A day in the life of a teacher is dynamic. As with any profession, there are both uplifting moments and challenging moments.
Uplifting moments remind us why we chose to become educators while challenging ones may cause us to forget.
As a teacher, I often found myself feeling bothered by difficult circumstances. Of course, this is expected and not problematic.
However, I noticed that both my teaching practice and my ability to support others waned when I was unable to return to a state of emotional equilibrium. As an instructional coach and a life coach, I hear many educators wondering the same things I did:
“How can I not take student misbehavior personally?”
“How do I navigate sudden changes in the schedule without stressing out?”
“How do I keep from feeling highly defensive when I get an email from an upset parent?”
In addition to daily triggers, teachers also worry about institutional and societal issues. After all, the teaching profession is embedded in larger systems fraught with inequities, mismanagement, and competing ideologies. It is no wonder that nearly one-third of American teachers are considering leaving their current position or the profession altogether within the next five years— with stress being one of the most cited factors.
So, what is a teacher to do when they find themselves festering in unsettling circumstances?
I’ve witnessed many educators act from a place of anxiety and worry, or cope through numbing and checking out. These are common options — but they are not the only ones!
I propose there is another way — a middle way— to skillfully manage ourselves and our circumstances.
A middle way between anxiety and mentally checking out
Imagine you are being observed by visitors from the district.
During the lesson, a student throws a tantrum. Frantically, you try to calm the student down but the strategies you are using are not working. In the midst of this moment, several other students lose interest in the lesson and become off task! After the lesson, you check your email and find one from your principal entitled “We Need to Talk!” and another from a parent entitled “Why Did My Child Fail the Last Assessment?!” The icing on the cake actualizes when you rush to the teacher workroom to make last minute copies and realize all the printers are down!
How might you feel in this situation? Perhaps annoyed, frustrated, panicked, or overwhelmed.
How might you respond to these feelings? You might lose your temper and snap at your students and colleagues. You might check out and apply minimal effort for the rest of the day — or week. You might vent to anyone who will listen, and go on and on about how horrible teaching can be.
Or you can navigate this series of events with a sense of calm, collectivity, composure, and a clear head.
If the last option spoke to your soul, I want to introduce you to the middle way: teaching with equanimity.
Qualities of equanimous teachers
Equanimity is transformational. It is a state of “mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation” (Oxford Languages).
According to a recent study of the benefits of cultivating equanimity, this state of being “widen[s] our perspective on experience,” increases our capacity to “more readily engage incoming sensory information, and more efficiently disengage…emotional-reactive behaviors when appropriate.”
It is easy to get swept away in a torrent of negative feelings. After all, teachers are human just like everyone else! However, we can rewire ourselves to act with intentionality.
Equanimity allows teachers to pause, process feelings, and respond to one’s circumstances skillfully.
The benefits of teaching with equanimity positively impact everyone else in the teacher’s life
Through its positive impact on the practitioner, teaching with equanimity will benefit:
- Students: Equanimous teachers foster a sense of safety. They behave in ways that are predictable instead of pendulating between extremes. Students will know what to expect and can trust that their teacher is making sound decisions. Furthermore, these sorts of teachers serve as role models to students since they are examples of what self-regulation during challenging times can look like.
- Colleagues: Teachers who are highly reactive typically have two main experiences. One is that they may become disconnected from their more composed colleagues. This can become a barrier in creating community and fostering a collaborative environment. The other experience is that highly reactive teachers tend to form their own community based on shared commiseration. While it’s wonderful to feel understood by and connected to others, imagine how much more meaningful support and change teachers can generate from a place of calm and level headedness? Equanimous teachers are leaders. They are reliable, able to see bigger pictures, and able to imagine a wide range of possibilities.
- Loved Ones: It can feel good to return home and decompress. We all deserve to vent a little and share the good, the bad, and the ugly. But what if we constantly share more of the bad and ugly than the good? Exercising equanimity allows teachers to be fully present for their loved ones. Even-keeled teachers are able to discuss their work in a balanced manner, and then pivot to other topics of interest!
- Systems: The movement towards educational equity is a long game. Acting with equanimity makes the movement sustainable. Equity leaders who are emotionally well-balanced are self-aware, better listeners, more productive, and happier. This mitigates burnout and strengthens one’s capacity to create systems changes over time.
Equanimity versus indifference
There are several misconceptions around equanimity. Some believe that it means one is stoic or that they are apathetic and uncaring.
However, I believe that the biggest difference is that equanimous people are mentally present whereas indifferent people are not mentally present.
As meditation teacher and scholar Jack Kornfield puts it,
“True equanimity is not a withdrawal; it is a balanced engagement with all aspects of life. It is opening to the whole of life with composure and ease of mind, accepting the beautiful and terrifying nature of all things. Equanimity embraces the loved and the unloved, the agreeable and the disagreeable, the pleasure and pain. It eliminates clinging and aversion.”
My high school English teacher Ms. Polan is a great example of teaching with equanimity. I remember days when several of my classmates did not complete assigned readings. Ms. Polan would take a deep breath, calmly state the consequence and the next step, and then move on.
