How to create focus, simplicity, and tranquility in the classroom

Today I’ve invited Dan Tricarico to the show. He’s a high school English teacher in California, and the author of two books, the most recent being The Zen Teacher: Creating Focus, Simplicity, and Tranquility in the Classroom. You can imagine with a book title like that, I was sure Dan and I would have a ton of things in common, and I was so fortunate to get to spend time talking to him at a conference last year in New Jersey where we were both speaking.

I just loved everything about Dan’s energy from the moment I met him, and I think you’ll find that his sincerity and humility just shine through in everything he says and does. Dan is the real deal with so much wisdom to share with his fellow educators. So, thank you, Dan, for agreeing to be a guest on the show. I am so honored to have you here and have you speak some truth into the hearts of teachers.

Use the audio player below to stream or download the interview and listen in!

zen teacher interview
Dan, tell us first what you mean by the term “zen” and what that has to do with being a teacher and your classroom practice. “Zen” is not a religious term in the way you use it, correct?

No, it’s not, actually. I know it comes from Zen Buddhism, which is a religion, but I think it doesn’t necessarily have to be religious, especially if you think of it as a philosophy or a life approach, which is exactly what I’m talking about in the book.

Zen is just –and I’m going to give you the definition that I use in my book– when you notice your life exactly as it is free from judgment and with detachment from anticipated outcomes. That’s zen. When you can just look at things that happen in your life and accept them as they are, that’s zen.

I work with a teacher whose favorite saying is, and I’m sure you’ve heard this, “It is what it is.” I think he just says that because he doesn’t know what else to say sometimes, but I think he doesn’t realize how zen he’s being. And that’s exactly it… I always love when he says that, because, “It is what it is.” That’s zen.

One of the qualities of a zen teacher that you talk about in your book is intuition. I’d love to hear you share more about that, because it’s a message I’m really passionate about, too. I feel like far too many teachers are not allowed to trust their own professional judgment, and they kind of forget how to follow their instincts as professionals. How can a teacher tap into his or her intuition?

Well first of all, I totally agree with you that it’s very important that teachers do this. And I think we’ve kind of earned it, frankly. If you spend any time teaching, you have a professional judgment that comes into play, and you just know when your class needs to change, you know when the lesson needs to change, and you know when anything in your teaching practice needs some adjustment.

We really have to learn to trust those little voices and the little hunches and the gut reactions we have when we feel that, especially as teachers, because everything we do is so important, and, as you say, there’s so much at stake. I think one of the things I would ask teachers to keep in mind is that it’s about stillness and it’s about finding silence.

I just wrote a blog post called Intuition Never Screams, which is actually something I sort of serendipitously said at a zen workshop I was doing. We were talking about intuition, and I said, “Yeah, intuition doesn’t scream,” and that really resonated with me because, you know, the voices that we hear, the instincts that we have, and the impulses that we have when we’re making decisions –these things that are trying to inform us are very quiet, and they just kind of whisper.

Whether you call it your conscience or intuition or messages from the universe or leadings from God, or whatever your faith-based system is, it’s never a loud kind of thing. I would encourage teachers to find times and places where they can be still, where they can be silent and kind of tune into that frequency of listening to the intuition and asking yourself, “OK. I’m struggling with this situation” or “I’m struggling with this student” or “my peer” or whatever it is or “I want to make a positive change, what should I do?” And then be quiet and listen.

I think the thing to keep in mind about intuition is that whether you do it through meditation or prayer or both, intuition is usually right, it wants to help you, it wants to help you be positive and do what’s right, and it’s a muscle that can be exercised and built and toned, and it’s a skill and it just takes practice, but we need to learn to trust it. Again, like I said, as teachers I think we’ve really earned it if we’ve spent any time at all in the classroom. If we would listen to those voices, we’ll know what to do.

I really like your message in the book about stillness, silence, and serenity. I don’t think most people in our society today understand how the constant noise and stimulation and sensory input we receive, especially with smartphones, is interrupting our ability to tap into our intuition and experience peace. What would you say to teachers about serenity?

Well, it absolutely is. I even was doing a poem … it was the first day of school today, and I did a poem by Pablo Neruda, and you would think on the first day of school I would be talking about how to be motivated and get work done and make things happen, and of course that’s important, but I found this poem, it’s called “Keeping Quiet.” There’s a great line in it, and it says, “Let’s stop for one second and not move our arms so much.” And I just loved the specificity of that.

