“If we knew just how powerfully our thoughts, words, and actions affected the hearts of those around us, we’d reach out and join hands again and again. Our relationships have the potential to be a sacred refuge, a place of healing and awakening. With each person we meet, we can learn to look behind the mask and see the one who longs to love and be loved.” –Tara Brach

When I first started teaching, “Lead with Love” became my mantra. It felt like an essential approach to creating an inclusive, positive community. In a world spiralling with tension and fear, all kids deserve a space they feel is safe, welcoming and somewhere they can just be themselves. Only then can we hope to spark their natural curiosity, build confidence to inspire mind-blowing learning. 

The pandemic challenged all of those ideals. Navigating everchanging protocols and new technologies, witnessing the spike in mental health concerns, watching lower income and special needs’ students fall behind without support and resources of the classroom… Forget mind-blowing learning, some days I felt like I was just a futile Zoom square competing for the attention of students not-so-subtly participating in a Minecraft marathon. 

Back to school this September was ripe with excitement. In Toronto, students hadn’t set foot in public schools for at least 6 months, for many it had been 18 months. Emotions were running high for everyone: kids, parents and teachers alike. My personal goal this year was to reconnect to that loving approach, and make my class community a safe haven of inspired learning once again. 

My eager grade 2s and 3s and I started the year by learning about the Anishinaabe Seven Grandfather Teachings, in a collaborative effort to understand more about the Indigenous communities on whose territory our school resides. These teachings are a set of principles passed down over generations to guide the Anishinaabe people towards a peaceful and good life without conflict. Each teaching is represented by an animal: respect (buffalo), bravery (bear), truth (turtle), honesty (raven), humility (wolf), wisdom (beaver) and love (eagle). Many Indigenous communities across Turtle Island view these sacred teachings as vital for community survival and have their own variations of these seven principles.

My students really connected with the teachings and found ways to apply these in our classroom and on the playground. “You can’t leave paper towels all over the sink. Think more like a wolf!” Things were shaping up to a really heartwarming start after such a hard year. 

Then the gears of a mass public education system began to squeeze and grind. After an exhausting few weeks of new protocols, nervous parents and teachers trying to build routines with kids who have been very much out of routine for months, our school got reorganized, adding several new students and sending several others to a new class. This change threatened to take away all we had built, upending the community and replacing the fledgling trust with anger, fear and blame.

An anxiety storm took hold of me. I found myself struggling through the days with a clunky awkwardness compared to what once felt smooth and natural. I was stuck, spun into the cyclone of chaos, with no grounding and nothing to grasp onto. Then came the second arrow: the noisy self-critic judging me for not getting back up and the weighty guilt for not being present for my students, my family or friends. I found myself angry, frustrated that this anxiety monster can just waltz in and take over my life. 

In these times my meditation practice has taught me to trust my body. To find refuge in something real and tangible, the breath, the rise and fall of the belly, the body’s heaviness on the cushion. Anything grounding. Getting out into nature, going on a walk, talking to a friend are all welcome strategies that can help restore my equilibrium and break up negative thinking patterns. 

Then I have the capacity to sit with that discomfort and frustration, allowing the vortex of anxious thoughts to run their course without chasing them. Moments of spaciousness emerge to remind me that this is just a passing storm; around those ominous clouds is a vast sky, open wide with opportunity. 

The following week I returned to our new classroom environment, still carrying the vestiges of that fear and doubt inside. At first I could only see the nervous stare of new students scanning the room, the cautious masked parents waiting outside and felt the heavy weight of their concerns. All these well-intentioned people desperately trying to grip and control all the pieces, protect the kids from yet another upheaval.

Then something incredible happened. While the adults fretted, the students were busy building their new community. They welcomed and included the new kids in their playground games, helped each other during math class and excitedly joined together to plant bulbs in our school community garden. Talk about leading with love. Their natural warmth and resilience filled the room and I was humbly reminded that the learning flows in both directions.

According to Seven Generations Education Institute, the eagle represents unconditional love between one another including all of Creation, humans and non-humans. Commonly referred to as “Love”, when translated it actually means: Zaagi’idiwin.  Zaag = to emerge, come out or flow out. Idi = in a reciprocal way . Win = a way it is done. 

As I’m climbing my way out of this recent shadow, my daily practice is to truly look each of my students, their parents, my colleagues, everyone I meet in the eye. To pause and sincerely connect from the heart. Seeing people for who they are and trying to understand their experience in this world is probably the most radical act of love I can imagine. In that moment we are connected, not only to one another, but to our community, our environment, our ancestors and shared future. That small connection is a powerful reminder that love is so much bigger than any one of us. 

“It is possible that the next Buddha will not take the form of an individual.  The next Buddha may take the form of a community-a community practicing understanding and loving kindness, a community practicing mindful living.  This may be the most important thing we can do for the survival of the earth.”  ~  Thich Nhat Hanh