3 Simple Rules for Sustainable Teaching

Before I became a teacher, I had a little voice in my head wondering – will this be too loud, too hectic, too social? Without knowing the language of Ayurveda, I was aware of my vata/pitta nature. I tended to push myself, and loved doing it, but I did not always have the physical stamina to sustain the pace I set. From an Ayurvedic perspective, teaching is ‘atiyoga’ often presenting too much contact with noise, talking, movement, transitions. I sometimes felt that teaching middle schoolers was like watching leaves blow and trying to keep track of each one. Each one important to me.

Being an inquisitive, self-aware, aspirational teacher, I routinely asked my students for feedback. And, year after year, they came back with one primary message: SLOW DOWN. Year after year. And, I didn’t. It seems like such a simple concept but I didn’t know what it meant. Would there be periods of silence where the students and I would just sit and look at each other? Would I learn to talk sloooowly? Would I chit chat about my family with my students? None of these made sense.

Now, 2 years out of teaching, I have a better understanding. And, turns out, these ideas are just as applicable to business people, performers, and parents as to teachers!

So, here are 3 useful goals that don’t typically make it onto performance reviews, but should!

1: Talk only as fast as you can while comfortably breathing through your nose.

I knew better than to lecture my students. I was a huge proponent of constructivist learning. Still, I was at the board talking a fair amount, and I’d often end up needing to take a giant gulp of air through my mouth: the dreaded mouth breathing, which is now well-documented as stress-inducing. (See, for example, James Nestor’s book: Breath) Here lies a concrete, accessible meter for sustainable teaching: Is your breath flowing easily and and out of your nose? If not, adjust the pace and/or quantity of talking until it is.

2: Don’t suppress your natural urges.

Ok, it was middle school – so there were some natural urges that were, perhaps, best suppressed. But, Ayurveda teaches that suppressing urges – not eating when hungry, not going to the bathroom as needed, not sleeping when tired, etc – is a major cause of disease. Would the class really have devolved into chaos had a been a couple minutes late, happily relieved and ready to teach? It felt like I was pretending to have the super power of “no need for elimination”. What was I teaching my students as my nervous system ramped up and advocated for my basic needs while I overrode it? Surely I wasn’t as patient or good-humored as I might have been had I been more relaxed. The teacher is the teaching. Are you teaching your students to work from a place of ease? Are you teaching them to honor the wisdom of their bodies?

3: Life has rhythm. Incorporate pauses.

I’ve always been dutiful. My math department buddies would joke if you’re asked in an interview what your greatest fault is say that you care too much. But, there was some truth to it. It wasn’t just the kids I cared about, it was this perpetuation of the image of a hard worker, standing out, doing a stellar job. It was fear. I remember sitting in my office doing my lesson planning my first year at a private school when my mentor walked in and casually asked what I was doing. “Oh, lesson planning”, I said. “Well,” with eyes slightly rolled, “Your class is waiting for you.” With classes, tutoring, parent meetings, assemblies, department meetings – whenever there was a free moment, my nervous system jumped into action wondering what I might be missing now.

Pauses ask to be scheduled into the day and respected. The sense of accomplishing more through constant engagement is an illusion. We accomplish more, and more joyfully, when we work with a rhythm. Engage… engage… relax! Engage… engage… relax!

Simply shifts can make any intense work more sustainable and pleasurable. I wish I had had a guide to support me in recognizing this. I would love to be that guide for you!