'The Stoic Teacher by Mark Harding

Stay Stoic, Teacher!

by Mark Harding

Teacher with Students
Sourced here.

“Only the educated are free.” –Epictetus

Would Epictetus have thought a modern educator to be educated? If I understand  his teaching correctly, a sign of  the educated is knowledge of the difference between what is in one’s control and what is not. It would be helpful for educators to learn this difference in their working lives so as to create more fruitful relationships with students, for more effective teaching, and for the prevention of their own psychological burnout. In short, educators need to be rational pessimists and expect more will go wrong than right.

To go out on a limb a little bit, I think Epictetus would look with benign skepticism at the contemporary, good-hearted, well-intentioned teacher who expects to transform lives and be the Hollywood hero who drags the recalcitrant to a new and selfless understanding of truth, beauty, and justice. When I think of such a teacher, I am in a strange way reminded of the  time I heard the Buddhist view of selfish craving described as “wanting things to be different from the way they are”, or something close to that. This sounds a lot like Stoicism. It also sounds like something educators need to take to heart. The educator will meet the selfish, the lazy, the self-seeking, and, yes, the plain old stupid among his students, among his colleagues, and in the ranks of his bosses. Believe this will change, if you want. But it won’t.

My experience recently is that high school students fall into two broad groups: the narcissists (or the “children of Nero”) and the neurotics. Less and less can the teacher expect to see students who are not victims of celebrity culture, who have a realistic appraisal of their own abilities, and, most important, who have parents or guardians who love them unconditionally. The narcissists believe they are very important; the neurotics believe they are perpetually under threat. Sometimes the narcissistic child of Nero appears in preppy attire, sometimes in hip-hop attire, but is consistent in this attitude: the world must recognize his brilliance (and it is usually a “him”). The neurotic dresses in a drab and humble fashion, always feels inadequate and dodges responsibility — not wantonly, but fearfully. Any teacher who is not  burnt-out (and those are becoming fewer ) has a number of possible responses to these two cases, but in general the reflexive response to the narcissist is anger and indignation; to the neurotic, exasperation.

But what would be the appropriate mindful Stoic response, after the reflex? Marcus believed that people behave badly because they don’t know any better. I don’t think a modern Stoicism can accept his position, given what modern psychology knows about personality disorders. However, I still think the teacher needs to behave as if it were true. Even if the student is confrontational, abusive, and exploitative, the teacher must maintain his poise for the sake of his own dignity. After many years of classroom experience, I believe that very little will penetrate a shield of mindful, principled behaviour, at the same time admitting that I have failed to keep my equanimity many times in the past and continue to fail from time to time in the present. The narcissist knows that he does harm to others; the neurotic knows that he harms himself. The Stoic teacher knows he cannot change the thinking of either. The same teacher also knows that he can choose to demonstrate courage and resolve to the narcissist and understanding and compassion to the neurotic, and through his behavior show that an alternative is possible, while realizing that it will likely matter to no-one. The crucial point is that the teacher can choose how to behave and risk being thought an idiot. That may be the price of right living.

Such are interactions with two kinds of students, individually. But what of whole groups? Marcus’s remarks about the kinds of people he expects to meet during the course of the day are typical of anyone’s experience, but the secondary school teacher meets these in the form of 30 teenagers, several times a day. They have been indoctrinated to view education as a right, and therefore they have no need for gratitude. They have been led to believe that whatever emotion they feel is should be given expression, so they have no need for self-control. They are consumed in constant e-communication with each other, so they have no need for discretion. In this context, the teacher, as a babysitter, is overpaid, but as an entertainer, underpaid. Like the late-night talk show host, the teacher must keep class moving along from one form of trivia to another form of ephemera, full of colour and sound and laughter to dull the pain of actual learning. He must ensure the powerpoints are full of razzle-dazzle and are interrupted  frequently with video clips of animals doing what animals do. When the magic of rainbows and sweets  wears off, he must be the babysitter:  making sure nobody hurts anyone else and no crimes are committed, for the threat of liability governs current classroom management. Many of us entered the teaching profession with high ideals; many leave it bitter and cynical. It doesn’t have to be that way. We are dealing with human beings (and often, these days, damaged human beings), the easily distracted, the dedicated hashtag followers, those who have been raised by screen technology. Our job is similar raking leaves in a high wind. But what else is there to do? If the leaves scatter as we work, that is ultimately their business. Our disappointment or frustration is irrelevant.