As you said, we are in a society where we are constantly glued to our phones, constantly glued to the Internet or Netflix, or there’s just a million things going on, and the thing I think that we need to keep in mind is all of those things are a choice. And it may not seem that way sometimes. “I have to do this, I have to do that,” but they’re a choice. And you know what? Silence and stillness is a choice too. Frankly, it’s a choice we don’t make, and that was the message to my students that day.

I said, “How many of you take time for stillness? How many of you take time to be quiet and be still?” Some of them raised their hands, but I think in general, as a society, we don’t, and certainly I know educators are very giving people and they go, go, go, always on, always doing. I always say teaching could be a 24/7 job if we let it, but I think we need to remember that it’s a choice to stop. It’s a choice to slow down. It’s a choice to say, “No, I don’t want to be on that committee. I can’t be the adviser of that club.”

It doesn’t mean don’t give, it doesn’t mean don’t do your job, but it means you also need to carve out white space on the calendar for you to be able to power down and decompress and be silent so you can not only recharge but listen to that intuition you’re talking about.

So, obviously the first key to a zen classroom is for the teacher to practice these traits and habits and bring that energy to the classroom. But how does a teacher change the classroom energy? If the kids are bringing chaos into the classroom, or the school culture is kind of chaotic, how do you create tranquility in the classroom?

My niche is helping teachers, and everybody always asks me, “Well, how do you bring it into the classroom?” and “How can I do this with students?” I am kind of focusing right now on teachers, but here’s what I always say, “Zen starts with you,” meaning the teacher.

And parents know this. You know that your child’s behavior is greatly influenced by your rhythm and your energy, and if your child falls, for example, they look up at you like, “Should I be hurt by this?”. They’re waiting for your reaction to see, “Should I cry?”, And if you’re calm, then they’re calm, and the same thing is true in the classroom. If the superintendent walks in the room, and you get nervous, the kids are probably going to think, “Well maybe we should be nervous about this. He looks kind of nervous.”

You probably shouldn’t be on Facebook or Pandora when the superintendent walks in, but you can still be relaxed and calm and show the students that, “Hey, this is natural, and it’s OK, and I’m not bothered by this.” And if they see that you’re not bothered, it just creates a vibe in the classroom that kind of permeates and is kind of contagious.

Yeah, I have to agree with that 100 percent. I really liked what you said at the beginning too about so much of talk about education reform and improving teaching, and learning is focused on the kids, and that’s great, but I think in some ways teachers just kind of get pushed to the side. It’s like, wait a second, the teacher is the one who creates the whole energy of the classroom. We have to take care of teachers. We have to nurture our teachers. It can’t all be about just giving to the students. Who is taking care of the teachers? That’s just such a powerful message.

Well, thank you. And it’s funny, a real short story here: Dave Burgess — who published my book, and I’m eternally grateful to him for doing that — I was writing my blog, and he kind of stopped me, and he said, “You know. I think we’re kind of getting off the message here,” because I was getting very militant about what you’re talking about, about how teachers should be taken cared of, and nobody’s taking care of teachers.

And he said, “You might want to think about this. You don’t want to turn people off or offend people,” and I said, “OK, I get that.” And I thought about it, and I called him back, and I said, “Dave, I think I have it,” and he said, “What do you mean?” and I said, “Well, I’ve been writing about how mad I am that teachers aren’t being taken care of. What I’ve finally realized is I’m just going to take care of teachers.” And he said, “Absolutely perfect. That’s the distinction.”

And so what I hope to do with the book and the workshops and the blog and everything that I’m doing is I want to be the one to take care of teachers, because I don’t see it coming from anywhere else, and we don’t have the support we need in terms of spiritual health, mental health, stress reduction, any of that coming from the district, from the state. I mean it’s just not there.

As you said, the teachers are getting pushed aside. So I want to be that advocate for teachers. I want to help teachers with the techniques that I’m talking about and say, “Hey. You deserve to have some peace in the classroom, and yes, it starts with you.”

Right. You deserve to have peace in the classroom, and on top of that, you actually have the power to create it. That’s just such an empowering thought. You don’t have to wait for someone else to grant you permission.

Absolutely not. Pick yourself and make it happen.

But again, it’s choice, and it takes some courage, because I talk about intentional and radical self care. The intentional part means it’s a choice, and the radical part means it’s out of the status quo, it’s not normal.

Nobody’s going to come up to me and go, “You know what, Dan? Why don’t you take a nap?” Nobody’s going to say that. So I have to be the one who makes that happen.

And guess what? You’re going to ruffle feathers. People are going to look at you funny. “Why does he get to do that? I don’t get to do that.” And you just have to say, “Because I’m worth it, and because I value my time and my peace and my state of mind.”

