Teaching the Teachers: The Santee Focusing Initiative Spring 2009

Our School Project in Los Angeles

By Lucinda Gray, Focusing Coordinator

In the spring of 2009, Diana Marder and I worked together to present a training program for teachers in an inner city high school in Los Angeles. We were very excited because opportunities of this kind are extremely rare. At the same time, we were daunted by many challenges. Through this project we learned a great deal about all aspects of designing and executing a Focusing training program in an urban high school. The purpose of this article is to share our experience with you, how the design process unfolded, the basic structure of the project, the challenges we faced and strategies we devised for meeting those challenges. I will also include some interesting and exciting results of our effort. I have confidence now that we can evolve effective methods of intervention in all levels of education. Of course the need is overwhelming. I hope this article will be of help to other Focusing Trainers and Coordinators who are looking for ways to connect in their local school systems, and may be out there working to develop school based Focusing training programs.

The Project Setting

The project took place at Santee Academy an inner city occupational/academic high school in downtown Los Angeles with about 300 students, divided equally between four classes, freshman through senior, and including 25 faculty. Santee is a special high school under the direct supervision of the mayor’s office, and with some extra funding available.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is noted for its very challenging student population, mostly from Hispanic and African-American working class and poor families. The city of Los Angeles has 6 million Mexican American residents, and thousands of children with limited English skills. The community and the students at Santee suffer from endemic social problems such as family violence and abuse, poverty, alcohol and drug issues and crime, all of which contribute to a drop out rate that approaches 40 percent. We observed the faculty to also be under stress from the demands of teaching in an inner city environment and ongoing uncertainty about working conditions, schedules, and the threat of layoffs. The principal described the teaching staff as significantly stressed by their own personal problems. On the positive side he also pictured the teachers as mostly young and enthusiastic about teaching, quite bright and open to learning. He was very supportive toward them.

Forming Our Team

Our auspicious connection to the school came through Fernando Hernandez, Ph.D., a trainer in training with me. Fernando offered us the opportunity for the project by introducing me to his brother Dr. Bill Hernandez, the principal of the high school where the project took place. Fernando also met with Diana and me to facilitate our interface with the school district. The three of us decided from the beginning to use the Focusing approach in our own meetings and all our interactions with the school district. Diana and I met weekly and often twice a week for the entire length of the project, which lasted from mid-March through the end of June. This program was a very intensive investment of time and effort for us.

Gathering Information

Concurrently with a series of meetings with Dr Hernandez at the school we began our effort by initiating a review of the available literature on Focusing training in schools. We found that very little has been written about such interventions. All the prior projects we could find were done either in elementary schools, or with a very small number of children. We spoke to Focusing teachers who had worked in schools in the US, Canada, Europe and Afghanistan. They were very helpful and encouraging, and we spent considerable time talking with them. Through these contacts, we felt the support of the entire Focusing community, which was wonderful for us.

Defining the Scope of the Project

Realizing that Focusing training had only minimally been tried within an urban high school setting, we decided to define our project as an exploratory pilot project, designed to discover approaches that would work in such a setting, to identify issues that might arise and then explore possible working solutions.

Negotiating a Working Agreement

First we concentrated on establishing a relationship with the school principal and listening to his perception of the needs at the school. In order to develop specific goals we began with an interactive process; a series of meetings with him over about a six week period of time. He was very cooperative and enthusiastic. After each meeting I sent Dr. Hernandez an email documenting what had been decided and asking him to notify me if he agreed with my version of our understanding. This was the closest I came to developing an actual contract with him for the project. As the process unfolded some agreements I thought we had made did not work out the way we expected. Ultimately I realized that the administrative environment of the school and the district as a whole was so fluid and constantly in flux that Dr Hernandez and Dr Marder and I were continuously modifying our own plans and schedule. For us this was the most difficult aspect of the whole program.

On the positive side, we found the principal to be a very supportive person to work with. He truly had the students’ needs in mind and was very engaged with the problems of the student population. He was optimistic about working with us. He was also under a great deal of pressure in regard to demands on his time as well as various political and financial strains and uncertainties that he was constantly required to navigate.