Some of us take our frustration to our superiors, our principals, headmasters, and headteachers. I don’t think there is much point in doing so. A principal has one of the most thankless jobs in education. He is suspended between the political bosses and school reality, instructed to be effective in managing the academic tone of the school and in meeting the objectives of whatever political cabal is currently in power and whatever half-baked theory of education is in fashion. Educational fads over the past generation have  oscillated between traditionalism and progressivism, between streaming students by ability and allowing open access to subjects, between permissiveness and authoritarianism. What other major institution would change its mind as frequently as educational institutions do with so little evidence to support the change and so few resources to enable it? The only reasonable conclusion from this is obvious: schools are fundamentally political institutions with primarily political aims bookended by the election cycle. As such, schools will be the focus of gripes, petty jealousies, pet projects, fantastic dreams of perfect equity and social justice, demands for workplace skills, and, most of all, they will be the starting point for careerists who want to get out of the classroom as quickly as possible. (Some of us used to call this learning the ABC’s—“Anywhere But the Classroom”).

I have many times heard a teacher complain of a student to a principal: “He doesn’t belong here!” In positive instances, this is code for “I’ve become frustrated trying to meet his needs, without success.” In negative instances, it is code for “I’m too lazy to try to work with him. Give me different students.” And it would be great if every class were full of those who without fail bring their equipment, hand in assignments on time, and are deeply interested in the mutterings of the sage at the front of the room. Just as it would be a lovely world if the hospitals were full of well people. But the principal replies to the teacher that this is where the parents want their child to be, that the superintendent supports their choice, that he has a right to be there. A teacher deciding to rail or sulk about this makes about as much sense as getting angry at the weather. This student is part of the teacher’s working life, his parents pay their taxes—stop whining and get on with it. Maybe Epictetus has the right advice: “make the best use of what is in your power and take the rest as it comes.”

And we do have quite a bit in our power. We have our education, which should give us perspectives—psychological, historical, and philosophical—on our everyday experience. This should free our minds. Of course it isn’t easy. Why would anyone expect it to be?

Mark Harding teaches in the Advanced Placement Program at York Memorial Collegiate Institute in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  He has also taught at York University (Toronto) and Simon Fraser University (Burnaby, British Columbia). At present, he teaches English, Psychology, and the Seminar course of the new College Board AP Capstone Diploma Program.

Admin’s note: Due to a technical error, Mark’s piece was published twice today on the blog. Apologies for sending extra messages to subscribers’ accounts.

'Troubled Students, Troubled Times, Stoic Solutions?' by Mark Harding

Troubled Students, Troubled Times, Stoic Solutions?

by Mark Harding

It's not easy for anyone. Sourced here.
It’s not easy for anyone. Sourced here.

I was introduced to Stoicism while studying classics in high school and university many years ago, and became interested in it again recently as a way to help  the many highly anxious students in the high school where I teach deal with  self-imposed standards of academic excellence and the high expectations of their parents. Over the past several years, and this year especially,  a number of our students have reported significant psychological distress (and this reportedly is a global phenomenon) and sometimes have been hospitalized as a result. When considering their stories, it is clear that not only the pressure to obtain admission to a Tier One academic institution is part of the problem, but so is the broader environment of economic uncertainty, international terrorism, and  the threat of climate change.

However, previous generations endured the Great Depression and fought in the Second World War, fretted through the Cuban Missile Crisis, and lived through the Cold War with the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation. There appears to be no record of large numbers of that generation folding emotionally under those pressures. In fact, the reaction in several of those instances was a broadly-based political mobilization of young people  The Occupy movement notwithstanding, one is tempted to conclude that the current generation is soft and disengaged compared to previous generations, but the youth of any day have always been going to hell in a handcart from the greybeard’s perspective. Nevertheless, in discussions with my colleagues over the past few years, we have noticed a  tendency for students more quickly to “pack it in” when the going gets tough.  They are more reluctant to take on challenges than students even in the recent past  and  they are also more risk-averse as a group than previous cohorts were.

