Dr. Michele L. Kelty

Mindful Presence in Teaching

“I feel the most loved in this moment than I ever have in the 13 years of my life,” said Faye.  Kim shared, “I felt loved like I do when the people at our church bring us food when we have none.” These were comments made by seventh grade girls after I led them through a mindfulness exercise during the school day at a middle school where I work as a Professor-in-Residence (PIR) one day per week. The PIR program is funded through the JMU Office on Diversity. I have recently received training on using mindfulness interventions in K-12 education and I am implementing programs and practices learned.

I am a faculty member in the Department of Graduate Psychology at JMU and I coordinate the School Counseling program. I joined the PIR program because I missed providing direct services to children and adolescents and I wanted to be more connected to the work that my own students are doing in the schools. I supervise school counseling interns and I listen to their counseling work. I relate more directly now with the real-time needs of kids in our schools. I now realize that topical sessions over issues like grief and loss, friendship issues, academic concerns, and other counseling-related problems I used to work with in the school are often replaced by an overriding sense of life dissatisfaction and hopelessness for kids who are faced with an unfathomable number of life challenges. The problem is that many kids’ lives today are not only contaminated by intermittent environmental stressors; rather, the totality of their lives are invaded by chronic rejection, lack of support, and constant unfulfillment of basic needs (i.e. physical, social, emotional wellness).

The loving-kindness mindfulness meditation took place outside in the spring-green grass, underneath a majestic oak tree, beside the track outside of the school. The girls sat on the ground, touching various parts of the earth (i.e. a stick, a leaf, the grass) and closed their eyes. I led them in five minutes of mindful breathing and then asked them to imagine being surrounded by kindness and love, in whatever form made sense for them. One girl imagined her grandmother and another said that she encountered herself as a young woman. The girls then walked quietly outside for a few moments and came back to the circle.

After practicing the loving-kindness mindfulness exercise, the girls talked about why a sense of being loved seems to evade them and how they would like to learn to feel peaceful and grounded in spite of the fractured relationships and pain swirling around them. Aisha reflected, tears streaming down her face, “Yes, I am only 14 and my Mom let me get a tattoo.  Yes, I am only 14 and I have lost my virginity. Yes, I am only 14 and I have seen and experienced more than most people in this school. They look at me with judgment. They think my clothes are not good enough. I can’t afford $80 sneakers.” Min shared with the group, “My Mom yells at me and hits me all of the time. She says she can’t help it because that is how she grew up. I told my Mom that it is up to her to stop this cycle of abuse. You have to put your kids first, not boyfriends, and that is what I am going to do one day for my kids.” The girls then shared ideas about how they might be able to use mindfulness practices for themselves when in emotional or distressing situations both at school and home. Several of them shared that they felt they could tap into this sense of peace and self-love they experienced during the mindfulness exercise.

Experiences like teaching and practicing mindfulness with kids who seem to have little chance of transcending circumstances that may lead them into further hardship, sustain me as a teacher, a human being, and as a mother. It is one thing to read the text “At Risk Youth” with my students as they prepare to provide comprehensive counseling services to diverse students. It is yet another to encounter kids as fellow sojourners in this life, as human beings who may struggle but who also have colorful dreams for their lives and futures. I have learned to look at children and adolescents as equal beings who prefer looking at each other rather than through each other, and that it is not necessary to assume a one-up stance with kids.  I hope that this lesson regarding power and presence follows me into the classroom in terms of how I encounter graduate students.

As a teacher, encountering children and adolescents in hopeful and respectful ways takes me out of the “ivory tower” or the ‘expert role” that can feel so comfortable, yet is really harmful because it is removed from the truth of human beingness. I am sustained as a teacher because I can join hands with my students as we ask ourselves how we can extend compassion and love to fellow human beings, not as expert helpers set out to save others. I am sustained as a mother because I am affirmed in my belief that in order to learn, in order to feel safe to grow beyond our fears and known boundaries, we must first feel loved and accepted for who we are and what we bring. I no longer think about how I or my graduate students can change a child’s behavior, such as decreasing the number of sex partners at age 13 or keeping kids away from drugs. I think about how we can nurture in kids a sense of worth and strength so that they can come to grounded decisions from a place of internal acceptance and peace.

Michele L. Kielty is a Professor of Counseling at James Madison University. Currently, her work revolves around themes of integrative approaches to well-being and incorporating mindfulness into work with children and adolescents. Michele coordinates the school counseling program at James Madison University. She also works with the Professor-in-Residence program, providing services to an area middle school. She is involved in several K-12 school system projects, teaching mindfulness to students and teachers, and working collaboratively with colleagues. She lives in Staunton and has two sons, who help and encourage her be mindful and present.