Meet Kelly Petrie, an independent contemplative educator
Interviewed by Eleanor Duke
Kelly Petrie’s Warrior Girl Project is a playful reminder that students, young or old, benefit from a variety of learning approaches and opportunities.
Amidst those cold Wisconsin winters, Kelly Petrie brings warmth and energy to her practice of mindfulness education, bringing out the inner exuberance in all of her students. Before getting her Master of Arts in Contemplative Education from Naropa University, Petrie worked in education as a support person for children on the autism spectrum. She brings the awareness of and attention to inclusivity fostered in her previous career to her work as a mindfulness educator. Petrie strives to create a welcoming community in her workshop spaces, with a particular interest in creating an inclusive environment for students on the autism spectrum, and for transgender and gender nonconforming students.
Petrie teaches mindfulness and yoga to students of all ages and in all settings, ranging from one-on-one classes to professional groups, and focuses on inner exploration and strengthening community. When she works with students who are completely new to mindfulness work, she incorporates playful elements, and focuses on sensory awareness practices. She says it’s important to be aware that we have thoughts and feelings attached to how we perceive our senses, and encourages her students to think like scientists: you are both the scientist and the laboratory, she says, and you might discover something new about your inner and outer experiences when you focus your awareness with curiosity and interest.
Petrie is highly conscious of the value of self-care and demonstrates it in her own life, so she can bring her best self to her work. She is a lover of the outdoors, and is deeply involved in her community and with her family. She calls herself “playful,” and does personal projects in her free time. One of these projects is her series of “Warrior Girl” photos, pictures of a doll she purchased at a garage sale arranged into different yoga poses. She says this project has actually deepened her yoga teaching practice, and helped her to appreciate the value of hands-on education. Petrie speaks here about the value of creating time for yourself and building authentic community.
What is the greatest challenge you have overcome in your work?
My greatest challenge in teaching is to not over-plan, but to trust with confidence that I can meet the moment with spontaneity, creativity, and flexibility. My personal meditation practice (as well as teaching mindfulness one-on-one) has been a gift in helping me overcome this challenge, and I think my students benefit most when there is space for things to evolve organically.
What’s the first thing you do when working with a new group of students?
Building trusting relationships with my students is extremely important to teaching from the heart. I also believe authentic learning happens in community with one another, and that each person’s voice is valuable to the whole. So I make a special effort to connect with each and every student one-on-one before class starts, to learn about their special interests, and to get a sense of their learning style (which includes their emotional landscape). In all my classes, I like to integrate activities that inspire respect and community-building, and allow students to express what is most meaningful to their lives. When students are nourished in this way, the possibilities that emerge seem endless!
What advice do you have for kids and families who are struggling?
I think as parents we have strong expectations for our children, and for ourselves. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but expectations can often become an obstacle and a source of unrest when those expectations don’t match the reality of what is happening. Developing a deep sense of compassion for ourselves, our children, and our situation — and recognizing that all families experience this on some level — can help ease whatever struggles we may be facing.
If you could go back in time, what is the one thing you’d most like to tell yourself as a child?
“Always be true to yourself, and remember that your true nature is inherently good even when you make mistakes.”
Are there any stories of working with kids or caregivers that you’d like to tell?
The stories I appreciate most are when parents tell me they “catch” their children doing mindfulness all on their own. I had one parent send me a photo of her daughter sitting in a circle with pillows set up as cushions and other various props, as she was preparing to invite her family to “mindfulness class.” She said her daughter taught them everything she had learned earlier in my class, including a mindful eating exercise. I love that “playing school” now includes mindfulness lessons!
Another favorite story is about an autistic boy I had in one of my classes. I should add that I have a passion for working with people on the autism spectrum and strive to create an inclusive environment for all kinds of learners. After leading the group of students through a mindfulness practice, I invited them to share what they had noticed, through a council-style format. The form we incorporated into our council circle was using eye contact to indicate the desire to share experiences. Not only did this student properly follow the eye-contact structure, he delightedly shared the following: “I noticed that everyone around me suddenly got calm and quiet, and that I could be like that too!” His support person was blown away, and it certainly brought to light what students are capable of recognizing within themselves and others, regardless of learning style, when students feel a sense of empowerment around these practices.
What books have most inspired you and are there any on your shelf begging to be read?
I teach mindfulness in the context of my training in contemplative education — a very unique and specific philosophical approach to education, which honors the spiritual dimensions inherent to authentic teaching and learning. (Spiritual, here, referring to what it truly means to be human.) Two books related to this style of heart-centered teaching that I treasure are The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer and Thomas Merton and the Education of the Whole Person by Thomas Del Prete. The philosophies discussed in these books have helped me define who I am as a teacher, allowing other mindfulness trainings to land in a place that is unique to my personal offerings, and is wedded to the inner work I devote to this practice. It’s a continuously evolving process.
What do you to take care of yourself?
I make sure to carve out time in my schedule for my own meditation and yoga practices, as well as cardio exercise. These times are non-negotiable. I also set clear boundaries around work time, to make time for family, friends, and pets. For me, that means no weekend work commitments, which is tough, because many of my clients request weekend classes. However, when I tell them I don't work weekends and why, they express gratitude for modeling what mindful living looks like.
I can offer the best of myself when I have had a good night's sleep. So I rarely compromise sleep — right now I am so fortunate, because I can work 40 or more hours a week, and my schedule still allows me to wake up naturally without an alarm!
Another way I take care of myself is by making time to be playful and have some fun! Currently, I am in an advanced studies yoga teacher training, and the Warrior Girl project emerged from wanting a playful, hands-on approach to embody the conceptual knowledge I've been learning. This has been a great reminder to me that my students, young or old, also need a wide array of learning approaches and opportunities to honor the value of self-care. When we take care of ourselves, we are contributing not only to our personal wellbeing, but to the wellbeing of everyone with whom we interact and come in contact with.
Visit Kelly’s website to learn more about her work or contact her.