Tell Me Something, Jeff Donald
Mindfulness in Jeff Donald’s classroom happened almost by accident.
He was having a rough morning. He had some students pushing his buttons that day, and so, when his planning period came, he pulled out his yoga mat, sat down on the floor and began to meditate.
But, he forgot to lock the classroom door. Soon, he had a couple of students poke their heads in. They asked what in the world Donald was doing.
“I said, ‘Well, it’s hard for me to explain, but I have a couple of extra mats. Come on in and I’ll show you.’ So, they did. Ten minutes later, they said, ‘Can we do this again tomorrow?’”
They showed up the next day. The following week, they brought a couple friends with them, which blossomed into a dozen people and then many more. “It wasn’t an intentional thing,” Donald says. “Before that, I always worried that it was something that couldn’t be done in a classroom. … But the kids clearly needed it and responded to it. It came to the principal’s attention. She came to me and said, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing but I love it. How else can we use this?’”
That was five years ago.
Today, Donald’s work as mindfulness coordinator for MCPS has spread to 11 schools. He has spent time talking to principal professional learning communities, pupil personnel workers, school psychologists and anyone else who would listen. At Northwood and at other schools, classes are before school, after school and during lunch. The classes focus on mindfulness and stretching exercises that can be done from a desk or a chair. Donald has also trained about 35 teachers at Northwood who wanted to learn and bring it into their classrooms.
“Mental health is crucial to learning,” Donald said. “You can’t have a good academic outcome without that.”
Donald has long been teaching Alt 1 classes, which offer students who’ve been having a hard time a final step of assistance and services. “My job was to gather them and give them what they needed. It was particularly important to bring these mindfulness practices to them because I wanted to see them succeed. If they don’t succeed … their chances of not graduating shoots through the roof. These are lifelong consequences. Whatever the problem is, it’s affecting their behavior and ability to succeed academically.”
Northwood has also established a mindful intervention room.
“We’ve got kids who come to school with toxic stress or they get a text or some perceived slight sets them off, and they break down in front of you,” Donald says. “If they’re seeking attention, bad attention is better than none. The teacher might recognize that someone is not OK, but they have 32 other kids to teach. They can automatically give them a pass and send them to the [mindful intervention] room.
“There, they can get attention and we can say, ‘Look at the way you feel; let me show you some ways you can control yourself in the future.’ … The room is always fully staffed when the school is open. They come in, they do breathing and affirmations and they’re sent back to class. Kids need a place to chill out, to just be and we allow that.” Students can also refer themselves to the mindful intervention room. Donald says the room is used constantly, and that teacher referrals have decreased since the mindfulness practices have been in use.
In many classrooms at Northwood, mindfulness is used as a warmup before instruction begins. It takes about 10 minutes and offers a couple minutes of exercise, a couple minutes of breathing and a couple minutes of a meditative practice, such as repeating affirmations, being silent or listening to a gong. “That brings kids to a relaxed state and makes them clear headed; it’s the perfect spot to teach from,” Donald says.
More and more schools and workplaces across the country are embracing mindfulness. “It’s a thing because it works,” Donald says. “You’ve got to give kids the tools to be able to self-regulate and to be able to catch themselves before they’re going down a rabbit hole of anger and frustration.
“When you’re able to slow your mind enough, it’s very clear to you what you’re supposed to be doing,” he says. “What’s right and what’s wrong about your life, what you need to adjust and what to continue with.”
Aside from his work, Donald also teaches Kundalini yoga. It gives him clarity, calmness, peace of mind and purpose.
Donald says he wants to teach students how to master themselves. “Every emotion you’ve ever had is nothing more than a chemical reaction,” he says. “Your brain commands your hormones to shoot off a certain chemical and you feel a certain way. You can manipulate your body to secrete hormones that make you feel clear, calm and happy. That is mastering yourself.
“You have to have the knowledge. When you have that, you are not a slave to the emotion. … If you give kids the tools to be able to recognize what is happening and the choice to pull out of it if they want, that’s empowerment.”
Donald grew up in Visalia, Calif., a city in the San Joaquin Valley about 45 minutes from Fresno. His mother taught second grade; his father was a high school counselor. He is the youngest of four boys.
Donald spent 22 years in the restaurant business, seven spent opening Planet Hollywood restaurants around the country. “I got tired of slinging hash,” he says. “My father always told me to be an effective human being, you need to serve. That always stuck with me. I wanted to make a difference and I was not making a difference. That’s what I’m doing now and it’s incredibly fulfilling.”
He originally planned to be an art teacher. He got an art degree from Fresno State University, but soon decided that was not for him. He then attended the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and became a chef. “Restaurant hours never end, seven days a week,” Donald says. “I had two little boys and I wanted to be more than a paycheck. I wanted to be a good father like my father was to me. There are different kinds of riches.”
After moving to the Washington area, he landed a job mid-year as an art teacher at White Oak Middle School. He finished out the year, then got in at Northwood.
“Once I was here and I saw the multitude of emotional needs these kids needed, I knew immediately I wanted to be here,” Donald says. “I knew I could make a difference.”
Tell Me More
Hometown: Visalia, Calif.
Family: Wife Claudine; sons, 23 and 21, and daughter, 8
What is one thing you couldn’t live without: Good food
Who’s had the biggest influence on your life: My father. He is the best man I’ve ever met. He was truly a saint.
If you could do any job for just one day, what would it be: I can’t imagine doing another job. This is my destiny.
What do you do when you’re not at work: A whole lot of cooking. I teach yoga and meditation. Every summer, we do a retreat in Mexico. I’m an oil painter and a nature photographer. I’ve got a darkroom in my basement; it’s all black and white film.
What are three traits that define you: Compassionate, committed to equity, peaceful
If you could learn to do anything, what would it be: Learn Spanish
What was your first ever job: Dishwasher at JJ’s Ranch House
What is the best place you’ve ever traveled to and why: Belize. We went out to the Cayes, and you’re literally on the edge of the world. You have to take a propeller plane to get there. Only a few tourists make it out there. The locals are the kindest human beings and you’re in paradise and no one’s there.
What’s the first thing you would buy if you hit the lottery: A house in Mexico
When you have 30 minutes of free time, what do you do: Meditate
Favorite food: Steak frites, when they’re done right
Favorite area restaurant: L’Auberge Chez Francois
If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be: Barack and Michelle Obama