Ancient Lessons for the Modern Day Teacher

A carefully curated collection of wisdom from one teacher to another.

Ancient Lessons for the Modern Day Teacher

Written by the Roman Emperor-Philosopher over 2000 years ago, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius breathes wisdom that has influenced a myriad of individuals throughout history. This collection of his private reflections reveals his struggles to understand himself, as well as make sense of the universe. What makes me happy? How can I make my life meaningful? What does it mean to be a good citizen? Humans have asked these big questions for thousands of years.

As teachers, we are no different. Labelled as a profession that inspires the next generation, we must first seek to ruminate on the meaning of success and how we achieve happiness in order to positively influence the young people of the future. What follows, is a curated collection of quotes from Meditations, a renowned Stoic philosophical text, that will hopefully provide some clarity and understanding about your identity and purpose here on Earth as educators. It is sectioned into three parts; first seek to understand oneself, then the world around us, followed by focussing on our duty to the world. Each quote comes with a digestible insight that you can apply to your everyday life. I encourage you to reflect inwardly on your own experiences to gain a deeper understanding of the big questions in life.

I. First, seek to understand yourself.
The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the colour of your thoughts. (V, 16)

Our mental landscape is the most important thing to take care of. As educators, no day is the same. We face new challenges when understanding what is best for our students, institution and society as a whole. The stress can quickly add up from the many external forces which demand our attention. Our inner voice, the one that says we are not good enough, we could have used an alternative strategy, we should have said this in that conversation. These negative, self-criticising thoughts are not uncommon and over time, our wellbeing suffers from it. Therefore, we must rewrite the narratives we tell ourselves. Think positively and embrace each situation as a chance to grow. Our mind, and in turn, our souls, will then be nourished.

People try to get away from it all…you can get away from it anytime if you like. By going within. Nowhere you can go is more peaceful-more free of interruptions-than your soul.  (IV, 2)

Teaching is not for the faint hearted. Whilst explaining a lesson, you are simultaneously observing your students to see if they comprehend. You are also thinking about how you are teaching it, whether you are presenting the content in an engaging way or not. On top of that, you also need to also be prepared with adequate resources and ensure the material is differentiated. And of course, a student then proceeds to ruin it all in the timeliest of moments and your lesson all falls to pieces.

Teaching is stressful.

Yet, you do not need to be stressed. Like the eye of a storm where serenity resides, your mind remains peaceful and by looking within, you too, will be at ease. With positive thoughts and an understanding that the stress is only temporary, you can escape the pressure of it all. Your mind is a sanctuary. Remember that.

Choose not to be harmed-and you won’t feel harmed. (IV, 5)

They say that you could hear a thousand positive comments about yourself and then it only takes one ounce of negativity to throw you off.

We choose to react this way. We choose to listen to the one bad thing. So, if we have the power to choose, we can also actively decide to let in the encouragement we receive and block out the disapproval of others. Let positivity nurture our souls so as to lead a happy life.

II. Then, seek to understand the world.
Look into their minds, at what the wise do and what they don’t. (IV, 38)

Monkey see, monkey do. Humans are exceptionally great at copying. However, we must imitate the right things. And what are the right things? Those that are set in moral good and do not harm your character.

Take the time to observe others that have gone before you. Pull apart their success and see what values they ground themselves in. Honesty? Justice? Courage? This will be the wisdom that you take into your own life.

The world is maintained by change. (II, 3)

There always seems to be new pedagogies emerging in the educational space. Latest research, back by evidence, new buzz words trending every couple of months. From a teacher’s perspective, this means another professional learning session, another new strategy to implement, another long-wounded meeting about it. However, change is the only thing we are certain of and to keep up with an ever-transforming society, our teaching methods must reflect this. Let’s take the opportunity to reframe this in our minds…that altering the way we do things in the classroom keeps us flexible as we continue to learn and do justice to the future citizens of humanity.

That every event is the right one. Look closely and you’ll see. (IV, 10)

Hit by a pandemic in 2020, our society was severely disrupted. While some were waiting for things to return to ‘normal’, little did they know that this is the new ‘normal’. It was an eye-opening experience into discerning the essential work of teachers from the unessential. Children were forced to be technologically literate as they learnt online. Teachers were finally understood by the bountiful number of parents that make up our society, just how valuable our work is and how appreciative they are of us. This event was the right event, at the right time, for society, just like all the events that have ever taken place and to all those that will unfold.

'To care for human beings is part of being human' - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Photo by Diego PH

III. Finally, do what you were destined for.
Concentrate every minute like a Roman-like man-on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice.  (II, 5)

Teach as if this is the last lesson you will ever teach. You are guaranteed to show up as your best self, engage with your learners and care deeply for their wellbeing. This is how every lesson should be approached. When you channel your energy and teach with sincerity, your students will see the difference and they will thrive in ways you never thought possible.

If you do the job in a principled way, with diligence, energy and patience. If you can embrace this without fear of expectation – can find fulfilment in what you’re doing now, as Nature intended…then your life will be happy. (III, 12)

Our character speaks volumes. If we what we think, do and say are all in alignment with the moral good, it will be easier to lead a fulfilling life, one which can positively influence others. There is no need to live up to the expectations of society, for you be like a dog chasing its tail. Instead, judge yourself against your standards, continuing to improve on who you are, not what you are labelled as. The actions we take, the words we say, and the values we show are all observed at every moment by our learners. So, it is our duty to live out our principles and model our values with diligence.

People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash or eat. (V, 1)

Teachers are not in it for the money. Nor are they in it for school holidays. Every teacher that I have ever come across love their profession. They are passionate about making a difference in someone’s life, building strong relationships and continuing their love of learning. This quote adequately sums up all the hard work that teachers do. We put in the extra hours of marking or planning, go that extra mile for the students that need it and put in that extra effort when it matters most. We love what we do, and we wear ourselves down by showing up every day. Remember to take extra time and care for yourself, because you are just as important as everyone you serve.

Parting Words

Philosophy does not belong to any one person, but it belongs to everyone. Make these quotes your own by taking what you need and add your own experiences or connections to them, since that is how philosophy lives on. From one teacher to another, I hope that you are able to go and live out this wisdom, for you deserve a life which is meaningful, virtuous and filled with happiness.


Aurelius, M. (2003). Meditations: A New Translation, trans. Gregory Hays.

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