top of page

Responding Wisely: Tools from Stoicism, Mindfulness and Compassion for Educators

By Tim Iverson

This month's contribution comes from Tim Iverson, a middle school art and humanities educator in Minnesota. Based on his own experience with mindfulness, he began incorporating mindfulness into his own teaching many years ago. He now facilitates mindfulness lessons and is a former board member with the Mindfulness in Education Network. Tim is also an organizer for the Minnesota Stoics.

So are you guys crazy, or what?

I did my teacher training at a small college in Iowa, more than 30 years ago. I’ll never forget one professor who questioned our sanity nearly everyday, with words to the effect of, “You guys must be nuts!” I remember going home confused and a bit nervous. I wondered if this was really the career for me.

But after three decades teaching in a public school classroom, I can see that there was value in making us pause to really consider what we were getting into. My old professor may not have been very tactful, but he was right: teaching is hard.

Even before the pandemic, teachers worked in crowded, often unsafe classrooms, juggling a variety of academic and emotional needs of students--not to mention encounters with parents, administrative personalities and demands, and the pressures of family life.

And now tensions have increased further, with concerns about coronavirus, masking, distance learning, and educational politics.

Should I stay, or should I go?

With this kind of stress, many teachers will leave the profession (about 8 percent a year), while many others are contemplating it. In a recent Education Week survey, over 50% of teachers were considering leaving the profession, and 84% said teaching was more stressful now than before the pandemic. Even before Covid, 1 in 6 teachers left the profession, according to a study by the RAND Corporation.

This was borne out in my own experience. Every summer we had numerous teachers jump ship and move on to new schools or even different careers.

But for those that stay in teaching, the question remains how they are being supported, emotionally and otherwise.

I was fortunate. I found gifted mentors and coaches who gave me the tools I needed to survive--even thrive--in my classroom. To cope with stress and frustration, I incorporated lessons from mindfulness, Stoicism, and psychology to help me endure and be the best teacher I could be. These ideas spilled over into my personal life too, helping me to be a better father, son, and brother.

Toward the end of my career, I began helping other teachers manage their stress. Here are 7 tips from my own experience for you to get started--or to recharge--your journey of self-care and resilience.

Remember the present moment.

Teachers are planners. We have to be. We are always thinking of tomorrow’s lesson, or re-thinking the one we did today. We “lean into” the future, as one Buddhist teacher put it.

But as the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote, Give yourself a gift: the present moment.

It is easy to forget that we really live only now, that the rest--thoughts of the past and future--are just an abstraction in our minds. It took me a long time to get this.

In the midst of the hurly-burly, try pausing now and again, and ask yourself, “What’s happening right now?” This could mean scanning your classroom, noticing what’s happening around you…Maybe seeing the colors and shapes in the room, the students’ faces or activities. Whatever you focus on, really pause, even if it’s just for a few moments. Notice yourself too: Is there tension you could let go of? Would a slow, deep breath help? Take stock of what’s happening, like a good general on the battlefield.

Practice tip: Ask yourself, “What’s happening now?” as you scan the room and fully take in the present moment experience. Do this without judging anything, at least for the moment.

Expect craziness.

I adopted this mantra after reading the psychologist David Burns’ book, Feeling Good. In fact, I even made a small card with those words on it which I kept in my wallet.

But why? Aren’t we supposed to “Expect the best?”

Well, yes. That’s always the official line anyway. And yet teachers deal with reality every day: the lesson plan that goes awry; the materials that disappear; the new students that are plopped into the class (I once had five new students march into my room in the middle of a class with no warning at all) viruses that suddenly shut down a school.

It helped when I began to expect such things, and not cling too tightly to the “perfect lesson” or the “perfect day.” I even learned to mistrust the fleeting thought, “Hey, I got this,” or, “I finally got this thing figured out.” Usually I didn’t.

In a famous passage from the Meditations (which I taped to my wall), Marcus Aurelius says,

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.

Marcus could have been talking about middle schoolers. The executive (rational, logical) parts of their brains are not fully developed yet, and may not be until their mid-20s. As one teacher put it, “We are their prefrontal cortexes.”

By expecting that things could go awry, we’ll be a little more prepared when they do.

But be careful not to let this devolve into pessimism. A brief reminder to ourselves may be all we need. Good things can happen too.

Make a plan for the really tough situations.

The Stoics have a concept called premeditatio malorum, which basically means “contemplate potential evils beforehand.” It’s like the previous tip, but for those truly difficult situations, where more than a fleeting reminder is required. Think of it as lesson planning for the really tough stuff.