Kathy Flynn-Somerville’s journey started in high school, when a substitute teacher introduced her class to mindfulness meditation. That was 45 years ago. Now Kathy is a leading mindfulness practitioner and teacher herself.
Kathy has devoted her career to embedding mindfulness meditation in public education.
“It began with personal exploration and progressed to ongoing formal, extensive trainings and developing routinized formal and informal practices,” she explains. “Then I talked with anyone who would listen, for years — including my union, teachers, parents, administrators and the school board. Working with these people from all walks of education, I was able to begin weaving mindfulness training into class time.”
Kathy describes how this usually works: “It begins with 60–90 seconds to arrive and provide examples to set an intention for class. Everyone settles in. Then I guide them, with reminders to check in on the intention throughout the class and make a choice to stay with the intention or adjust it a little. At the end, we take 90 seconds or so to quietly reflect on content taught before transitioning to the next class.”
Administrators in her hometown of Pittsburgh allowed her to pilot classes for grades 3 through 5. It was a sweeping success, because teachers noticed the difference in their classrooms: Kids spent more time on-task; teachers experienced fewer disruptions.
Intentional, routinized practice creates increased attention for teacher and student. It can transform the culture at school. Working with education experts at the AFT through our Teacher Leader Program, Kathy has researched her work deeply so she can teach others. Now her findings are available to members across the country.
At one elementary school, she typically reaches about 170 students and 15 staff in 12 classes once a week. Even the principal has stopped in and participated, which speaks volumes, validating the practice of mindfulness for the staff and students. And six staff members have taken their interest further, attending a six-week introductory course that Kathy holds after school.
At a high school, Kathy spent 15 minutes with students on Mondays and Wednesdays during their health class, reaching roughly 240 students. About 120 high school staff also received instruction through her “professional learning communities”.
Striving for equity, Kathy insists on rolling out her program to the whole school. The intention is to reach the entire district, through a whole-school approach, in order to transform the culture into one of being more compassionate with one another.
When you ask her the hardest part of her job, Kathy acknowledges that systemic change is tough. Educators feel pressure to cover curriculum content and worry about taking time away from teaching. But she reminds them that the brain needs to be acclimated for learning; practicing mindfulness regularly can help with focus. With intention and attention not attuned, kids can’t focus, and this is reflected in their academic performance.
A big part of her job is also convincing adults to take this time for themselves. As a beacon for the children, who are watching and learning from how we react or respond to whatever arises, this is critical. Obvious practices of mindfulness often lead to compassionate empathy and thoughtful responses to almost anything we face.
Kathy also wonders about the sustainability factor: She wants to create new ambassadors and leaders to keep this work going, as she moves on to the next school in the district. “Taking time to practice is perhaps the greatest challenge,” she says. “This is not just another thing to do but, rather, a way of being.”
As Kathy points out, “A regular, intentional practice is the most unselfish action you can take — the beneficial changes affect not only you but everyone around you. Begin by exploring, and intentionally take personal time each day to notice, to pay attention, throughout the day, to the now. For yourself. For those around you. For the children. Changes begin with you.”
Kathy Flynn-Somerville has taught for more than 30 years. She is a member of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and passionately shares her mindfulness work in the Pittsburgh Public Schools and beyond.
This blog post is re-published with permission from AFT Voices. Read the original post. To learn more about AFT's Schoolhouse Voices from PreK-12 public educators, visit: https://aftvoices.org/school-house-voices/home. Follow on Twitter @rweingarten or on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/AFTunion.