PGO grant funds months-long mindfulness program for faculty, staff

ARHS faculty, above, met mindfulness teacher Shalini Bahl at an info session in January and were invited to enroll in four subsequent classes.Photo: Sara Barber-Just


Once a month, at the end of the school day, 30 teachers file into room 175 to meditate and learn about mindfulness.

Teachers learn how to deal with the stresses of their jobs and to improve their interactions with students.

The class is taught by Shalini Bahl, an Indian-born, Kuwait-raised teacher who lives in Amherst and has been trained in mindfulness through UMass Medical’s eight-week mindfulness program and Google’s SIY (Search Inside Yourself) mindfulness-based emotional intelligence program.

She runs Downtown Mindfulness, where she offers classes, in Amherst.

The ARHS classes focus on helping staff to “cultivate awareness, inner calm and clarity; manage difficult emotions and stress; deal with negativity bias and negative thoughts with self-compassion and habits of kindness; and cultivate compassion and curiosity for deep listening and mindful speech and communication,” according to the Google Classroom site.

English department head Sara Barber-Just was an integral part of the mindfulness class coming to ARHS.

After meeting and talking with Ms. Bahl at an end-of-school-year party in June of 2017, in Leverett, she was impressed.

“I knew that her skills could be valuable for stressed-out Amherst teachers,” she said.

A few months later, Ms. Barber-Just attended the Challenge Success conference at Stanford University, where she participated in a mindfulness workshop that inspired her further.

Ms. Barber-Just had already taken two meditation courses through the district, both taught by Wildwood Elementary School Principal Nick Yaffee.

This experience inspired her to set up a class specifically for high school teachers, and one that would teach tools to improve teacher health and teacher-student interactions.

Very soon afterward, she wrote a Big Ideas grant to secure the funding that brought Ms. Bahl’s class to ARHS.

The Amherst Parent Guardian Organization awarded the money for Ms. Bahl’s introductory session with faculty in January and for four hour-long classes throughout the school year.

Ms. Bahl said she the goal of mindfulness is “having the clarity to see things as they are.”

She helps to teach people to look at situations without being influenced by past experience.

Ms. Bahl teaches mindfulness to a wide range of people, everyone from middle schoolers to office workers.

Her interest in mindfulness stemmed from a realization that you “can’t separate work life from personal life.”

She was very successful in her career but didn’t feel satisfied on a personal level.

Ms. Bahl said one reason mindfulness has grown as a meditation practice has come from its roots in science.

Though many of the practices are derived from Buddhism, Jon Kabat-Zinn brought mindfulness practices to UMass Medical and did research that helped make it more science-based.

Ms. Bahl said her students call mindfulness “liberating.”

She said mindfulness “makes people free from the labels that confine us.” Companies have made the same discovery as Bahl: that a person’s work life is intricately connected to their personal life.

So far, class participants have greatly enjoyed the sessions. Guidance counselor Alessandra Mucci-Ramos said she was “extremely grateful for the opportunity to engage in mindfulness practices at ARHS.”

She noted that educators are always doing their best to facilitate learning and helping students grow. “Mindfulness helps us to gradually build self-awareness and presence in our lives and in our teaching practices,” she said.

For her, mindfulness “gives us the freedom to choose our behavior and be at peace with what it is now.” She also appreciates responding to life “in a more conscious way.”

Ms. Barber-Just was sorry to miss the first class, but she was in Boston, where her father had a lung transplant that day. She said she was able to apply her mindfulness practice to this situation, noting it provided stability through this stressful process.

“It’s not just about meditation and relaxation, it’s about awareness of your thinking,” Ms. Barber-Just said. “It’s also about letting go of your thinking. It’s been emotional. But I don’t jump on the emotions of every moment. There’s a little more detachment from worrying about things I can’t control.”

Looking forward, Ms. Barber-Just hopes that a mindfulness class will be implemented for students.

She sees this year’s classes for teachers as a test-run before helping students as well.

“I’d like to incorporate more practices in my classroom, but I felt like I needed even more training myself before doing that,” she said.

More about Ms. Bahl and her classes can be found on the Facebook page for Downtown Mindfulness.

“My life purpose is to make this accessible for everyone, this incredible knowledge,” said Bahl.