogether, would be to think about, like, how do we actually transform our lives on a on a deep level, so that the kind of principles and values that we really cherish could start to express themselves in the culture that we’re creating, and that we’re coexisting with it.
Silas Rose 31:57
That’s something that came up in your book, that teachers really are kind of ambassadors transmitting the values, and you know, anxieties and fears on the society, and if we want a different result in the future, it really begins with the teacher to transmit something that’s radically different from what we have right now.
Noel McLellan 32:19
That’s right. And so I think, you know, that’s where really meditation is a really essential factor, because it’s about self reflection, and, you know, being able to look inward, look into our own experience, look into what’s happening in our state of mind, starting to learn how to feel our hearts, and actually kind of be in our hearts and trust, our experience as human beings, and you know, so much of our society, so much of our culture, it’s a kind of negotiation that we move through where we’re trying to figure out how to be and what kind of person we want to be, and, you know, we want to be comfortable, and we want to make money and we want to do things that are, you know, this thing or that thing, and, but the three line, of course, is just ourselves, and, you know, going to that really basic level of learning how to be who we are.
Silas Rose 33:38
This comes back to the topic of being brave, you can’t really teach that, it has to be modeled…
Noel McLellan 33:44
Exactly, yeah, so we have to kind of, through meditation, we start at the level of our body, on our level of our cells, the level of our nervous system. You know, it’s not a skill set, per se. It’s just something that kind of starts to seep into us. And once it seeps into us, we start to source that from ourselves, you know, we start to be the source of strength, our own source of strength. So I think that’s the differences. You know, a lot of the time we kind of were looking for sources of strength outside of ourselves. And those things are often unreliable or inaccessible. But if we could be our own source of strength, then that’s always available to us and, you know, our world is going to be constantly changing are always going to be facing obstacles. Challenges in the classroom is always likes. It’s a never ending source. So I have new percolating difficulties that are bubbling up, that’s just the way it is with, with young people, when you put a bunch of young people in a room, the nature of their life is transformation. So, you know, it’s always happening and coming along, and we have to kind of learn how to ride that. But starting to have a sense of strength in ourselves is the only way to do that.
Silas Rose 35:28
That’s probably a great place to end our conversation. I really enjoyed this chat Noel, thank you so much. And I know that you actually have a short course on your website. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Noel McLellan 35:42
Yeah, my website is noelmcclellan.com. People are interested in finding my book, it’s there. And I created an online video course, as well, during the lockdown phase of the pandemic, which covers similar, you know, more or less the same material that’s in my book and a slightly different, different way that people enjoy that kind of format. You know, my approach, both in my, with my book, and this course, is that teachers are, as we mentioned, they’re overwhelmed. They’re pretty busy. So they’re both set up to be things people can do in small doses. Ideally, they kind of don’t just like, you know, try to do the whole course in a day or two, but they could do 10 minute snippets of it, you know, over a course of time. And in that way, it can become a kind of sustaining resource for people. And, you know, we learn best in small doses, I think. And yeah, you know, when I wrote the book, my, my aspiration was, like, maybe a few teachers will, you know, end up keeping this book on their desk at school. And every once in a while I get a message from someone who says, you know, I keep my debt I your book on my desk at school, and I just open it here and there when I’m having a hard time. And so I feel quite fulfilled by that, which is wonderful.