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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.

Here’s an example. I taught at the middle level, and often had challenging students. While I would try objective strategies to better the situation (like rearranging seats, having a talk with a student in the hallway, or contacting a parent), I often had to resort to working on myself and my reactions.

In the morning before school, I would get out my pen and yellow pad and write. I brainstormed ways I could respond calmly and effectively in my difficult classes, including things I could say to myself, things to say--or not to say--to students, and even how I would compose my face or movements. I even visualized myself doing these things. This rehearsal was invaluable, and gave me the confidence of having a plan to go forward. Premeditatio Malorum in action!

By all means, hope for the best for your day. And at the same time, plan for the worst.

We’re all bozos on the bus.

There is enormous pressure in the work world to be perfect, especially in teaching. We have to watch every word that comes out of our mouths, scan every lesson for biases, and watch our behavior at all times. This hyper-vigilance can lead to anxiety. Teachers have to remember that they are only human, and will make mistakes. I learned the mantra, We’re all bozos on the bus (a phrase attributed to the clown Wavy Gravy). It reminded me that we’re all in this together: imperfect humans, trying to do our best to make our way through life.

If you read through the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, you see the most powerful person in the world struggling with himself at times. He was very human, like you and me. Cut yourself some slack.

Reach out to others.

Stoicism is often characterized as a “stiff upper lip, go it alone” path. But this is a distortion. In one of the most beautiful passages of Meditations, Marcus says,

Don’t be ashamed to need help. Like a soldier storming a wall, you have a mission to accomplish. And if you’ve been wounded and you need a comrade to pull you up? So what?

I was fortunate to have friends who shared my frustrations. I often popped into their room to connect and check in. They lightened my burden with a laugh, some advice, or by just hearing me out.

But a note of caution: I tried to be mindful of how much frustration I vented at school and that the people I was with needed hope and attention too. And if things are really rough, don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional coach or therapist. They’re there specifically to hear out your troubles.

Consider formal mindfulness practice.

You’ve probably heard of mindfulness, or maybe you already practice a type of formal meditation or yoga. Twenty years ago I enrolled in a mindfulness course based on the MBSR model (mindfulness-based stress reduction), created by Jon Kabat-Zinn. For eight weeks, our group practiced meditation, light yoga, studied texts on stress, and met to discuss our progress. It was a lifesaver. Two decades later there are a plethora of mindfulness classes available, many of them online.

While some educators are naturals at handling stress, I was not one of them. Mindfulness--taught as a secular mind training--offered many options for what to do with my attention in any moment. It also taught me ways to disengage from racing thoughts and difficult emotions.

The Stoics had their own word for mindfulness, prosoche. Prosoche is usually translated as “attention” and refers to the simple act of being aware, especially of our judgments, impulses, and actions. Rather than just a relaxation method, prosoche helps us develop our character, the ultimate goal of the Stoic path.

If you are interested in mindfulness, check out the online training from Mindful Schools, or see if there is an MBSR program near you (or online). Or just look up some mindful meditations on YouTube and give it a go (“MyLife mindfulness” videos are excellent).

You certainly don’t need formal mindfulness training to practice prosoche. A firm commitment to being more present in each moment can go a long way. Formal mindfulness is just a way to practice this and make it a habit.

Speak kindly to yourself.

The Stoics definitely use forceful language at times, which can inspire our own sense of courage and determination. But they could also advocate kindness.

In his Letters to Lucilius, Seneca once wrote, quoting the philosopher Hecato:

What progress, you ask, have I made? I have begun to be a friend to myself.

We would never (or rarely) speak harshly to a good friend. And yet we can be very hard on ourselves. Our (mental) self-talk can increase our suffering. Along with mindfulness, I had to learn to speak to myself in a kinder tone, substituting a judgmental voice with a more compassionate one.

I screwed up a lot in my early years--and in my later years too. But I did learn to handle my failures with a bit more self-compassion and grace.

Practice tip: Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion, offers a short passage which helped me navigate some tough moments. You might like to write it down and put it somewhere you can see easily:

This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion I need.

Final thoughts

Although the Stoic path focuses on our inner responses, sometimes we do need to change our outer circumstances: make adjustments to what we’re doing, look for a new job, or even consider a new career. Accepting that we might have to change is one of the paradoxes of our practice.

My old professor was right: teaching is hard. But it can also be the pathway to transforming ourselves--and the lives of others, too.


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