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.

When it comes to teaching, emotions and adversity play a powerful role in dictating not only our success, but also our motivation. I personally like to take negative emotions and reshape them into something positive. Whenever I am feeling particularly lazy, I will force myself to think how short my life is; I picture myself as an old man looking back at my youth wishing I had done more and I consider what I will regret more at an old age; an extra hour sitting passively watching television or lived experience in the completion of some task that required my active engagement.

As I discussed previously, our students increasingly place themselves more and more within the grips of technology. Although this can at times be an amazing way to get involved and aware, it has mainly become a distraction. Checking facebook, twitter, youtube, and email, can only get you so far.

I like to ask my students to spend a week counting how much time they typically spend on such distractions and then ask them that if they had an opportunity to learn and master one thing what would it be? When I point out that if instead of spending twenty plus hours a week on the internet they focused on achieving their dream craft (whatever it is) then they most likely would have mastered it or at least begun to master it.

Each of us is, at times, guilty of living our lives like we will never die. What Stoic awareness for adversity offers us is a way to embrace our mortality in order to put the little time we have to better use. It is easy to pretend that our lives will continue to be the same but deep down we know this is just not the case. We are all in line waiting to get sick, face hardship, suffering, loss, and death. Every time you say goodbye to a loved one it may be your last opportunity to express how you feel.

I think as a teacher it can be a little difficult to raise this subject with our students because it is depressing to think about for most of us. However, regardless of our personal feelings we can be certain that adversity is waiting to happen just as much as we can be sure of mathematical certainty. If we are prepared to teach and develop students knowledge of mathematical, scientific, or sociological theories, which have many applications to their lives, logically, we should not shy away from teaching them to cope and prepare for life’s certainties, that one can argue will have more of an impact.

I would argue that the student who has no concept of the adversity life provides is just as underdeveloped as the student who has no conception of basic math or literacy. In fact, I believe that even one who has mastered the academic arts yet has no concept of the challenges of life that await them, may not be much better off then the students who lack both.

Acknowledging our circumstances may be difficult but it provides us with a reason to get out of bed in the morning, to tell those we care about how we truly feel, and I believe, to come to a greater appreciation of the beauty of this wacky world we live in where we can achieve so much if we put our minds to it. Although we may not all have a degree in philosophy, simply embracing the way the world is gives us a Ph.D. in life.

No matter what you teach you are also qualified to teach your students the bare facts of our finite lives because you have just as much experience as anyone else. Teaching them to Stoically acknowledge their emotions and prepare for the adversities of life is a subject that your students may thank you for years latter after they have forgotten Cartesian Triangles or the process of photosynthesis.

One of my favorite Aurelius quotes on death:

“You’ve lived as a citizen in a great city. Five yours or a hundred- what’s the difference? The laws make no distinction. And to be sent away from it, not by a tyrant or a dishonest judge, but by Nature, who first invited you in- why is that so terrible? Like the impresario ringing down the curtain on an actor: “But I’ve only gotten through three acts…!” Yes. This will be a drama in three acts, the length fixed by the power that directed your creation, and now directs you dissolution. Neither was yours to determine. So make your exit with grace- the same that was shown to you.”

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

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