In the Preface to my first book, Mindfulness for Teachers, I wrote about my evolution from preschool teacher to teacher educator to social scientist. The consistent focal center through the decades of that professional journey—as I moved from teaching young children, to researching effective classroom interventions, to working with educators to implement them—was the power of mindful awareness to transform lives.
When you ask people to name someone who has made an important difference in their lives, there is a high probability that they will tell you about a teacher—and so it is with my story. My introduction to mindfulness happened very early on, when I was still a teenager. Through the understanding and support of Ms. Curtis, who opened an avenue to recovery from trauma through writing, I discovered the power of mindful awareness to heal.
As a result of a series of traumatic events, I found myself orphaned at the age of 15. Trauma can tear you off your moorings. It can shatter your sense of self and your place in the world. It was the late ’60s, and the effects of trauma were not well understood. Because I appeared to be functioning well, no one considered that I might need counseling or other psychological support, so I had to figure out how to heal myself.
In high school, I had a teacher who helped me a great deal and who inspired me to become a teacher myself. Ms. Curtis taught creative writing for advanced English students. During this troubling time, she provided the encouragement and support that I desperately needed. Besides our regular writing assignments, we were required to turn in journals to her every week. In these journals we could write whatever we wanted about our lives. She carefully read each entry and responded in writing with insight, kindness, and thoughtfulness.
With Ms. Curtis’s encouragement, I began to express grief in the form of very dark poetry. She provided a safe way for me to express my sadness and despair by seeing me for who I was, honoring what I had been through, and helping me transform a horrible experience into art. Through her encouragement, I entered and won a poetry competition. Without a safe way to express and transform my overwhelming grief and feelings of hopelessness, it would have been difficult to overcome them and move forward. But I graduated from high school a semester early and was out on my own at age 17.From the Preface to Mindfulness for Teachers: Simple Skills for Peace and Productivity in the Classroom
To this day I am deeply grateful that Ms. Curtis saw me and responded with understanding and compassion. Since then it has been my great privilege to have worked with teachers who are able to provide similar safety and support. These teachers give me hope that our schools can become a refuge for the tens of thousands of children who need the support of a caring adult in their lives.
Patricia (Tish) Jennings, M.Ed., Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, and lives in Charlottesville. Dr. Jennings has been recognized by Mindful Magazine as one of “Ten Mindfulness Researchers You Should Know,” and is the author of Mindfulness for Teachers and The Trauma-Sensitive Classroom.