5 Mantras from a Classroom Veteran

After seventeen school years in the classroom, I’ve learned but certainly not mastered patience, a character trait that is not easy to cultivate. For a classroom teacher, the challenges come from all directions: state laws, system policies, school culture, departmental curricula, students’ needs, parents’ expectations, unforeseen rule changes, pandemics . . . and feeling overwhelmed is common. During my time as a foot soldier for education, these are five mantras that I’ve used to remind myself not to give in to those feelings, mantras that have helped me develop some measure of patience.

“If you live alone, whose feet will you wash?”

Every one of us has heard someone say, “I just want to handle my own business and let everyone else handle theirs.” That might be a nice idea, if anything in life worked that way. As teachers, we know that students walk into our classrooms with connections to all manner of difficulty. We also know that students believe they are serving us by doing the work we assign and following the rules we make, when it is really us who are serving them by providing learning opportunities in a structured environment. Saint Basil, who lived during the 300s CE in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), understood the notions of service, learning, and structure well as a founder of monasteries and of a great hospital. Because none of us operate completely independently, service is not only necessary, it is unavoidable. As teachers, we’ve chosen a profession that requires us (metaphorically) to wash feet. Our daily work can be thankless, exhausting, and even resented, but since no one lives alone, we can take solace in a particular kind of job security: there will always be feet that need washing.

“. . . the glory of each man is in his own suffering, not in the suffering of others.”

All of us have burdens to carry and obstacles to face, and that may have been what Saint Francis was thinking of when he said this. Francis, who lived in Italy during the 1200s, founded an order of mendicants who take vows of poverty. His idea was that suffering teaches compassion, and while Saint Francis subjected himself to extremes of suffering to get closer to God, classroom teachers end up with our fair share without volunteering for it. Though we don’t have much choice about how much or how often we suffer and struggle, we teachers do have a choice about how we use it. We can become hardened and bitter with a mind bent on spite and retaliation, or we can find glory by constantly expanding our capacity for compassion, a character trait than all good teachers must have.

“May it be my will that my mercy shall overcome my anger.”

I first encountered this brief prayer in Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being, which was published in 2000, but the man to whom it is attributed, the Jewish rabbi Baal Shem Tov, lived in the 1700s in Ukraine. Teachers regularly say little prayers throughout the day — “Lord, please give me the strength to deal with these children today!”—but this brief prayer goes further. This one asks not only that compassion prevails over our ugliest feelings, but that we allow it to prevail because we want it that way. “May it be my will,” the prayer begins. Mercy is the act of offering kindness or consideration not because it is deserved, but because it is good. And we all need mercy more than we need anger.

“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf.”

This one, I’ll freely admit, came from Twitter, and when I read it, I immediately thought of school and teaching. Despite knowing they’ll be there, the waves on the ocean, like the minutes of a school day, are impossible to predict, avoid, or control. Sometimes those waves get really big and come in torrents. Yet, like surfers, teachers can use their skills, experience, and wits (and senses of humor) to glide right along. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who wrote this in his 2009 book Wherever You Go, There You Are, is a professor, mindfulness guru, and Zen Buddhist, who was born in 1944 in New York City.

Arguing with a damn fool makes you a bigger damn fool than that damn fool.

I could have sworn that I read this somewhere but I can’t find the source now. That doesn’t make it any less true. Sometimes, we teachers find ourselves in situations when a student, parent, or colleague wants to “act a fool.” A fool, of course, is someone who is aware that a better or correct way exists but chooses the worse or wrong way instead. There is no winning an argument with a person who takes action in the hope that a situation will not play out the right way. These fools will change the subject midway through, refer to unsubstantiated events, make threats, accuse people in vague terms, do anything to shift attention away from the truth and toward the outcome they seek. Although it may hurt a teacher’s pride to walk away when we know this happening, sometimes it’s wisest to just let a fool go on a fool’s way, knowing that the universe will work it out.

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