Illustration: Brittany R. Jacobs
Q+A: Bill Meyer, Ed.M.’04
On how daily meditation changes teaching and learning
Bill Meyer, Ed.M.’04, had no idea that a book he discovered in middle school would one day lead him to writing his own books — five so far — and that it would change just about every part of his life, including his work as a teacher. Meyers, now a staff developer and instructional coach at the secondary level just outside New York City, talked to Ed. about meeting a Buddhist monk, getting students to drop into a meditation, and, of course, that important book.
You first started to meditate in the sixth grade. How did that happen?
One day while browsing in the local public library, I came across a little purple book that caught my eye. It was called Be Here Now by Ram Dass. I started flipping through the pages and found myself captivated by his description of meditation and thought I’d give it a try. At first, I really struggled to quiet my mind and often found myself falling asleep more than connecting with the present moment. However, my uncle got wind of my interest and lent a helping hand. A few weeks passed and he showed up at my house early one Saturday morning and offered to drive me down to Hamtramck, a small immigrant community in the heart of Detroit to meet a friend of his who was also a Buddhist monk. That encounter had a huge impact on my life. Sunam’s movements, his words, and the sense of calm that radiated from his being was awe-inspiring. After that first meeting, I became very captivated by the potential that meditation offered and did my best to incorporate his tips and teachings into a personal practice. Soon meditation became a part of my daily routine, affecting almost every part of my life and eventually becoming the inspiration for the last three books I wrote.
What did your friends think?
Honestly, it was not something I shared with my friends. Even as an adult, I rarely talked about my practice with my friends. It was not until about 12 years ago, really because of the encouragement of my students, that I shared this aspect of myself with a larger audience.
And while I never told my friends and rarely spoke about it with my family, I do remember one time when my older sister came into my room and found me on the floor, cross-legged, with my eyes closed. I can only imagine what she must have thought to see her younger brother meditating, but she never discouraged me and, in fact, came with my uncle and me on another trip to meet with Sunam later that year.
In your first classroom meditation guidebook, Three Breaths and Begin, you write that the days you didn't meditate were chaotic and off-rhythm. Is this why you decided to write about meditation for kids and schools?
As a teacher, it is very easy to become lost in the day-to-day comings and goings of the school schedule. With meditation I found a way to hold onto that little bit of space and calm throughout the day. I found that in those spaces I discovered greater flow and freedom in my work. If I needed to connect with someone, they almost inevitably showed up outside my room or I would cross paths with them in the hall, no email required. Moreover, with students, I found them to be far more receptive to the practice and in many ways even more easily able to drop deeper into a meditation. Three Breaths was a way to connect with both groups and offer a practice that I have found deepens all experience.
You’ve said that meditating in the morning before going to school brings your work into focus. What do you mean?
The days I meditate, everything just seems to fall into place effortlessly. If there is a student I need to speak with, I find myself running into them in the hallway. If there is a lesson I am struggling with, it just seems to come together without extra effort. I find the comments I write on homework assignments and papers more heartfelt and poignant. I feel myself being more present in the conversations I have with colleagues throughout the building. So much of the work of teaching requires collaboration and community, and I always found meditation seemed to nurture my ability to access that in the school building more easily. I think in part it was not necessarily that anything was different externally, but rather I was different and present to what was around me. Those things were always there, but now I just could see the opportunities for what they were rather than rushing to the next class or item on the to-do list.
When you first introduce meditation to your students, how do you get them to not giggle or act like meditation is weird?
It is all about the tone. When it is a new group of meditators, I approach it with the same seriousness that I would if I were assigning a test. I am very deliberate in my words and my movements. I give them specific instructions about how they should sit and approach the practice. I also benefit from a deep faith in what the practice will do for them, because I have seen it have an impact. Students, even the most skeptical, have always amazed me with their capacity to drop into a meditation. It usually only takes one or two positive experiences and young people become avid practitioners.
How do your two picture books on meditation (Big Breath and Healing Breath) differ?
Big Breath came out of the meditations I included at the end of each of the chapters in Three Breaths. My agent suggested taking that style of meditation and expanding it into a children’s book. The result of that idea was Big Breath. However, while Big Breath is really an introduction into meditation and an exploration of the interior mental and emotional world of a child. Healing Breath is a more deliberate connection to the planet. In Healing Breath, natural imagery becomes a starting point for the reader to connect with the inner self in a profound way.
You've also written two YA novels. What's harder to write: YA fiction or meditation books?
They are so much fun to write and in many ways are both about exploring new worlds. In the Time Keeper series, the main character traveled through a portal at his grandfather’s farm to visit new and old worlds. In Big Breath and Healing Breath, the portal is the breath, and through a connection with the breath, the reader has the opportunity to travel into other worlds. In this case, meditation offers a portal into the world of one’s heart and inner being. I see both books as different versions of the same concept: transporting the reader to a space and place beyond the ordinary. In the end though, the Time Keeper series required a great deal of effort while the meditation books flowed out effortlessly, sort of. I sometimes joke that Big Breath and Healing Breath took 25 years and 45 minutes to write. The 25 years account for a lifetime of practice and the 45 minutes captures the actual process of sitting down and writing the first drafts. I could not have accomplished the one without the other.
Are you still teaching history?
I am currently a staff developer and instructional coach at the secondary level. It is an amazing transition out of the classroom. It still affords me the opportunity to work with teachers and impact student learning. I see it as the natural evolution of my 15 plus years in the classroom and as a way to continue to expand my interest in instructional and reflective practices. I owe so much of my passion for education to my time at HGSE. I think, more than anything, my education there allowed me to see and seek the full breadth of teaching and learning as a vast landscape, not just a single classroom. Adult learners, like students, are an incredible group to work with and in many ways seek out the same sense of purpose and connection that many young people desire.
I always try to remain open to the journey and the unexpected twists, turns, and opportunities along the path, but I am hoping next to have the chance to write more children’s books and even get an opportunity to run more in-person book talks and workshops around these practices as the pandemic begins to lessen. I also hope to one day have the opportunity to contribute to the larger discourse around education and even lead a school. To me, it would be very exciting to help nurture a school culture where the emphasis on the interior landscape of student learning is given the same energy and priority as the traditional focus on the mind.