The best part about Ms. Polan was that every day was genuinely a new day. She never lost her temper and she never held our mistakes against us. She cared deeply about her students, her lessons, mental health, and academic growth.
Never once did I think she was indifferent or uncaring; on the contrary, I could feel how much she valued us. Her warmth and even temper earned my admiration and respect when I was a student and certainly now that I’m an educator.
5 ways to cultivate equanimity in your own teaching practice
Some teachers are either naturally unbothered or have trained themselves to be less invested in a notion of how things “should be.” They’re able to “go with the flow” when something unpleasant happens or plans change. What’s their secret? What habits can teachers cultivate to become more equanimous?
First and foremost, equanimity cannot be forced. Rather, it is fostered. It is akin to building and maintaining muscle: it takes a lot of heavy lifting on your part and consistent exercise over time!
Here are some best practices for cultivating your own state of equanimity:
#1 Engage in contemplative practices
Practicing mindfulness allows you to respond skillfully in the moment, so that you are not regretting your choices later. The idea of “let be and let go” allows us to move through challenges with grace and compassion. Understanding and accepting impermanence —a feature of mindfulness meditation —lessens our inclinations to resist what is.
For example, if a student is misbehaving, recognize that this moment is temporary. Instead of wishing the child wasn’t behaving a particular way, you can accept that she is. Acceptance allows you to assess the situation as it truly is, handle it skillfully, and create a plan for preventing and handling future outbursts. Furthermore, your even temper during a child’s tantrum will calm the student down. A rise from you will invigorate the fire.
Practicing mindfulness and cultivating equanimity also benefit relationship building. In this example, once the student is calm, you two can reflect on what happened in that moment. The student’s perspective is data you can use to create behavioral plans and next steps. If you are in your head or reacting rashly, you will miss insights and opportunities to meet your students’ needs.
#2 Create protocols
The prefrontal cortex is the seat of executive functioning, which includes our ability to think rationally and to plan ahead. When we are emotionally triggered, the more primitive parts of our brain take over — making it a challenge to access our prefrontal cortex!
This is why it is crucial to have a plan ahead of time for when the going gets tough. Your plan may sound like, “When X happens, I will do Y.”
Let’s say your co-teacher has a habit of teaching beyond their allotted time — and into yours! This situation might be frustrating for you and may trigger strong emotional reactions. Without a plan, you may resort to an unskillful reaction such as being passive-aggressive, arguing after class, or abruptly cutting them off in front of your students.
However, if you create a protocol ahead of time, you can put it into action during a moment of distress!
For example, you can give your partner a silent signal that you two agreed on (like a thumbs up or a Post-It note in her hand) when she has five minutes left to wrap up her lesson. This prevents a spike in negative emotions not only for you but also for your co-teacher!
Furthermore, the class gets to witness how well their teachers communicate and work together. Overall, it’s a win-win when you plan ahead for predictable sticky situations!
#3 Develop an advocacy plan
If you are concerned about institutional or district policies, create a plan to address them. You could:
- Attend town halls and board meetings,
- Talk to your union,
- Build a coalition of like-minded activists,
- Write a “Letter to the Editor” for a local publication, and/or
- Join a community-based organization that advocates for changes about which you are passionate
Knowing that you are on a path to something better is comforting and can shift your perspective away from catastrophizing!
#4 Identify role models and mentors
Earlier, I shared my admiration for Ms. Polan, my equanimous high school teacher! I certainly consider her a role model and a mentor.
Another role model of mine is Shirley Chisholm, the first Black congresswoman and the first woman and African American to seek a major political party’s nomination for president. Like her, I aspire to stand up for what I believe in and not buckle under the weight of the inevitable challenges that arise. When I watch footage of her fielding criticism in front of live audiences, I am struck by her ability to remain calm enough to respond eloquently and effectively.
I encourage you to reflect on the following questions:
- Who are your role models?
- In what ways do they show up with equanimity?
- What results are they able to produce by being calm and collected?
When you consider mentors, you may identify some who are teachers and some who are not. What matters is that you seek those from whom you can learn and to whom you can talk.
Furthermore, it is powerful to identify non-role models; they can help you determine what qualities you are consciously abstaining from, such as yelling at others, or allowing your frustrations and fears to fester within.
#5 Have accountability buddies
Identify at least two people who can keep you on track. I recommend having someone who is a fellow educator and someone who is not.
Both are important for different reasons: a fellow educator has an intimate understanding of your role and realities as a teacher while an external person has a neutral point of view and can help you discover new perspectives.
All in all, accountability buddies should listen to you, help you process your emotions, brainstorm productive ways forward, and cheer you on as you transform into a more equanimous version of yourself!
You’ve got this!
Remember: teaching with equanimity is not about checking out or caring less. It is quite the opposite: it emphasizes how much you care. This way of being allows you to expand your perspective and respond skillfully rather than react irrationally. You can see a bigger picture and imagine more possibilities.
Once cultivated, you may still struggle to be equanimous at times. That is okay! It’s not easy and it can be a huge lifestyle change! Just remember you can always get back on the bike after falling off.
You can always begin again!