One aspect of the problem is that they are educated in an environment  where, because education is a right,  success is considered to be a right, as well. Persistence in the face of adversity is advised but ultimately not required and leads to a mentality where equality of opportunity becomes confused with equality of outcome, producing a child who  believes that he or she will be successful in every undertaking–  all  aspirations  met,  all  dreams fulfilled.

This leads to better attendance in class and better retention rates in school generally, but also  in the end, produces adult citizens who, like Tyler Durden in Fight Club, were told they were going to be millionaires, movie gods, and rock stars–and now, realizing that is untrue, are “very, very pissed off.”

None of this is the fault of the student. Their only sin is to believe what many  adults, in love with psychobabble, tell them. “You can be anything you want to be”, a lovely sentiment found in one form or another in guidance offices and classrooms, most readily comes to mind as a cliche that may do more harm than good in the long run. Helicopter parenting, emotional protection from unpleasant reality, and other vicissitudes of modern family life may  be part of the picture, as well.

So, looking for a practical way to help these kids develop a philosophy rather than a pathology when the rejection letter from Harvard comes or when they are not voted Most Valuable Player or are not selected as Prom Queen, I turned to Stoicism, less the metaphysics, for its position of rational pessimism.  As unpleasant as that phrase might sound to those whose default position is to be “rah-rah” cheerleading everything our young people say and do, I think it offers our students a greater possibility of happiness now and in the future, and in extreme circumstances may even save lives. What follows are a few vignettes from my experience.

CONTROL

I announced the test date and then came the question:

“Sir, do you have any hints about what  the essay topic will be ?”

“Yes.”

“Can you give us one?”

“No.”

Earlier in the year, that little comic routine got some laughter; now Beatrice just looked down at her desk in anguish. I felt a pang of guilt because I didn’t want to appear insensitive or flippant. Beatrice had actually done very well on all the tests up to this point. However, her results seldom satisfied her and she was a frequent visitor to my office, looking for tips on how to do even better.

Beatrice, if she were a psychiatric patient, would probably be described as one of the “worried well:” individuals who are, in general, coping with life’s demands but who never feel at ease or comfortable or satisfied. Her anxiety about the test question betrays what I believe is one of the central problems of the anxious, high-achieving student–a concern about what has not happened yet rather than a focus on what one can do now..

Such  students are so driven to do well that they forget that the content of the test is out of their control. Unless the students are very lucky, the test will present some material that they did not understand or remember perfectly–too many variables are involved for it to be otherwise. A teacher must remind these students (who are often so bright that they do not encounter any academic adversity until the senior years of high school or the first year of university) that only the preparation for the test is in their control. This sounds obvious to the teacher, but it is not always obvious to a student.  They often look for some magic formula that will ensure perfection.

I have told Beatrice and students like her to think of it reasonably: if you have done well on the other tests, you will probably do well on this one. Have you studied thoroughly and at regular intervals? Have you focused especially on the material where you are weak? Have you been respecting your body and mind with good nutrition and adequate sleep? Then, on the morning of the test, can you honestly say you have done your best? And have you thought ahead to the worst possible combination of material on the test and considered how you would deal with it if it were to appear? Then you have done what is in your control. You have created the opportunity for success on the test. The questions on the test are out of your control and may be more difficult than you expected.Some kind of failure is inevitable, but at least you have prepared yourself to the best of you ability.

I do not know if Beatrice took this message to heart, but it was the best advice I could give her.

EQUANIMITY

Melissa was so upset she was shaking. She sat in the guidance counselor`s office unable to speak. Already a painfully shy girl, she had just completed an important, lengthy presentation which she found almost unbearable to do and was convinced she had failed. She had done a satisfactory presentation for me earlier in the year and, although she was nervous, she got through it without a breakdown. The crucial difference this time was the value of the presentation for her overall course grade. That pressure resulted in a complete loss of composure.

How does the teacher help a student whose sense of self-worth rests on a grade? The current academic environment is not much help with its fierce competition for admission to the best universities. Telling students that, in the long run, their talent will be evident no matter where they go to school and therefore admission to one of the top schools doesn’t matter will probably be of no comfort, because at this moment it does matter very deeply to them. On the one hand, we want them to strive for the best and avoid complacency; on the other hand, we need them to develop a rational sense of their chances of meeting their goals.

