Ancient Wisdom for Teaching in Challenging Times
The pandemic led one teacher to dust off a favorite book for age-old advice that still applies.
Confession: I haven’t read any books about instructional practice this year because my brain cannot learn one more thing. I’ve been back in the classroom since August, and each period I teach a full class of students face-to-face as well as a handful online. To rejuvenate, I spend my reading time with books that feed my soul and that are most relevant to the lessons in patience, kindness, and understanding that have framed this past year.
I’ve been diving back into some old favorites that remind me how to be a good human; number one on my list is The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz. In this book, Ruiz distills ancient Toltec wisdom into lessons readers can apply to their lives to limit suffering and increase joy. The message is timeless, but it feels as if it had been written for this year when our patience with ourselves and each other is wearing thin. As I’ve read it in the context of the pandemic and reacquainted myself with each of the four agreements below, they’ve shifted how I relate to other people in my school and made me more positive.
Be Impeccable With Your Word
Words are powerful; they can build up or they can destroy. I work with students who, for the most part, have struggled in school all their lives. They are already down on themselves and don’t need me to reinforce the cycle of negative thinking in which they often become stuck.
So instead of reprimanding them when they forget to turn in work or score poorly on an assessment (which seems to happen more often this year), I speak words of affirmation. I remind my students that they are more than their GPA or their latest test score and that they have what it takes to succeed. I celebrate successes outside the classroom with them, like getting their first job or passing their driving test. If you want to foster hope and healthy self-beliefs in your students too, UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center offers these suggestions.
Don’t Take Anything Personally
Occasional conflict is inevitable, a by-product of being human. But I always have a choice about the degree to which I am willing to participate in conflict. If a student snaps at me, I can react or I can pause and remember that their behavior reflects who they are—or, more accurately, the challenges they’re enduring, of which I might be unaware. Nothing that others say or do is about me. It’s a liberating idea.
I strive to lead with compassion and acceptance in my classroom, two keys to cultivating positive relationships with students. But when kids get angry, which happens sometimes despite my best efforts, I try not to get down on myself or take offense. Rebecca Alber, an instructor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, has some helpful suggestions for how to defuse difficult situations rather than taking them personally.
Don’t Make Assumptions
Assumptions can lead to misunderstanding because they are not always based on truth. As Ruiz writes, “We make the assumption that everyone sees life the way we do.” Assumptions aren’t just short-sighted—they can be dangerous.
I remind myself that I cannot make assumptions about my students’ lives outside my classroom. I cannot assume that they share my passion for my subject, that they have the same kind of support at home that I did, or even that they got enough food or sleep last night. Once I release all assumptions about my students, something magical happens: I make space to hear each student’s story and truly understand their individual strengths, hopes, and challenges. There’s only one safe assumption I can make this year—that everyone is doing the best they can with what they have. If they knew better or had more support, perhaps they would do better. Kindness and grace, for ourselves, our students, and their families, goes a long way.
Always Do Your Best
According to Ruiz, the quality of your best will change depending on your life circumstances. While it’s true that this year is especially tough as we navigate teaching in a pandemic, let’s be honest: Conditions have never been easy for teachers. We routinely spend weekends grading and creating lessons, and even in a normal year our work cannot physically be done in 40 hours a week. Yet we are our own worst critics, trying to do all of the things and please all people—and beating ourselves up when we fail to do so.
This year I’m being more gentle with myself. Instead of attempting to be a rock star in every respect, I’m focusing on just two: excellent planning, so that my students’ time in class is engaging and productive, and building relationships. If there’s one thing the challenges and loss of this pandemic have taught me, it’s that relationships are all that really matter—not only relationships with my students but relationships with family and friends. I make time for the people I love, even if it means not getting everything done every day. And when I lay my head down at night, I feel a sense of peace, knowing I’m doing my best.
For today, that is enough. I am enough.