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.

You may be born to a poor family in a rough part of the world or an as unattractive man or woman with poor health who faces discrimination based on your race or sexual orientation, but are you merely these things? In fact, you may say that these attributes are just incidental as you have had no choice in the matter and to define yourself as these things in light of this would be irrational.

Instead, why not define yourself by what you can control, your will. In the words of Epictetus “Nothing truly stops you.  Nothing truly holds you back.  For your own will is always within your control.  Sickness may challenge your body. But are you merely your body? Lameness may impede your legs. But you are not merely your legs. Your will is bigger than your legs. Your will needn’t be affected by an incident unless you let it.”

When it comes to the subject of teaching, I think the Stoic notion of control could have a lot benefit to most educators. I think a large number of teachers or at least those who care about the profession are particularly guilty of not acknowledging the things that they cannot control as an educator. I think there exists a large amount of pressure on teachers to force-feed their students knowledge and that this expectation is both unreasonable and unrealistic.

Learning is a reciprocal process and in order to be successful must comprise of a willing teacher and student. You will have limited success trying to teach anything to a student who does not see any value in learning. I think that by acknowledging the idea that student learning is largely out of the teacher’s control, teachers can begin to ask the right types of questions in order to bring about more successful learning outcomes for students.

I think the questions teachers need to be asking about learning must center on value. We need to approach students with lessons and ideas that are going to not only interest them but will show intrinsic value. If a student believes that the content of a lesson has no worth to them then effective lasting learning will cease. Each teacher must believe that what they are teaching is essential to the individual growth of the students in front of them and if this is the attitude of the teacher and the teacher is passionate enough then I believe learning will be contagious.

Despite this, I believe that at times even with a highly motivated, interesting, and passionate teacher who can demonstrate the intrinsic value of learning to students can fail. Likewise, any teacher who says that they were able to meet the educational needs of every student who walked into their classroom is a liar. I believe it is simply not possible to effectively teach every student whom you face. Unfortunately, there are going to be some pupils who despite your best efforts will see no value in what you are trying to do.

You could take this information and say, like many outside of the classroom often do, that you have failed as a teacher, but is this really the case? Ultimately, I think teaching can be analogous to a doctor treating a patient. The doctor can recommend the best course of treatment for a patient and do everything by the book but if the patient see’s no value in the doctors advice and continues to live in opposition to his recommendations, can we really hold that doctor responsible for the poor health of his patient?

Ultimately, the choice to learn resides with the student not the teacher, just as the choice to live a healthy life lies with the patient and not the doctor. Unfortunately, many of the students we face are young and not aware that their decisions not to pay attention or see the value in their education can have long lasting effects on their lives. But this is a problem inherent within the educational system that is beyond the scope of this article to address.

I truly believe that in the stoic trichotomy of control, learning is something which educators have some but not complete control over. Realizing this I believe can relieve some of the stress and grief teachers feel when it comes to engaging every student they stand in front of. However, just because we can acknowledge that teachers cannot be expected to successfully teach every student does not mean that they are completely off the hook for student learning completely.

As I mentioned above, learning is a reciprocal process and although a teacher does not have complete control over whether a student learns something they can bring their best effort to the table. Teachers need to focus on what we can control and that is mainly putting our best foot forward. Doing our best to convey our passion, enthusiasm, and knowledge about our subject. Trying our hardest to convey the value of what we teach in order to give our students the best opportunity to see that we became educators for a reason, that there are things worth knowing, and that knowing them can enrich your life.

The rest is outside of our control and so we must not let it impact the way we view our jobs or the way we teach. As Marcus Aurelius puts it “No matter what anyone says or does, my task is to be good. Like gold or emerald or purple repeating to itself, “No matter what anyone says or does, my task is to be emerald, my color undiminished.””

You can read more of Michael’s work on his blog at: He is also on Twitter [twitter @aurelius_7.] 

3 thoughts on Stoicism & Teaching: Part One

  1. Stephanie Joan.s says:

    An interesting piece, and I look forward to the rest of the series.
    As an aspiring teacher (who will one day probably teach in a Canadian school system), I have put much thought into becoming an effective teacher. I think the concern you show regarding how many students you are able to reach in your classes seems normal, but in my experience it is if fact not. Often my teachers (especially in secondary settings) did only what was required – regurgitated information until the bell rang. They didn’t seem to care if we passed or failed, and had long ago lost any passion for the topic they were teaching, and probably never had passion for teaching to begin with. And therein lies the most important aspect of effective teaching: truly caring about your students.
    Of course, a passion for your topic is important, but without care for young people or for opening people’s minds to positive learning, subject knowledge won’t get you far. Because of this, I think it’s more important than ever to approach a teaching career with Stoic practices, because whenever we open ourselves up to caring about others we become vulnerable, and as a teacher you are vulnerable every time you stand in front of the class. Students, especially teens, constantly test their teachers, and in our reactions we become role models of human behaviour. There is a lot of responsibility involved and a teacher must be balanced to be effective.
    I think every teacher should have a Stoic handbook!

  2. Mike says:

    Hello Stephanie,
    I’m glad to hear you’ve enjoyed my work thus far! Thanks for the support!
    I completely agree with you that passion plays a huge role in engaging students interest and leads to the best learning outcomes.
    I also agree with you that unfortunately many teachers today do not have the requisite enthusiasm for the trade and instead view it as a career where they can essentially recycle lessons and enjoy a summer holiday (although I would like to think that this is a smaller number of teachers than the media often portrays).
    Perhaps one of the problems is that these teachers start off passionate and then find themselves disappointed by their inability to make drastic change and turn the difficult child into the star pupil (as teaching programs/films often do). Maybe by maintaining a stoic outlook on the world and keeping in mind the realities of teaching (that pupil progress can often be a slow uphill battle), these teachers would retain some of their passion into the later years of their career.
    Despite this however, we will always have teachers who do the bare minimum. Just like any profession you will always have those who will do the least amount of work possible to get by. Unfortunately, unlike some other professions, lazy and impassionate teaching can have drastic implications for the well being of our students.
    I also agree with you that being a teacher requires one to be many things all at once. Often throughout the course of a day you can find yourself as an educator, councilor, role model, friend, and parent.
    I think at the end of the day teaching is a hard job (if you do the bare minimum), but if you actually want to make a difference in the lives of your pupils and stand as a role model it can take everything out of you. This is why you need to have both a passion for your subject as well as a passion for young people.
    Thanks again for the support!

  3. James says:

    Interesting stuff Mike. Stoicism is a key feature of all teaching from my experience. Keep the faith…

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