My thinking is that perspective–through a knowledge of other people’s experience, famous or otherwise, who faced similar adversity–can help students in this situation. Changed thinking can lead to controlled emotions, which can lead to equanimity in the face of future trouble. Although I have not yet had a chance to talk  to Melissa about this problem, if I do have the chance I will probably point out that the schools she is interested in attending admit about one in one thousand applicants. Should she give up? No, because the application process is still in her control–the admission decision is not. Thousands of highly talented people are  turned away from these institutions every year and, nevertheless, do tremendous things with their lives. Indeed, only one of the CEOs of the top ten Fortune 500 companies went to an Ivy League school, not to mention the pillars of the high-tech sector who were admitted to such schools and left them before graduation to pursue more creative and, one might argue, important accomplishments. Am I filling her with false optimism that her brilliance will win the day, no matter what? No, I am pointing out that anyone’s life is full of variables beyond one’s control, and sometimes things work out and life is pleasant, and other times they don’t and life is hard.

Would advocating a mindset of ‘rational pessimism’ destroy the dreams of a student such as Melissa? I do not believe so. Once again, the teacher has a  duty to encourage students to pursue their cherished aspirations combined with an equally important duty to cultivate a rational and critical way of thinking. In the Meditations, Marcus reminds himself that every day he will face the arrogant, the devious, the unsocial, and so on, and thereby prepares himself to be composed during the day. A similar inventory for a student looking to the future might be realizing she will enter a school not of her first choice, assignments of doubtful value, and mediocre instructors. However, these adversities also create the conditions for developing personal excellence and resilience in an unpredictable, possibly chaotic environment..

COURAGE

As he was leaving the room, Anthony made an obscene gesture and a petulant remark to a classmate. The classmate had made some slightly mocking but otherwise benign comment that Anthony inflated into a major attack. This was not the first time Anthony had behaved inappropriately when under pressure in class and the remark, combined with Anthony’s state of sleep-deprivation, triggered an emotional meltdown. I  had many discussions with Anthony over a few years regarding his plans for the future, and his plans were very grand. Entrepreneurship, investment banking,  and diplomacy (among others) were all possibilities for him. Through his results on the SAT and Advanced Placement exams, he had shown that he had the academic and cognitive abilities at least to be considered by several top twenty universities and, even if he were not admitted to one of those, would find his way no matter where he went to school. As he studied for his SAT’s, he often came to chat with me about his misgivings, especially when comparing himself to other highly-qualified students from years gone by. At those times I was careful to point out to him, ‘Those people are 70% water, just like you’.

I know that remark may sound facile, but I was trying to tell him that success on these exams is not a superhuman feat, although it can often seem as remote to a student as winning an Olympic gold medal. However, Anthony faced a deeper and more poignant problem: could he maintain his courage to follow through with all this extensive testing, knowing that he probably will not achieve his dream of being accepted to an Ivy League school? Anthony displayed much confidence as a scholar: he was an excellent parliamentary debater, he was well-read, and he had good capacity for critical thinking. However, that was all  in the context of a fairly small school where only a few of his peers demonstrated similar gifts and, therefore, he did not face much competition. Could he risk the blow to his ego of playing in the big leagues, facing competition from very clever people from all around the world?

Once he confided in me that education had been the most important thing to him, ever since he was little. He has taught himself several languages, plays several different musical instruments, and is a budding poet. Comparing what interested him to what interested me at the same age (rock and roll, sports, girls) made me feel like a philistine, and also made me feel that it would be a grave injustice if he failed to fulfill his ambitions. He then asked me if I thought success was purely a product of hard work.

I hemmed and hawed around that one, it being one of the convenient lies we casually tell students to keep them motivated. He stared at me and would not let me off the hook.  Finally, I had to tell him honestly that hard work does not always pay off. In fact, more often than not, in highly competitive fields such as sports, the arts, and academics, the majority of hard-working people do not fulfill their dreams. From my own experience, I confessed to him that I am one of a multitude of doctoral dropouts–people who started but never completed their Ph.D. I also pointed out that in Canada,  97% of new doctoral graduates will not get a tenured position in a university. I could see he was crestfallen and I wished I could erase the previous five minutes of conversation. He picked up his study guides and excused himself.