I think you’re absolutely right. It has to come from within us, and we do have the power to do it.

The Zen Teacher book also talks about loving kindness. This is something I touched on in my own book Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching (and briefly on in my book Unshakeable), but it’s not something that I feel is commonly discussed in education communities, so I was really excited for you to delve into that in your book, as well. Can you tell us more about what loving kindness and compassion look like in the classroom, and why these qualities are so important?

I was actually very eager to discuss this with you, because tomorrow is the second day of school, and I’m going to be trying something very bold in the way that I introduce the idea of loving kindness in the classroom. For years, I did like every other teacher did in the first day, I went over my syllabus, the class procedures, and the rules and the expectations and all of that. I stopped doing that several years ago, but I realized that I want to try and just give them one rule, which is, and I may not be the only person who has ever done this, but I’m just going to say, “Be kind.”

And then that’s going to be the only rule. Then I’m going to break it down and say, “There are several categories. Be kind to me. Be kind to each other. Be kind to the stuff in the classroom. And, perhaps most importantly, be kind to yourself.” And I want to see how that goes, and I want it to be that streamlined, that zen, that personal, that basic, and I think that if I trust and have the faith that if I give that idea to them, just be kind, to all of those categories, we should be covered. And we’ll see.

I think that from a teacher standpoint, loving kindness is also about recognizing the humanity of our students, even the ones who aren’t our favorites, and having empathy and compassion for them. I often say that if I have 40 students in the classroom –which I typically do now, crazily– I try to remember that there are 40 stories, and all of them are different, and that helps me be kind and have empathy for them. Everybody’s going through something, and I have no idea what it is.

So sometimes it’s even a wonder that they care about commas or quadratic equations or whatever, or the Magna Carta or whatever it is. I mean, they are just going through such crazy and outrageous things at home with boyfriends, with girlfriends, with family, with … health … I mean … so just having that in mind and when you see somebody who’s not totally there, instead of just coming down on them or hammering them about it, say, “What are you going through?”

Another thing about loving kindness and compassion is –I heard this, don’t tell my students this because I’m not citing my source, but I can’t remember where I heard it–  the question that you ask is: what is the most generous assumption I can make about this person? If you approach it like that, you just develop this incredible empathy.

Related to that, it’s kind of funny I know, when we would be driving along in the car and somebody would cut us off, my wife would say, “Well I’m sure they’re going to the hospital.” Just that most generous assumption that you can make gives you empathy.

I love that. “What is the most generous assumption I can make?” I’m so using that in every aspect of my life.

Yeah, it’s changed the way I look at things, whenever I heard it, wherever I heard it. I think I was so blown away, I forgot to make a note of where I heard about it, because it is so powerful.

I know one of the key elements of the zen philosophy is detachment and acceptance. One of the questions I ask from teachers a lot is: How are they supposed to accept things that are unacceptable, and detach from situations that are really important, where there’s so much at stake?

I think that’s a great question. And, as you said, there is so much at stake. Actually I can cite my source on this idea. I remember reading Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and he talked about the circle of influence. There are things that we have control over, and things we don’t have control over.

And, as caring people, teachers often obsess about lots of things they have no control over, and that’s kind of a waste of energy. It’s not fair and it’s not right, and we don’t like it, but it’s a waste of our energy.

So where we need to put that energy is into the things that we can control and that are within our circle of influence, and that’s the stuff in the classroom, how we design a lesson, how we choose to react to a student in the classroom. And one concept that I’ve been refining and thinking about over the last year is I used to talk about balance, and balance is important, but then I heard somebody talking about the idea of harmony. Harmony is different than balance.

Balance –when we talk about work-life balance– I kind of get the impression like I want this much life and this much work, and I want it to be even Steven and like the lady with the Scales of Justice, and that’s not realistic. Things are going to be out of whack sometimes.

So this other person I heard about, and again, now I can’t remember this citation, but they talked about harmony where even if things are out of whack, if you are dealing with things the best you can within your circle of influence, being true to who you are and the choices you’re making to be the best you you can be, things will at least be in harmony. You can know you’ve done your best, and I think that makes it easier to let go.

I know I went into the classroom thinking I was going to save every single student, and learning that I wasn’t was a very hard lesson. I think on the other hand, “Well gosh, how arrogant is that to think that I’m going to go in and just save everybody?” So what I’ve come to expect, not expect, but just kind of have faith in and trust, is that if I have a really good relationship with a student and I’m mentoring that student and I’m sort of influencing that student, and we have this wonderful connection, that’s great.