Dr. Hernandez was particularly concerned about the needs of the seniors who were having great difficulty completing their studies and transitioning to work and college. Santee Academy has some advantages over most high schools within the district. It is both academic and vocational. He wanted to provide the students with working skills as well as an academic foundation so that they could find good paying jobs that would enable them to work their way through Junior College, and possibly go on to university. He expressed his concern that many of the seniors were approaching graduation and unable to plan for their future, because of lack of confidence and insight, fearfulness, and societal pressures. Of the 60 seniors he said that 20 of them were in trouble and needed immediate help. He said that many of the students lacked confidence and were under so much pressure from poverty, family and societal problems, that he was concerned they wouldn't be able to successfully navigate through the transition.

Our Process

In our discussions, we understood the principal’s concerns about the students, but we felt that working with the faculty had to come first. Diana and I realized that we needed the support of the administration and faculty if we were ever to work with students. We also recognized that we didn’t have sufficient time or the number of trainers necessary to work effectively with students without some months of preparation time. It was already March and we were just beginning to articulate our approach. Therefore we soon decided to propose a training program for the faculty and then look toward a possible follow up project with the students.


Diana and I were both engaged in full-time private practice as psychologists, and we needed to be paid in order to take time out for the project. There was funding available and Dr. Hernandez told us he could fund the project if he could pay us for materials rather than paying us for our time. If he wanted to pay us on an hourly basis he would have to write a grant proposal and get it approved by the board of education. This process could take up to a year. To avoid this delays and uncertainty he suggested that we could be paid for workbooks we would produce for each workshop that could be sold to the district for a set fee. We agreed to produce four workbooks to coincide with a four workshop schedule.

Availability of Teachers and Scheduling Issues

One major focus of our negotiations with the principal was the issue of how much teacher time could be allocated to the project. Teacher time is very expensive. Whenever the principal releases a teacher from classroom duties he has to budget the time, and pay for it out of school funds. We knew that a minimum of 12 hours is necessary for an introductory Focusing workshop. The principal wanted to allow us only 8 hours. Diana and I realized that we needed more time, so we advised Dr. Hernandez that we couldn’t do the project unless we had at least 10 hours of time with the teachers. He responded that the ten hour requirement was acceptable to him. Finally, with the constant schedule changes we only actually had the eight hours he originally offered.

Ideally we preferred to work with the teachers in 4 consecutive weekly sessions. However, because of other demands on their training time we had to accept a semi weekly schedule. Throughout the program we were constantly required to modify our plans in order to meet the scheduling and time requirements of the school environment. Ultimately this resulted in a delay of 2 additional weeks between 2 of the workshops, as well as the loss of two hours of workshop time, which we felt subtracted from the effectiveness of the training.

Defining the Scope of the Project

In our meetings we were aware that we needed to be very careful in defining our goals. Although we would love to teach all of Focusing we came to the conclusion that we could not expect to actually teach even a complete introductory Focusing workshop in the time available. So, with this in mind, we decided to limit our goals to teaching Clearing a Space, and an introduction to the concept of Felt Sensing and the Focusing way of listening.

Creating the Workbooks.

In designing and producing the workbooks, we were faced with a particularly big challenge because of the short time available. The way the workshops were scheduled, we expected to have a work shop every two weeks, so we anticipated having to produce a workbook every two weeks. In fact, Dr. Hernandez wanted to have the workbooks out four or five days before each workshop so that the teachers would have a chance to read them. We were under great time pressure, understanding that we would need to prepare several workbooks in advance so that they could be printed and reproduced in rapid succession between workshops.

We knew that we could not write all the workbook material ourselves. There simply wasn't time. However, in completing our review of the literature, we had already identified a number of articles that applied directly or indirectly to the school setting. We decided to request permission from recognized Focusing teachers and coordinators to publish their articles as part of the workbooks. We selected what we felt were outstanding articles that we came across in our review of the literature. We thought this would have the extra advantage of demonstrating to school staff that there are many wonderful Focusing teachers all over the country, in fact all over the world. We also decided to write some of the material ourselves, with a goal of producing one or two pieces of original writing for each workbook.

Dr. Hernandez offered to have the workbooks printed and bound in the school print shop. This saved us the cost of producing them. This was a special advantage to us that was available because in addition to being an academic high school, Santee is a vocational school. They have a very advanced graphics and print shop on the campus. The project offered students a chance to practice their skills. The students created the cover art for the booklets, as well as printing and assembling them. As part of our scheduling, we had to provide enough advance time for the students to reproduce and bind the workbook material. There were many technical problems, such as our own limitations in IT skills. Students at the school helped us with some of these problems.

