As a young teacher in New South Wales in the 1980s, Lawrence Carroll threw his extracurricular energies into helping people master the Tasman Sea, co-founding the Australian School Surfing Association, teaching lifesaving along with mathematics. That was before he went through the hell of losing a first love and thence to India, Bali, and Europe. Twenty years of study brought him to long sessions of stillness, to hundred-mile runs, and then to the Berkshires, where he found his path bringing him back again to teaching high school math.
Coming back into the third-millennium classroom in 2006 was a shock, like returning to one's once-bucolic hometown and finding it choked and bustling. Pressure on teachers and kids had increased exponentially. Everybody was plugged in, wired for sound, and pulled in a million directions at once: top-down initiatives like No Child Left Behind, adversarial policies like zero tolerance, and warp-speed social lives buzzing in their brains. Not the ideal setting for sharing the joys of higher mathematics.
Bringing meditation to school, Carroll found that many kids dove into the silence like happy otters and the whole room changed. Since 2009, he's been teaching other teachers at the Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and Averill Park, New York, school districts, life coaching teachers and teens, and refining his Silence to Greatness and Sink and Think programs. In 2011 he was nominated for a Distinctive Educator of the Berkshires award.
"It began as a desperate and selfish need to help myself deal with my students' lack of respect and motivation," he writes in the abstract of "The Phenomenology of Silence," the presentation he'll be making to an Oxford Round Table. "Was my vision to make a valuable contribution to the lives of teenagers a pipe dream?"
Turned out he just needed to entice them into surfing another ocean. Now, Carroll is convinced that widespread introduction of meditation techniques can have as transformative an effect on education as technology, and it looks like the man may have caught quite a wave.
What was it like coming back to the classroom after two decades away?
When I first returned to education in 2006, I naively thought that what I had learned in my two decades of world travel and spiritual search would be readily transferable to the kids. I assumed they'd be polite, tolerant, interested, and diligent. I was shocked at how these standards and values were missing.
I spent the first two years of teaching reflecting and experimenting with pedagogical strategies. The classroom became my laboratory. When I introduced stress management through silence and reflection, everything changed. Stress started to dissolve, creating a happier and more productive classroom. The responses I was getting from teachers, parents, and students proved that I was on the right track.
The effects were so significant that I'm now devoting myself entirely to consulting, trying to go to the heart of the problem. Safety and stress mitigation in the classroom is the foundation for successful learning; the more teachers, parents, and students I can reach the better.
The first in your series of workshops for educators is about creating safe classrooms by lessening stress. What are some of the stress factors for students and teachers, in Australia and in the US? How did it get this bad?
Stress is part of any group where competitiveness, survival, and hierarchy exist, and many aren't conscious of how predominant stress is and the toll it takes on our health, effectiveness, and happiness. In this day and age, stress comes from a wide range of sources: poor diet, lack of sleep, overstimulation from cell phones and computers, relationships, pressures to do well at school/work, lack of downtime, financial worry, and more. These pressures are in both countries, although kids and teachers in Australia identify with an easygoing image.
Teachers and students here in the United States are under enormous stress. Primary indicators reveal that the educational system in the United States is failing in its mission. Academic performance in the US has fallen from second place in the world in the 1950s to 17th place in 2012. The attrition rate of new teachers within the first five years is nearly 50 percent and growing, resulting in an acute shortage of experienced educators. I believe this is in great part attributable to stress.
The introduction of standardized rubrics and nationwide initiatives like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top hasn't touched root causes. They often exacerbate the problems they seek to remedy. Many people—administrators, teachers, parents, students—feel disempowered to meaningfully reform their individual and collective lives.