And you know what? That happens with every teacher, and every teacher can say that. However there are other students that I don’t have that with, and they might be struggling, and I have to say, “OK. I don’t have that kind of relationship with that student, but you know what? Some other teacher will.” And I let that go, and I say, “OK. You need to connect with somebody else, and I’m sorry I’m not your guy, but it’s not working here, and I need to trust that you’re going to find somebody else.”

Now that doesn’t mean you ignore that person or you don’t try to help them, but we all know that there are those special students that we really click with and that we’ve really developed this bond with. There’s a marketer guy I follow, and he says, “Feed what works,” and I think that’s very true there. We have to spend our energy within that circle of influence where we can make the biggest difference and let everything else go.

 Yeah, and I really like what you said about thinking about how that child who maybe he didn’t get to reach but someone else still can. You know, it’s not all on your shoulders. You are not the last teacher this child is ever going to have, you know? It’s not all on you to save them in the 10 months that you have them in your classroom. You don’t stop trying, but I think that does kind of let you detach a little bit from the outcome, because we can’t control the outcome.

No, we can’t, and you have to reach out as much as you can, but then acknowledge that you weren’t going to be that person for everybody, and you have to be OK with that and say, “I tried,” and have that faith that they’re going to connect with somebody else.

As we wrap up, what’s something that you wish every single teacher knew about creating focus, simplicity, and tranquility in the classroom?

I think the thing that I would like to leave teachers with is that I wish they knew it was easy. I wish they knew they could do it. As we talked about, it’s their choice, and they have the power to do it, they just need to choose themselves, that it’s important and value it.

But mainly I wish they knew how important it was to reduce the stress in education so that they can make it through their career and continue to do the great work they’re doing in the classroom, because we really, really need them. And there are so many great teachers out there.

I’ll just share quickly: the reason I started this is because I had 10 years to go until retirement, now nine, and I was watching these amazing teachers burn out and melt down and leave the profession, and I said, “I can’t do that. I have to find some way.” And, again, there was so much that was out of my control, out of my circle of influence, and so much was at stake with my job, my career, the students, how I felt in some ways with the testing machine that was out of control and the huge class sizes that we were just totally going in the wrong direction, and that I couldn’t change that at all.

I thought, “Well you know what? In this room,” actually where I’m sitting right now, looking at these 40 empty desks, I’m like, “I can make a difference here, so I’m going to focus my energy here and choose to value what’s happening here and let everybody else figure out all that other stuff.”

But I wish teachers knew that they had that power, and that they would take it, because we need them.

Thank you so much, Dan, for your time and for your sharing your stories and your wisdom. If teachers want to learn more from you, where should they go?

Oh man. There are a ton of ways to take part in the zen teacher conversation. I’m just going to kind of blast you here. I have a website at where I have my blog. You can sign up for a newsletter. I don’t get it out as much as I would like, but it is periodic, and it has activities, and it has articles, and it has resources for you.

I am on Twitter at @thezenteacher, and I have a lot of fun with that. I mean it’s just amazing in this world that we can have such amazing professional development among teachers. I’ve learned so much from teachers such as yourself around the country.

I have a Zen Teacher Facebook page, and I also have a closed group that people can join. Just find the Facebook closed group for The Zen Teacher, make a request, and I’ll approve you. Always happy to hear from people. My email is Those are all the ways that you can kind of take part of in this and help me to figure this out and to share with other teachers this incredibly important message of self care and focus, simplicity and peace.

Great. I always close out the show with something that I call The Takeaway Truth–a short but powerful sentence or quote that I want teachers to remember in the week ahead. Can you give us a Takeaway Truth for this week, Dan?

Sure. I’ve got a great one, I think. A couple of years ago, the yearbook staff sent out an email, a Google Form, because you know, we don’t get enough Google Forms in our email boxes, and it said, “If my students could learn anything from me, I wish it would be … “ and then we were to fill in the blank. And I put in, “I wish they would learn that they were OK as they are.”

And I think that’s the same message I want to leave teachers with is, “You’re OK as you are.” We think, “I’m not enough. I’m not worthy. I’m not good enough. I don’t have enough. I can’t do enough.”

But I think what we really need to start saying is, “I’m good enough as I am, and I’m OK as I am,” and if you start with that, everything else just moves in a positive direction, so just say to yourself as an affirmation, “I’m OK as I am.”

Fantastic. Thank you Dan for being here, and thank you for listening. Have a great week–you can do this! And remember, it’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be worth it.

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

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