Through the Internet, we contacted authors of articles we selected as being particularly valuable and requested permission to publish their work as part of the workbooks. All of them responded very positively, and we are grateful for their contributions.

Creating the Workshops- A Constantly Emerging Process

From our point of view the entire project was a process of continually adapting our methods and approach as we went along, based on our evaluation of the effectiveness of the various approaches we used. In our frequent meetings we began with a goal of designing each workshop so that it would contain elements from three areas; listening, Focusing, and Clearing a Space. Outlines were constantly being revised as the schedule unfolded.

In the first workshop we took some time to describe Focusing in general terms. We found that the faculty could only sustain attention to didactic material for very short periods of time. So we decided to limit didactic presentations to ten minutes and intersperse them with short experiential processes. The faculty responded very well to this general format, especially to the experiential processes such as the listening exercises.

Connecting With the Faculty

We knew that we needed to engage the teachers on a personal level, listen to their concerns about teaching, their experiences in the classroom, and inquire about their problems. Through this process they came to life and responded with enthusiasm. For example, the first important breakthrough came when we asked them about how they felt about trauma that students were experiencing and how it affected them. At first, they responded that they did not see students undergoing trauma. However, after just a few minutes, one teacher mentioned a student she was concerned about. Immediately several other teachers began to report difficulties that students were having that they were quite worried about. They seemed to truly appreciate the opportunity to share their feelings of concern about the students. It seemed that almost all the teachers were experiencing vicarious trauma. Several of the teachers reported stress symptoms such as headaches and insomnia.

Another area of success was in the listening exercises. Diana and I demonstrated several stages of the listening process, beginning with listening silently while expressing concern, and continuing through a simplified reflective listening process. The teachers really enjoyed talking to each other about what they were experiencing in the classroom, and what they felt the problems were. It seemed clear that they needed a safe place to express their feelings and a chance to build supportive community.

The exercises in Clearing a Space were very successful. The teachers seemed to grasp the concepts, and were able to practice the process. The concept of felt sensing was more difficult to communicate in the short time we had available.

Of course there was a wide variation in teacher response to the workshops. At the end of each session, we handed out feedback forms and asked the teachers to write a few sentences describing their response to the workshop. Most of the responses were positive, and some were very enthusiastic especially about the exercises in listening and Clearing a Space. A few of the teachers handed their forms back blank, or responded that they were bored. Some teachers were more open to personal contact than others. In addition to structured seminars, we did some individual interventions with teachers who were having emotional problems. These teachers requested individual help, and we met with them individually a few times to listen in a Focusing way to their specific personal problems and issues affecting the school environment.

We were very pleased with the response of the faculty to the workbooks. Most of the faculty read the entire workbook before each workshop, and they were enthusiastic about the workbook materials.

Outcome of the Project

Recently, I had an informal meeting with Dr. Hernandez, principal of the school. I was very excited to hear his positive view of our program. Dr. Hernandez told me that they experienced a significant uptick in all three indicators of success in their school program. The three indicators they use are; grades, attendance, and dropout rate. Grades improved, attendance improved, and dropout rate, (one of their major concerns) decreased.

I am currently in discussions with Dr. Hernandez regarding advance planning for a new high school program in Maywood, within the Los Angeles Unified School District. There is a possibility that Focusing training would be included as part of a new program intended to give special attention to ninth grade students and help with their transition to High School. This project is in the early planning stages, and we will not know for some time whether we will have an opportunity to present a proposal to include Focusing in the program. My vision is that Focusing training for the faculty could be included through a team approach including myself and several Focusing trainers. Fernando Hernandez has suggested an Internet-based component to the program, which would allow faculty to access certain specific applicable materials on Focusing. I'm very excited about the possibility of submitting a proposal for an upcoming Focusing project in the fall of 2010.

When I sat down to write this article I had not yet spoken with Dr. Hernandez about how the project was received. I actually felt disappointed about the program, because the effort was so great, and conditions were such that we could not do as much as we wanted. We felt as though we were immersed in an ever changing environment, with lots of uncertainty and instability, and having to severely limit the scope of the project. I was surprised to hear the wonderful positive feedback from Dr. Hernandez.

In spite of the great challenges presented by this project, we are delighted that it was well received. I think this reflects the power of Focusing and the effectiveness of our personal presence, giving attention to the needs of the faculty and staff. It seems we had a positive effect even though the intervention was limited both in time and in scope. We look forward to the possibility of participating in the formation of this new school program in the fall of 2010.