Reimagining school through a Buddhist lens

Susan Yao explores how Buddhist principles could help us reinvent the American school system.

Photo by Kenny Eliason.

Imagine a classroom where students sit with their eyes closed in meditation, silently bringing their awareness back to the present moment. They practice breathing techniques inspired by Buddhism to help them regulate their emotions.

A bell rings, signaling the end of the meditation. The students open their eyes and turn to the test booklets on the desks in front of them. They are now beginning a high-stakes standardized test that will impact teachers’ salaries, their ability to graduate and the amount of funding their school receives, worsening education inequities.

Schools have failed to tap into the main teachings of Buddhism: lessons about human suffering, connectedness and a path to liberation.

There is a profound contradiction in this scene and in the way Buddhist practices have been used in American K-12 schools. As a Buddhist educator, I was first excited when mindfulness practices became increasingly popular ten years ago. However, we use Buddhism to maintain rather than transform existing educational systems. Meditating before a test to feel calmer does not question how or why we test students. Buddhist practices are selected for their usefulness in helping students achieve individual success in the form of grades or awards. Anger is seen as an unhealthy emotion to be eliminated to support disciplinary devices.

Schools have failed to tap into the core teachings of Buddhism: lessons about human suffering, connectedness, and a path to liberate ourselves and others from that suffering. Instead, we gave students strategies for coping with and ultimately accepting unjust systems.

In 2021, I left my position as a college principal to research and reinvent the school from the ground up, using a Buddhist lens. What would it really mean to redesign the American school using Buddhist principles in their entirety?

First Noble Truth: We have problems

In 2020, hundreds of black independent school alumni shared their stories via [email protected] accounts on Instagram. Many painful stories of exclusion, microaggressions and other forms of racism have been laid bare in an effort to force schools to see through.

The first noble truth of Buddhism teaches us that there is suffering in life; It’s inevitable. We must shatter all illusions that it is otherwise, so that we can see clearly and find a way forward. Former students of black independent schools have given us the opportunity to see their suffering with brutal honesty. It is our responsibility to sit down and let this truth in.

The reality is that schools don’t work for many groups of people. Students, faculty and staff from marginalized communities are often victims of racism, homophobia or ableism that exists outside of school walls. Students with learning differences may struggle to have their strengths recognized and their needs met. Students may re-create harmful power dynamics over each other in the form of social hierarchies or bullying.

Yet school communities can struggle – and even refuse – to acknowledge suffering. We so want our schools to be magical, protected bubbles where all students are welcome and thrive. No educator wants to have created a toxic environment. But schools are deeply connected to the communities in which they exist, and this includes systems of oppression and societal crises. It’s inevitable.

What if we were ready to see our problems clearly? What if, like the Buddhists, we made a regular practice of attuning ourselves to the suffering of the other?

Second Noble Truth: We Cling to Our Bootstraps

If you’re familiar with school discipline, you know that plagiarism carries serious consequences: a zero mark, detention, even suspension. While integrity is an important element to convey, these policies are the product of an individualistic and capitalist society that values ​​productivity.

Everywhere in the school system, we see the emphasis placed on the production of a work alone. Students are rewarded for individual achievement in grading systems, academic awards, even for individual performance in team sports. Teachers, in turn, are evaluated and even paid based on the quality and quantity of work produced by students. Schools are compared using standardized test scores, graduation rates, and college acceptances.

The Second Noble Truth teaches us that suffering results from clinging to or desiring that which is impermanent. In the United States, we are attached to this need to be productive from an early age.

When we don’t produce, we suffer. Students and families are stressed by a few missed assignments, with some caught in an endless cycle of catching up. Teachers fear losing an hour of teaching time for projects or field trips. I worked at a school that cut lunch time by five minutes because it was “unproductive”.

Even when we produce, we suffer. A students approach each new assignment with anxiety, fearing they’ll make a mistake and hurt their grades. Teachers exhaust themselves in the evenings and weekends planning lessons, grading and writing reports. The American public blames schools for failing to address some of society’s most enduring problems, while belittling teachers for the number of school vacation days they receive. We all continue on our treadmills, meeting one deadline after another, for the vague promise of a bright future or to keep our jobs for another year.

What if we loosen our grip on this need to be productive? How could we rethink the purpose of school?

Third Noble Truth: towards collective fulfillment

The late Thich Nhat Hanh tells an old story of a man on a runaway horse who doesn’t know where the horse is going. Buddhism teaches us how to get off the horse and regain control of the reins in order to end human suffering.

If we got off the treadmill of individual productivity, we would be able to look around and see all the other people we are connected to. We could see the systems we are connected to. We would attune to the natural world that surrounds and supports us.

Instead of being a place where we eliminate “distractions” to produce as much as possible, the school could be a place that teaches us to be concerned citizens of the community. Instead of competing with each other, we would deeply understand the ways in which we are interconnected. Instead of being responsible only for our individual products, we would learn that we are responsible for each other.

What if students were fully aware of their place in history, in the community and in a line of ancestors? What future would become possible for all of us?

Fourth Noble Truth: Toward Collective Liberation

The Fourth Noble Truth is a path to freedom from suffering. This is where the Buddhist teaching in the United States begins to sound like science fiction. Buddhist teachings run counter to current educational practices, and that is precisely why they have the potential to be transformative. Schools should incubate new possibilities, rather than replicate the cultures in which they are created.

We must wake up to the suffering of the other. Some schools are on this path, but awareness without action only makes us spectators.

Schools should be laboratories where we investigate the root causes of suffering in our society. This cannot be limited to a theoretical unit in the curriculum; we need to start with the very real lives of students, teachers, staff and families in the school community. School policies and structures must also evolve as we understand how they reflect systems of oppression in our society. Too often, schools claim to value social justice but block students and adults who want to bring fair practices to school.

Then, with this knowledge, we need schools to be institutions that alleviate suffering in our society. Our students must be prepared to inherit a changing climate, a post-pandemic world, deep inequalities, and scenarios that we adults will not live to see. Individual productivity has its place in a larger goal of practicing being the ancestors we are meant to become.

In this context, breathing techniques could make the difference.

I am grateful to my thought partner, Laura Dombrowski. I am grateful to speak to educators and alumni of existing Buddhist schools: Koki Atcheson, Daniel Cuthrell, Pieper Toyama, David Randall and Josh Hernandez Morse. I am grateful to the Buddhist educators who dream with me: Jean-Paul deGuzman, Susie Hwang and Lesley Younge. I am grateful to my editor, Mihiri Tillakaratne, for helping me shape my ideas.

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