A few days later Anthony was hospitalized, having made some threats of self-harm. He was observed and assessed and released a short time later, deemed unlikely to hurt himself. Cynically, some thought his behaviour was an attention-seeking device. I reserved judgment. But was I to blame because I did not repeat the “hard work will get you where you want to go” lie?  I hope not. If the worst had happened and he had taken his life, would my failure of sunny optimism have been part of his motivation to end it all? What is obvious to me now is that Anthony was not yet secure enough in himself  to face the prospect of dashed dreams with “stoic resilience.” How can we effectively  educate students like Anthony that recovering from failure is actually more important (and  more frequent in life) than achieving success, when so much of the broader society through mass and social media makes wild success seem normal and rubs your face in it in the form of cars you will never own, vacations you will never take, and beauty you will never have.
I don’t have an answer for that yet, but I am working on it.

Mark Harding teaches in the Advanced Placement Program at York Memorial Collegiate Institute in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  He has also taught at York University (Toronto) and Simon Fraser University (Burnaby, British Columbia). At present, he teaches English, Psychology, and the Seminar course of the new College Board AP Capstone Diploma Program.

Stoicism & Teaching: Part Three

In the last of a three part series, Michael Burton, a Canadian Secondary School teacher, asks how Stoicism can be applied to the teaching profession. Here, he focusses on preparing for adversity, and how an awareness of life’s impermanence could help inspire students to follow what they are really passionate about…

Emotions and Preparations for Adversity

The theme of emotions and preparation for adversity seems to directly oppose the theme of Stoic mindfulness. On the one hand it appears as if the Stoics advise us to guard against negative emotions and thoughts by recognizing them and dismissing them, then on the other hand, they ask us to actually focus our minds towards negativity in order to prepare ourselves, so we can embrace these events when they befall us.

I think there lies a very subtle distinction here that can allow us to simultaneously guard against negative thoughts while also embrace them without contradiction. I think this distinction rests on the principal that we must guard against irrational negative thoughts and embrace or practice those thoughts that seem unpleasant but are rationally feasible.

To put it another way, we know that during the course of our lives we will be struck with certain tragedies (such as sickness, pain, and death) and so we must anticipate these events in order to mitigate the affect they will have upon us. However, there exists other kinds of negative thoughts that can creep in and impact our attitudes that are not as certain (such as the feeling what we cannot complete a task, that we are not good enough, or that we should feel anger or frustration if something does not go our way). The latter of these events is our interpretation of how we think we should feel without the aid of stoic mindfulness, while the former are hard facts about the nature of our lives that we must prepare to embrace.

Continue reading “Stoicism & Teaching: Part Three”

Stoicism & Teaching: Part Two

In the second part of a three part series, Michael Burton, a Canadian Secondary School teacher, asks how Stoicism can be applied to the teaching profession. Here, he focusses on Stoic Action & The Reserve Clause, and how this can help students with examination nerves and stress…

Action and the Stoic Reserve

I think today’s theme is best applied towards students who suffer from anxiety or stress about their grades and assessments (whether they are of exceptional or poor quality) because often such students don’t have a good working understanding of success. Although many educators understand the difficulties of assessing student’s knowledge of a subject through the use of standardized testing and evaluation, many still continue to use these methods in formally grading their student’s abilities.

In an ideal educational setting, each student should be able to demonstrate their learning in a medium which best suits their individual strengths and interests, however until that day we are left with a system which only rewards a particular kind of learner (i.e. those who excel at factual recall and work well under the time constraints of a test period). Until educational assessment methods are changed, I feel it can be of enormous benefit to our students to share with them different ways of managing and coping with test taking even if these methods simply consist of changing their perspectives on what it means to be successful.

Normally before a test or examination review, I take time to discuss with my class how stoics view action and go over with them the trichotomy of control. I point out that achieving a perfect grade is neither something that they have complete control over, nor is it something that they have no control over. Events like tests and exams fall into the third category of control in that they represent something that a student can have some but not complete control over.

