Some days in the classroom are magical — we are energized, our students are excited, the lesson goes well, we laugh and have fun, students participate and learn, and we leave for the day with a sense of accomplishment and purpose.
Other days are downright disastrous — we’re tired, students are distracted, the lesson bombs, we’re cranky or even mean, students challenge us, little is learned, and perhaps we leave for the day wondering why we chose this profession.
We’ve all been there, right?
Many of the mantras below are inspired by the work of renowned educator Parker Palmer, who writes eloquently about “the inner landscape of a teacher’s life” in The Courage to Teach. In many ways, Palmer encourages educators to approach their craft as a mindfulness practice in itself.
During tough moments in the classroom, we can call upon the inner stillness that is always with us, the stillness we cultivate in formal mindfulness practice. A simple mantra can help us create space for a kind response to our students, instead of an unthinking and unskillful reaction.
Mindful Mantras for Teachers
This is my number one, go-to mantra. Just one deep cycle of inhalation and exhalation activates our parasympathetic nervous system and invites a calming response in the body. And while a single breath is relatively short in duration, those eight seconds or so of quiet and calm that we model to our students can be incredibly powerful. Our mindful pause can facilitate our students’ pauses. As teachers, we can be the stable nervous system in our classroom that students anchor to.
2. It’s not personal
For example, if I am in the middle of a, presumably, amazing and engaging lesson on the French Revolution, and there is a student who is obviously checked out and disengaged, I have a choice. I can take it personally, and construct a whole narrative about this student who hates my class and thinks my lesson stinks and clearly is lazy and is being SO RUDE by not paying attention. Or I can realize it probably has nothing to do with me – did he have a fight with his parents last night? Is he not sleeping well because of stress or illness? There are hundreds of possible reasons for his behavior, and they very likely are not about me.
If I can reframe how I see this student by not taking it personally, I am in a much better place to help him. Parker Palmer writes, “The way we diagnose our students’ condition will determine the kind of remedy we offer.” In teaching, as in medicine, misdiagnoses can be dangerous.
3. They’re little kids in big bodies
One of my former colleagues said this all the time, and I think of her words frequently. Our students, especially in high school, may look all grown up, but they are still kids. Those big seniors? They were 12 just a few years ago. And those second graders? They were in diapers a few years ago.
While we can certainly hold students to high, age-appropriate expectations, it helps to remember that they’re little kids inside. They haven’t yet learned all the coping mechanisms we have for dealing with emotional crises and friendship drama and lunchroom politics. It helps to see the little kid underneath.
4. See the good
Parker Palmer identifies the Student from Hell as a universal archetype. We’ve all had that student who pushes every single one of our buttons, and then goes on to discover the buttons we didn’t even know we had!
I like to remind myself that this student was once an adorable little baby. She (hopefully, for not of all our students do) has parents who love her. Can I find something good in her? Can I see her kindness to a friend, if not to me?
Seeing the good, seeing the complex mix of all that makes our students who they are, is a way of seeing their humanity. And once we do that, we can approach our interactions with even our most challenging students with dignity and compassion.
5. This is what it’s like right now
A fundamental attitude of mindfulness is acceptance, or allowing. It is about befriending the present moment, whatever it may contain. We have a natural tendency to constantly judge our experience – this is pleasant, this is unpleasant, this is neutral. And then we tend to react based on that judgment, especially if we have decided it is something we don’t like. We may board the Negative Train, which generally takes us through Why Is This Happening To Me?, briefly stops at Wow This Really Sucks, and usually ends at the final destination of It Will Always Be Like This. Even the gift shop there sucks.
What if, instead of getting on that train, we simply said, “This is what it’s like right now”? Right now, teaching is hard. Right now, my students are annoying me. Right now, I’m tired and I really don’t want to grade these essays.
Accept and allow that that’s what it’s like right now.
In a few minutes, teaching may feel amazing. In a few minutes, your students may inspire you. In a few minutes, you may feel energized. In a few minutes… well, you may not want to grade those essays, but you’ll do it anyway, and with a better attitude.
The only thing we know for sure about teaching, and about life itself, is that it’s always changing. The more we fight the present moment (by clinging to good moments or trying to escape the bad ones), the more we add to our suffering.
6. Be not afraid
Parker Palmer writes that many educators have a deep fear “rooted in [our] need to be popular with young people.” We also fear appearing incompetent, weak, or unprepared. We may fear the moments when we are not “in life-giving communion with the young.” I remember sobbing in my tiny kitchen in my tiny apartment when I was 22 years old, terrified about the possibility of being a failure as a teacher. These fears aren’t necessarily bad; in a healthy dose, they inspire us to do our best and establish relationships with our students. And regardless of whether our emotions are skillful or not, we cannot stop them from happening.
But when we say, “Be not afraid,” Palmer notes, we’re not saying, “Don’t have fears.” It means you don’t have to become your fear — and you don’t have to teach from fear. He writes, “I can teach from curiosity or hope or empathy or honesty …. I need not be fear — if I am willing to stand someplace else in my inner landscape.”
And it absolutely helps to talk about those fears with other teachers. We’ve all been there. Don’t cry alone in your kitchen.
7. I can do anything for 86 minutes
One of my colleagues shared this one with me. Some days are really tough. You’re overwhelmed. You feel you can’t keep your energy up. But you know you can, because you’ve done it before. Sometimes you just need to tell yourself that you can do anything for 50 minutes. Or until recess starts. I love Glennon Melton’s mantra at Momastery – WE CAN DO HARD THINGS.
8. What can I control?
A common misconception about mindfulness is that acceptance of the present moment means resignation. It doesn’t. I like to think of it as a form of the Serenity Prayer. Some things are out of our control, like what our students had for breakfast or how much sleep they got last night. Those are the things that we must accept in the present, though we certainly can take skillful action in our community to improve conditions for young people.
A beautiful aspect of teaching is how much we DO control, like the atmosphere and expectations in our classroom, our lesson activities, and our relationships with students. If things aren’t going well, acknowledge that, and take time to reflect. Is this something that is within my power to change? How might I do that? Reach out to your colleagues or to the amazing resources available for teachers to discover ways to improve your craft.
9. “What gifts do I possess that helped make this moment possible?”
This mantra is for the awesome days, the days when you can feel the connection and energy and excitement in your classroom. Those days don’t happen mysteriously — you play a major role in bringing them to fruition. Parker Palmer suggests we ask ourselves this question because “becoming aware of our gifts can help us teach more consistently from our identity and integrity.” And that’s when we make magic.
Sarah lives with her husband and two children in Minneapolis, MN.