July 29, 2003

Making Each Morning a Good Morning: Naikan at an Austrian School

by Dorothy Rucker

When I finished my first Naikan retreat six years ago with Professor Ishii, in Scheibs, Austria, I wanted to find a way to make self-reflection a part of my private life, and also integrate it into my school.

I thought that if one could make Naikan a part of the natural course of basic upbringing, like brushing teeth or bathing, it might be possible to relate better to children, without imposing an authoritarian kind of upbringing. In this way, there would be less conflict. The constant preaching of morals and the typical gesturing of the teachers, accusingly pointing the index finger, could perhaps become, to some degree, unnecessary.

I will give you brief overview on how I integrated Naikan into our school. An initial problem was that I could not create the same setting and atmosphere as the traditional Naikan retreat. Nevertheless I quickly found a way in which I could weave Naikan into the fabric of our classes, without imposing it on the children. In order to explain the situation better, I must first tell you how a typical school week looks, in my class.

Students at our school have both compulsory subjects and elective subjects. In the compulsory studies, they are under my supervision and we work together on various lessons. During the elective time, the atmosphere is a bit more open. While the children still have a set lecture, they can, on their own, decide on the tempo, choose their partner, and select the subject order. During this phase, the children are more self-reliant and also more likely to get into conflicts with their partners. Often they are asked to work in groups of three and four on small projects. To all of this, I added a weekend circle. The purpose of the weekend circle is to report out, in a group or as individuals, a review of the week. The questions the children answer are:

What did I do well in this past week?

What did I like about last week?

With what did I experience difficulties?

What would I like to do next week, or do differently next week?

These questions deal only with the outer parameters of schoolwork, and any issues of personal conflict are purposefully omitted. I did not want to invite any kind of accusations or blaming.

After my own Naikan, I initiated some personal changes. I started to say "thank you" to the children when they did something for me, and apologized when I caused a child trouble. Soon, some of the kids followed suit, so I added the following questions:

Who would I like to thank for something specific?

Who would I like to apologize to for something specific?

At this point everything seemed quite clear, but unfortunately the path was far from being smooth. I experienced the big distance between the intellectual understanding of Naikan and the actual doing. All too often I experienced myself as "holier than thou" and tripped over my own doctrine.

One thing was clear. In order to keep certain Naikan values alive in the school, I would have to live it by example, and change some of my old teaching habits, which focused on the constant correction of mistakes and the inadequacies of the students.

An episode took place 4 year ago in the class in which I first introduced Naikan. At the time I had a particularly stubborn and rebellious student named Stefan. Stefan knew exactly how to take me to my limits. In his typical posture his head was forward and slightly lowered and he was poised for a fight. His hands were usually clenched in a fist.

We both were engaged in a very special kind of game, which could be called "who is stronger." It started every day, first thing in the morning, as I drove to school and, with the best of intentions, wished everyone a "good morning." My greeting was usually accompanied by an unspoken thought towards Stefan, "hopefully it will stay a good one, and I dare you to spoil my good intentions." But it wasn't long before intentions to thank others or apologize got stuck in my throat, and my annoyance was visible.

One morning it was different. Before I could even wish everyone a good morning, Stefan came running to me with a little pail, showing me a very unusual collection, which turned out to be "night slugs" from the school yard. He said, "Look teacher, I got here at 7:00am this morning, and collected all these night slugs."

Now I had been doing a "Growing a Vegetable Garden" project with the children, in which we were attempting to grow vegetables organically. Every gardener knows what it means to have a plague of garden slugs. There were many nights when I would go out with my flashlight and scissors in hand, hoping to remedy the situation. I wanted to save the children the disappointment of looking at chewed-up flowers and lettuce. So I thought Stefan had acted out of self interest, because he wanted to make sure he would have some of the radishes.

But I was proven wrong. I proceeded to praise Stefan in front of the class (I was ecstatic just to be able to praise him), saying how kind it was for him to do this for all of us, when he replied in a matter of fact voice -

"No teacher, I only did this for you."
"Why just for me?"
I asked.
"Because you always look so sad when you see that the slugs have eaten everything," he replied.

I was quite touched by his remark. When I thanked him modestly for what he did for me, he blushed, and said with pride, "From now on, I should just take that job." Henceforth, Stefan became the official Slug Hunter.

It happened that on another occasion I proved to be the loser in our game. Stefan was the stronger, but then he only had one teacher, while I had 24 students. I would try to impose my authority on him with a certain volume in my voice, to which he became more and more aggressive. Suddenly, God only knows whose intuition I acted on, I lowered my voice and said quietly, "Stefan, I am sorry that I yelled at you in that way." As if I had spoken some magic word, he became very quiet and looked at me baffled, and with a voice that strained with hoarseness he said, "I was also stupid." Slowly, I held out my hand to him, and in no time his feisty little hand was in mine. Our handshake was more than words and affirmation.

Scenes like this also became common amongst the children. They experienced how freeing it can be, when each person discovers his contributing part in an argument through self-reflection rather than the force of accusation.

And so Naikan is now part of every school day. The weekend circle is no longer the only time when children apologize for their wrong doings, and say thank you for things received.

I believe it is very important that children learn, even in the midst of conflict, to be fair, and to conduct themselves with open eyes. To look around us means to be aware and the responsibility for such awareness remains with each individual. Consequently, it is not just up to someone else that a "good morning" remains good.

Dorothy Rucker is a schoolteacher and lives in Salzburg, Austria. Our thanks to Gottfried Mitteregger for kindly translating this article.

Posted on July 29, 2003 6:15 PM

I like how the article incorporates Naikan into the daily life of the school.It appears for me that naikan makes my life more immediate and tangible.

Posted by: Jay Bender on September 6, 2003 4:11 PM

I am a special education teacher for students in kindergarten to first grade in a self-contained classroom. Thank-you for the article, I will apologize to my students when I cause them trouble.

I would be interested in hearing from other teachers how they use Niakan and/or Morita's principals in the classroom.

Posted by: Jane Kelly on August 17, 2003 4:06 PM
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