What I try to get across to my students at this point is that no matter how hard they may study on test day, they may face questions which they have no idea how to answer and to walk into a test situation with the mentality that they want or need to achieve a perfect (or even a high mark) is unreasonable.

Instead, each of them should focus on walking into a test situation and doing their absolute best to achieve the highest possible mark that is within their ability. Whether the mark is fifty percent, seventy-five, or ninety percent will depend on a combination of how well they understand the material, how much they studied, and the types of questions which comprise the assessment.

Continue reading “Stoicism & Teaching: Part Two”

The Value of Stoicism: A Student's View

Continuing with the theme of Stoicism in schools, we come to Sam Moleman (17), a secondary school student at the Hermann Wesselink College in Amstelveen in The Netherlands, who took part in Stoic Week 2013. In this piece, he reflects on how the Stoic emphasis on focussing on responding to reality well has implications for human happiness…

What has Stoicism to offer us today?

I think that Stoicism has a lot to offer us to improve the figurative quantity of happiness and welfare of humankind.

According to the Stoic school of philosophy, freedom and happiness, or the development to happiness, is possible for humankind, if individuals are able to change their way of reacting to reality. Whatever is going to happen, the freedom and (maybe eventual) happiness isn’t determined by the already determined reality, it is determined by your own process of dealing with this reality. Seneca put it like this:

“Pain is slight if opinion has added nothing to it; … in thinking it slight, you will make it slight. Everything depends on opinion; ambition, luxury, greed, hark back to opinion. It is according to opinion that we suffer. … So let us also win the way to victory in all our struggles, – for the reward is … virtue, steadfastness of soul, and a peace that is won for all time.”

— Seneca, Epistles, Ixxviii. 13-16 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apatheia)

For example, Stoics believed in something called apatheia. This is the state of mind wherein the individual is not affected by negative emotions/passions. While this ability may seem unattractive to most, I believe that this ability offers great flexibility and practical applications for daily life.

Continue reading “The Value of Stoicism: A Student's View”

Stoic Week at Hermann Wesselink College, the Netherlands

Promoting the Stoa in 2013: does that make sense?

Stoic week at Hermann Wesselink College Amstelveen

As part of their philosophy course, a group of 15 and 16 years old students of the Hermann Wesselink College participated in the International Stoic Week.  They learned about the stoic art of living, read in Epictetus Encheiridion and participated in stoic exercises such as: taking the outsider’s perspective, negative visualization and writing a diary.

To conclude the stoic week they wrote a plea for or against promoting the stoic lifestyle in 2013. Not everyone thought this was a sensible idea; this is a selection of the opinions of the students.

Continue reading “Stoic Week at Hermann Wesselink College, the Netherlands”

Stoicism & Teaching: Part One

In the first of a three part series, Michael Burton, a Canadian Secondary School teacher, asks how Stoicism can be applied to the teaching profession. During Stoic Week, he endeavoured to apply each day’s theme in the Stoic Week Handbook to the teaching trade….in this first piece he focusses on the Stoic circle of control….

Stoic Control

The Stoic notion of control is the idea that essentially in life there are three types of events that can befall an individual. Those that are completely under ones control, those which one has some but not complete control over, and finally those which one has no control over.

The Stoics advise us that the key to tranquility lies in being able to identify which of these events face us in our day-to-day lives and more importantly, to only concern ourselves with the first and second types of events. That is to say, those events which we have some or complete control over.

I believe that most people would agree that it is irrational to fret about things that you have no control over, however I think people fail to identify just how much of our lives are largely out of our control. Our gender, wealth, race, country of birth, appearance, sexual orientation, to name a few, are important factors in our lives that we have no control over.

When you add to this the things that we have some but not complete control over such as our academic abilities, our relationships with others, our general state of health and fitness, etc.. It can seem like there is almost nothing left for us to truly take pride in or be held responsible for.

Instead of falling into a complete existential crisis about how chaotic and meaningless life is in a world where we are the victims of random circumstances that are composed of events we have no control over; the stoics would advise us to find solace in the one thing that we can control, how we interpret these events.

Continue reading “Stoicism & Teaching: Part One”